The Number Ones

September 17, 2005

The Number Ones: Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” (Feat. Jamie Foxx)

Stayed at #1:

10 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

Kanye West has always been fucked up. When Kanye first arrived on the scene, his wild egotistical tendencies came off as underdog hubris. Sometimes, it was fun. Sometimes, it was ferociously grating. If you were going to get on board with Kanye West, you had to understand and even appreciate those extremes. Kanye’s ego has been one of the few constants throughout his long career, and now that his career is pretty definitively over, the ego remains. I think that Kanye’s ego is ultimately what caused his endless protracted spin-out, his eagerness to double and triple and quadruple down on his antisemitism even after it became obvious that this bigotry would cost him almost everything.

At this point, there’s nothing endearing or intriguing about Kanye West’s ego. He’s just one more uber-rich fuckhead lashing out at a world that has gotten good and sick of his bullshit. Once upon a time, though, Kanye West’s ego was complicated, and it wasn’t the man’s only defining trait. That ego coexisted with charm and taste and playfulness and voracious aesthetic wanderlust. Case in point: The biggest chart hit of Kanye’s entire career is a paranoid bugout about greedy jezebels who chase men for their money. When Kanye first wrote the song, it had a grim bad-joke punchline about a man murdering his ex. By rights, that song should be a rancid stew of misogyny and entitlement. From a certain perspective, “Gold Digger” is that, but it’s also a whole lot of other things.

“Gold Digger” is a strange and energetic combination of dark comedy, sex-as-battlefield social commentary, and unexpected streaks of empathy, all set to a lively endorphin-rush track. The song builds on a piece of a decades-old proto-soul classic, and it’s got a ton of different ideas, some of which come from a great film-score composer. You had to have a whole lot of ego to make a song like “Gold Digger,” and you also had to know how and when to subvert that ego. Kanye West did all that, and “Gold Digger,” against odds, came out sounding like party music. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did.

More than a half-century before Kanye West released “Gold Digger,” Ray Charles dropped “I Got A Woman.” In 1954, Charles, a man who’s been in this column a couple of times, was in his early twenties. He’d been recording for Atlantic Records for a couple of years after nearly a decade doing regional gigs and indie-label singles in Florida. Charles co-wrote “I Got A Woman” with his trumpeter Renald Richard, playing around with the melody of the Southern Tones’ gospel song “It Must Be Jesus.” The woman who Charles sings about on “I Got A Woman” is pointedly not a gold digger. She gives Charles’ narrator money when he’s in need; yes, she’s a kind of friend indeed. “I Got A Woman” went #1 R&B, and a live version made it to #79 on the Hot 100 in 1965. Elvis Presley covered “I Got A Woman.” So did the Beatles. So did Ricky Nelson. The song was a key part of that primordial rock ‘n’ roll soup.

Ray Charles died of liver failure in 2004. He was 73 years old, and he seemed much older. A few months after Charles’ death, the biopic Ray opened in theaters; Charles was at least a little bit active during the movie’s pre-production. Jamie Foxx, who’d sung the hook on the Kanye/Twista #1 hit “Slow Jamz” earlier that year, played Ray Charles. An Officer And A Gentleman director Taylor Hackford hit every rote music-biopic note that you’d expect, but Jamie Foxx truly did everything in his power to embody an iconic entertainer, to the point where you sometimes forget you’re watching Jamie Foxx. You could ding Foxx’s Ray performance for being a straight-up impersonation, but it’s a very, very good impersonation.

Ray was a legit hit, and Oscar voters fell for it. At the 2005 Oscars, Ray was nominated for Best Picture and Taylor Hackford for Best Director; they lost to Million Dollar Baby and Clint Eastwood. Jamie Foxx won Best Actor, beating Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, Don Cheadle, and Eastwood. (That same year, Foxx was also up for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Michael Mann’s kickass Collateral, but he lost that one to Million Dollar Baby’s Morgan Freeman. Oscar voters were really into Million Dollar Baby.) The win was a huge confirmation for Jamie Foxx, whose A-list status became undeniable. Of course, Foxx’s next movie was the sentient-plane stinker Stealth, and he made a lot more bad movies over the years, but nobody’s perfect.

Kanye West went to see Ray with fellow egomaniac weirdo John Mayer, and he started hatching an idea while watching his former collaborator Jamie Foxx up onscreen as Ray Charles. Kanye had a song that he’d been kicking around for a long time, and he figured that the song might work a whole lot better if it had Foxx’s Ray Charles impression, as well as an actual Ray Charles sample.

“Gold Digger” wasn’t originally supposed to be a Kanye West song. Instead, it was a track that Kanye offered to Ludacris protege Shawnna for her 2004 debut Worth Tha Weight. (Shawnna has already been in this column for guesting on Luda’s “Stand Up.”) The first idea was for Shawnna to rap the song’s hook from a woman’s perspective: “I ain’t saying I’m a gold digger,” etc. Kanye’s A&R guy Plain Pat, who ended up doing backup vocals on “Gold Digger,” later told MTV that Kanye made the beat at Luda’s house and that Shawnna passed on the song. Instead, Kanye co-produced Shawnna’s Missy Elliott collab “What Can I Do.” That song never came out as a single, and Worth Tha Weight flopped.

So Kanye West kept “Gold Digger” for himself, and he paired his beat and his hook with some verses that he was already writing. At least some of the “Gold Digger” lyrics were around for a couple of years before Kanye released the track. Late in 2003, before Kanye released his debut album The College Dropout, he performed at something called the Dynamic Producer Conference in New York. At that show, he rapped an early version of “Gold Digger.” Back then, the song didn’t even have a beat or a hook, and it just had Kanye’s backup singer John Legend on piano. (Legend will eventually appear in this column.)

You might notice something about that original “Gold Digger” performance — something beyond the bright orange Reese’s shirt that Kanye wears in the footage. On the final version of “Gold Digger,” Kanye tells a story about some guy who’s stuck paying child support for “18 years,” and he gives that tale a dramatic punchline: “On the 18th birthday, he found out it wasn’t his?” In that performance, Kanye leaves in a dramatic pause and then adds a second punchline: “He killed that bitch; they gave him 25 years.” In the performance, Kanye clearly intends it as a laugh line. That comes across even more strongly in Kanye’s spoken-word performance of those lyrics on a 2005 episode of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam.

If Kanye West had left in the “killed that bitch” punchline, his whole fashion and media empire wouldn’t be crumbling today because he wouldn’t have had that empire in the first place. “Gold Digger” would’ve never gone to #1. Kanye would’ve gotten more of the oooh reaction that he clearly craved, but “Gold Digger” would’ve been way too gross and jarring to become a pop hit. Kanye was already successful, but he would’ve never become the household name that he is now. “Gold Digger” is still at least a little bit gross and jarring, but Kanye rewrote the song to make it brighter and friendlier and ultimately more humane. Maybe someone talked him into those changes, or maybe he just had some sense back then.

The final version of “Gold Digger” is patched together from stray parts — the beat and the hook that Kanye West made for Shawnna, the rewritten version of the “18 Years” verse. But “Gold Digger” hangs together as a meditation on a single subject. The finished track belongs to a long tradition of songs that view sex and love as a kind of transactional battlefield. You could almost imagine “Gold Digger” as a less emotional, more calculated companion piece to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” another hit about the anxiety of loveless fatherhood.

Kanye West starts off “Gold Digger” enthusing about a girl that his narrator met at a beauty salon. Kanye apparently has paid a psychic to tell him to look for a girl with an impressive ass — one who looks like Serena Williams, Trina, Jennifer Lopez. (I have questions about this psychic.) The woman at the beauty salon fits the bill, but she also has four kids, and Kanye’s gotta take all their bad asses to the now-defunct family pizza restaurant chain ShowBiz. Kanye’s friends warn him that this woman has a history with other entertainers like Busta Rhymes and Usher, that she only dates rich guys. But Kanye doesn’t care what none of them say; he still loves her.

On the second verse, Kanye switches into cautionary-tale mode. That’s the “18 Years” verse, the one where the woman really comes off as some kind of mythical demon. Kanye warns that you could win the Super Bowl and drive off in a Hyundai. His line about “we want prenup” became a punchline in plenty of jokes years later, when the terms of his divorce with Kim Kardashian became public knowledge. Kanye might be rapping about some grim fate at this woman’s hands, but he still sounds lively, enthusiastic, even funny. (“She walkin’ around, looking like Michael with your money! Shoulda got that insured, Geico, for your mon-aaaaay.” Come on. That’s pretty good.) The viewpoint is gross, but the brightness of the track compensates for the creep factor.

“Gold Digger” really opens up and becomes human in its third verse. That’s the verse where Kanye considers the perspective of the woman. Here, he raps in second person, talking to a woman who’s sticking with a broke loser because she sees that he has the potential for greatness: “He got that ambition, baby, look at his eyes/ This week he moppin’ floors, next week it’s the fries.” So she sticks with this guy, but he doesn’t stick with her: “You stay right, girl/ And when he get on, he’ll leave yo’ ass for a white girl.” That’s the ending, and the final punchline lingers in the air for a minute. It’s a bleak image. Everyone is using each other — for money, for security, for sex. Nobody trusts anybody. Everyone is a stepping stone for everyone else. And Kanye makes it sound fun.

Kanye West built the “Gold Digger” beat from a couple of samples. Some of the scratched-up vocals and the “get down, girl” refrain come from “Bumpin’ Bus Stop,” a 1974 funk obscurity from a group called Thunder & Lightning. “Bumpin’ Bus Stop” was a favorite of rap producers, and plenty of Kanye’s influences and peers had already sampled that song: DJ Premier, Easy Mo Bee, Madlib, Just Blaze, Kanye’s own mentor No I.D.

When Kanye first toured behind The College Dropout, his DJ was Montreal native A-Trak, a onetime teenage prodigy who’s since become an EDM baron. A-Trak, who does the scratching on “Gold Digger,” later claimed that he’d brought in the Thunder & Lightning sample and that he’d live-auditioned it for Kanye at the Sasquatch Music Festival. Thunder & Lightning singer David Pryor died a year after “Gold Digger” came out, and his kids tried to sue Kanye years later for the “Gold Digger” sample, but a judge threw out most of their lawsuit.

The sample that really drives “Gold Digger” is the chopped-up voice of Ray Charles. Kanye was planning on sampling “I Got A Woman” before he saw Ray. The movie was still a lightbulb moment. If Ray Charles’ estate wouldn’t clear the sample, he could still have Jamie Foxx doing his Ray Charles impression. In the end, Kanye got Jamie Foxx and the Ray Charles sample, and Ray Charles and Renald Richard got songwriting credits on “Gold Digger.”

At the beginning of “Gold Digger,” we hear Jamie Foxx, singing in Ray Charles’ voice and adjusting the lyrics of “I Got A Woman” for the occasion: “She take my money when I’m in need/ Oh, she’s a triflin’ friend indeed.” Foxx hadn’t done much actual singing in Ray; most of the performances were lip-synced. But Foxx was able to summon the rasp and desperation of Charles’ voice well enough to work on the “Gold Digger” intro. For the rest of the song, Kanye chops up the voices of both Foxx and Charles, and those voices help give the song a churchy immediacy. Kanye was improving as a rapper, but he could still be a bit clumsy. On “Gold Digger,” we never hear his voice by itself. Instead, those scratched-up samples keep chattering underneath him, urging him on. It makes a difference, and the lingering affection for the just-passed Ray Charles and the Oscar-winning Jamie Foxx stardust probably helped turn “Gold Digger” into the smash that it became.

There’s another participant in “Gold Digger” who needs to be acknowledged. When Kanye was working on his second album, he basically had a blank check. The College Dropout had been a hit, and it had turned Kanye into a mainstream celebrity. Kanye reportedly spent millions of dollars on his Late Registration album. He cleared expensive samples. He brought in big guest stars: Brandy, the Game, Cam’ron, Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, the still-feuding Jay-Z and Nas on consecutive tracks. Kanye also brought in session musicians, string-sections, and a big-deal co-producer: Jon Brion.

Jon Brion, born in New Jersey and raised in Connecticut, had absolutely zero background in rap music. Instead, he’d started out as a touring member of Aimee Mann’s old new wave band ‘Til Tuesday. (‘Til Tuesday’s highest-charting single, 1985’s “Voices Carry,” peaked at #8. It’s a 10.) Brion had gone on to ’90s session work for bands like the Wallflowers and Jellyfish. He also produced Aimee Mann’s first two solo albums and then did production work for Fiona Apple, Rufus Wainwright, and others. For years, Brion was a regular at the LA music and comedy club Largo, which had a whole scene around it. That gig led Brion to become a film composer, working with Paul Thomas Anderson on his 1996 debut Hard Eight and then scoring Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love.

Kanye West had big ideas for Late Registration. He wanted an evocative orchestral sound — something like what he heard in the Portishead records that he loved. (Portishead’s only Hot 100 hit, 1995’s “Sour Times,” peaked at #53.) Mutual friend Rick Rubin introduced Kanye to Jon Brion. Kanye loved Brion’s score for the Michel Gondry film Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, and he was further impressed with Brion’s production on Fiona Apple’s 1999 masterpiece When The Pawn… (Fiona Apple’s only Hot 100 hit, 1997’s “Criminal,” peaked at #21.) Brion co-produced all of Late Registration, and his lush orchestrations helped turn that album into an epic work of craftsmanship. Even today, after all the bullshit that Kanye West has pulled, Late Registration sounds stunning.

Kanye West and Jon Brion worked on “Gold Digger” on their first day in the studio together. Brion’s touch on “Gold Digger” isn’t as obvious as it is on some of the other Late Registration tracks, many of which overflow with idiosyncratic melodic detail. “Gold Digger” is relatively simple and stripped-down, but it still has stuff going on. The song’s drums are big and nasty, and Kanye layers the samples so that they sound like they’re talking to each other. A-Trak’s scratches help keep the energy level up. On the final verse, there’s a weird burping synth line that sounds, at least to me, like Brion’s work. The song keeps moving and changing, and everyone involved works to keep it bright and silly and fun. That’s ultimately why “Gold Digger” doesn’t sound like some pissed-off men’s-rights thing. It sounds like talented people fucking around, entertaining themselves and each other.

Late Registration arrived with near-unprecedented hype levels not even a year and a half after Kanye had released The College Dropout. First single “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” was Kanye’s attempt to talk his shit while grappling with the idea that the jewelry he loved was also a force for bad in the world. The song sampled a Shirley Bassey Bond theme, and its remix had an instantly-legendary Jay-Z verse, but “Diamonds” wasn’t a huge hit. (It peaked at #43.) Still, “Diamonds” made it clear that Kanye was trying to make something big and ambitious and heartfelt. In August of 2005, the week that Late Registration came out, Kanye was on the cover of Time. The headline: “Hip-Hop’s Class Act.”

Late Registration was a big deal. I can remember finding a CD copy in a Brooklyn record store a few days before release date and feeling like I’d found a damn golden ticket in a candy bar. Late Registration sold nearly a million copies in its first week. That week, something else important happened. Kanye was a talking head on a Hurricane Katrina benefit telethon, and he famously went off-script, leaving co-presenter Mike Myers looking shook. Even in the pre-YouTube days, that clip instantly went mega-viral: Kanye, emotional and barely in control, fuming about the media depiction of Black hurricane survivors before delivering seven impactful words: “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”

A year before Hurricane Katrina, George W. Bush had been reelected in a landslide. Bush’s handlers had successfully pitched him as a defender of a country under attack, and major pop careers had been ruined for less than what Kanye said. Kanye’s telethon outburst was a legitimately brave act, and plenty of people probably thought that he was finished the second those words left his lips. But the horrific hurricane response ultimately turned the American public against Bush, and Kanye came out looking, on some level, like a voice of the people. In any case, he wasn’t a Nazi sympathizer back then.

That moment gave Kanye West cultural weight, and I bet it helped propel “Gold Digger,” a song that displays none of the seriousness of that moment. (The aftermath of that moment might’ve also helped convince Kanye that his dumbest tossed-off political opinions were important.) Two weeks after that telethon, “Gold Digger” was the #1 song in America.

Late Registration had other singles, and Kanye put a whole lot of money into promoting those singles. Kanye enlisted Eternal Sunshine director Michael Gondry to make a video for his Adam Levine collab “Heard ‘Em Say,” and then Kanye didn’t like that video, so he ditched it and made another one with animator Bill Plympton. (“Heard ‘Em Say” peaked at #26. Levine’s band Maroon 5 will eventually appear in this column.)

“Touch The Sky,” a single with a Curtis Mayfield-flipping Just Blaze beat and an appearance from rising Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco, got its own big-budget video. (“Touch The Sky” peaked at #42. Lupe Fiasco’s highest-charting single, 2010’s “The Show Goes On,” peaked at #9. It’s a 4.) At the 2006 MTV Europe Music Awards, “Touch The Sky” lost Best Video, an entirely meaningless award, to Justice and Simian’s blog-house anthem “We Are Your Friends.” When the award was announced, Kanye angrily crashed the stage to say that he should’ve won: “This video cost a million dollars, fam!” Kanye later apologized, and everyone basically thought the stage-crash was both dumb and fun. A later stage-crash at a different MTV award show got a very different reception, but we’ll get to that in a future column.

The biggest non-“Gold Digger” chart hit from Late Registration wasn’t a single. “Gone,” a deep cut with verses from Cam’ron and Consequence, might be the album’s best song, and it had its moment years later. In 2013, an animator named Marina Shifrin quit her job, and she made the announcement by posting a YouTube video of herself dancing to “Gone.” The video went mega-viral, and a whole lot of other people made their own quitting-jobs videos, all of which also featured “Gone.” Thanks to those YouTube views, “Gone” made it to #18 on the Hot 100 eight years after its release.

Those other Late Registration singles might’ve underperformed, but it really didn’t matter. “Gold Digger” was an honest-to-god smash that eventually went octuple platinum. Late Registration kept selling, too; it’s now platinum five times over. Kanye West’s album topped virtually every year-end critics’ list. At the Grammys, Late Registration was up for Album Of The Year, and Kanye and Jamie Foxx performed “Gold Digger” with a marching band. When Kanye’s album lost to U2’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, Kanye somehow restrained himself. (Kanye was about to head out on tour with U2. That probably helped.)

After the success of “Slow Jamz” and “Gold Digger,” Jamie Foxx was able to launch his singing career in earnest. He brought back his Ray Charles impression one more time. That October, Foxx got together with Ludacris and his proteges Field Mob for the single “Georgia,” which peaked at #39. (Field Mob’s highest-charting single, the 2006 Ciara collab “So What,” peaked at #10. It’s a 7.)

Right before the end of the year, Jamie Foxx released Unpredictable, his first album since his In Living Color days. The album’s first single was supposed to be the Kanye West collab “Extravaganza,” but that song leaked online ahead of time, and J Records changed its plans. “Extravaganza” was Jamie Foxx’s lead single overseas, and it was a minor hit over there. In America, though, Foxx came out with the Ludacris collab “Unpredictable,” which peaked at #8. (It’s a 7.)

For a long time, Jamie Foxx balanced his music career with movie stardom. He’s been in a great many movies — plenty good, plenty bad. I’m always happy to see him onscreen. Foxx made more hits, and he got to #2 with the 2009 T-Pain collaboration “Blame It.” (It’s an 8. T-Pain will eventually appear in this column.) Foxx hasn’t released an album since 2015’s Hollywood: A Story Of A Dozen Roses, and he hasn’t been on the Hot 100 since that album’s lead single, the Chris Brown collab “You Changed Me,” peaked at #93. (Chris Brown will appear in this column very soon.)

In 2012, when Jamie Foxx was about to star in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, I went to Montreal, where he was filming White House Down, and interviewed him for a Men’s Health cover story. (I truly don’t know how I got that assignment. Don’t look the article up. I did a mediocre job.) The interview was at a photo studio, and I wasn’t expecting much out of it. But when Foxx finally got done posing for pictures and sat down to talk to me, he was just insanely charming. After half an hour, I would’ve gone to war for that guy. To this day, that’s been my only direct experience with full-on movie-star charisma, and it’s a very strange phenomenon. There are people on this planet who can make you feel so important just by looking you in the eye and being nice to you, and Jamie Foxx is one of them.

Even with the Oscar, Django Unchained was probably the peak of Jamie Foxx’s movie career. But Foxx is still doing just fine for himself. Foxx had a big, important role in Spider-Man: No Way Home, the biggest box-office hit of 2021. Last year, he was in the grimy Netflix vampire-hunter action flick Day Shift, and I had a good time with that one. Jamie Foxx never has to sing another note in his life unless he feels like it. He’ll always be a star. Foxx presumably won’t appear in this column again, but Kanye West will. Whenever that man shows up, he gives us a whole lot to talk about.

GRADE: 8/10

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BONUS BEATS: The Legendary K.O., an underground rap duo from Houston, took inspiration from Kanye West’s telethon outburst and rapped over the “Gold Digger” instrumental on their critically acclaimed 2005 protest song “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People.” Here it is:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lil Wayne, Curren$y, and Mack Maine rapping about blowjobs over the “Gold Digger” beat on the extremely crude and entertaining 2005 mixtape track “Give Head”:

(Lil Wayne will eventually appear in this column. Curren$y’s only Hot 100 hit, the 2016 Lil Wayne/August Alsina collab “Bottom Of The Bottle,” peaked at #97. Mack Maine doesn’t have any Hot 100 hits of his own, but he got to #44 on the 2013 Rich Gang track “Tapout.”)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 2006 Spike Lee joint Inside Man where a “Gold Digger” ringtone causes big problems for a bank functionary:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kate Hudson and Sydney Pollack dancing to “Gold Digger” in the 2008 Paul Weiland joint Made Of Honor:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s an insanely charming LeBron James quoting extensively from “Gold Digger” while playing one-on-one with Bill Hader in the 2015 Judd Apatow joint Trainwreck:

THE 10S: Fall Out Boy’s soaring pop-punk singalong freakout “Sugar, We’re Goin Down” peaked at #8 behind “Gold Digger.” It’s a 10, which is more than I bargained for.

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. You can tell it rocks; you can tell by my charm. Buy it here.

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