The Number Ones

November 26, 2005

The Number Ones: Chris Brown’s “Run It!” (Feat. Juelz Santana)

Stayed at #1:

5 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.

Historically, Hot 97’s annual New Jersey stadium spectacle Summer Jam has been a star-studded and unpredictable affair. In 2001, for instance, Jay-Z’s Summer Jam set included a Michael Jackson cameo and the opening shot in his feud with Nas. By the time I made it to my first Summer Jam in 2006, the show’s wattage had dimmed a bit. Jermaine Dupri brought Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey to the stage, but the two stars didn’t really do anything; they just smiled and waved. Swizz Beatz crowned Busta Rhymes the new king of New York — put an actual crown on his head and everything — which looked silly at the time and which looks even sillier today. That day, the loudest cheers might’ve gone to Chris Brown, the Virginia R&B singer who’d just celebrated his 17th birthday.

Chris Brown came to the Summer Jam stage in between Mary J. Blige and T.I., and his set lasted all of three songs. That struck me as being the exact right length for a Chris Brown set in 2006. Brown didn’t have any special guests or big surprises. He just had himself. The girls who were in the stadium that day lost their minds for him. I did not lose my mind for Brown, but I remember being impressed by his sheer physicality. The guy could dance. He could hit backflips on-beat. His legs seemed to be made of rubber. Even more impressive: He could do all this without lip-syncing or losing his breath. He was an athlete.

He was a cute kid, too. This was a huge part of the Chris Brown sales pitch: This was a small-town teenager who just wanted to be Michael Jackson. For the first few years of his career, this was how the world viewed Chris Brown. He was agreeable. He was uncontroversial. Doublemint gum could hire Chris Brown to update their old jingle, and that updated jingle could become a major hit. A few years after Chris Brown first got famous, he viciously battered his even-more-famous girlfriend, and he used his new notoriety to successfully carve out a bad-boy lane — a truly fucked-up turn of events that’ll figure into future columns.

All these years later, Chris Brown continues to do despicable bullshit, and he remains enormously successful. Brown’s ongoing success paints a bleak picture of a world where a sufficiently famous person can just keep on being a piece of shit forever, as long as he markets himself right and continues to generate income for his corporate benefactors. It’s hard to separate the current version of Chris Brown from the fresh-faced 16-year-old kid who reached #1 with his Usher-biting debut single, but that’s what we’re going to attempt here. The Chris Brown who recorded “Run It!” was still innocent, but you don’t have to get too deep into Brown’s character to conclude that “Run It!” isn’t an especially good song.

Chris Brown came along at exactly the right time. In 2005, R&B still dominated the Billboard Hot 100. The whole Scream Tour framework, built to support teenage R&B heartthrobs, was still up and running. Usher had just sold millions upon millions of copies of Confessions. Even more than his Scream Tour peers, Chris Brown came across as a baby Usher. He was handsome and photogenic and relatively charming. He could sing, and he could really, really dance. As a singer, Chris Brown wasn’t anywhere near the level of Usher, but that didn’t really matter. With “Yeah!,” Usher had established a blueprint for hard, urgent, rap-adjacent club-pop, and you didn’t have to sing as well as Usher to make a song like that. “Run It!” is Chris Brown’s version of “Yeah!,” right down to the exclamation point in the title. Just like “Yeah!,” “Run It!” went straight to #1.

Chris Brown is a native of Tappahannock, a tiny Virginia town about halfway between Richmond and Fredericksburg. (Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” was the #1 song in America when Chris Brown was born.) Brown’s mother worked at a daycare center, and his father was a prison guard who later ran a gas station. Brown sang in church choir and at local talent shows. One day, while a 13-year-old Brown was helping out at his father’s gas station, he sang an Usher song for a Virginia production team called Hitmission Records. The Hitmission producers, impressed, set Brown up with a vocal coach, and he recorded a demo tape with them.

At 15, Chris Brown dropped out of high school and moved to New York to try and score a contract. Shortly after his arrival, Brown auditioned for a Def Jam A&R exec named Tina Davis. Davis brought Brown to LA Reid, her boss, and Reid immediately wanted to sign Brown. After a couple of months of contract negotiations, Davis lost her Def Jam job in one of those all-too-common corporate reshuffles. Brown asked Davis to become his manager, and she agreed. Davis shopped Brown around to the different labels in town, and Brown ultimately signed with Jive Records, figuring that the label had already had a lot of success making younger pop stars.

Chris Brown recorded his self-titled 2006 debut album quickly, and he got the chance to work with plenty of that era’s hitmaking songwriters and producers. For his debut single “Run It!,” Brown teamed up with two of the behind-the-scenes figures who were dominating pop radio at the moment. Producer Scott Storch had gone back-to-back at #1 earlier that year with Mario’s “Let Me Love You” and 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop.” Sean Garrett had co-written “Let Me Love You” with Storch, and he’d also co-written “Yeah!” With Storch and Garrett, Chris Brown made a song that pretty much sounds just like “Yeah!,” except without the Lil Jon intensity and with a crappier guest verse.

Like “Yeah!,” “Run It!” has urgent siren-style synth-bleats over a simple, handclap-heavy drum track. Like “Yeah!,” “Run It!” also has a high-pitched lead vocal that sounds freaked-out even though the lyrics aren’t about being freaked out. As with “Yeah!,” there’s a “Run It!” guest verse that’s mostly about being horny, though the rapper manages to limit himself to PG-13 word choices. “Run It!” is a little slower, and it has none of the braying chaos of Lil Jon’s exhortations. The crunk moment was evolving into something else, and Scott Storch was able to take advantage of that moment by using those crunk ingredients on a more straightforward club-pop track. Still, “Run It!” is a clear bite on every level, and it’s really only a distant echo of the song that it’s ripping off. But “Yeah!” is such a great piece of music that even the distant echo is pretty listenable.

“Run It!” is supposed to be a seduction and a challenge at the same time. Chris Brown’s narrator sees a girl that he likes, and he wants to dance with her, or maybe to dance-battle her. Brown assumes that the girl has a boyfriend, but he wants her to know that he can dance better than the boyfriend, or maybe better than the girl: “Is ya man on the floor? If he ain’t, let me know! Let me see if you can run it, run it! Girl, indeed, I can run it, run it!” There’s a high-pitched intensity in Brown’s voice that’s clearly intended to evoke Michael Jackson. I guess the idea is that he’s desperate to dance with this girl. The feverish need in his voice is effective, even if it doesn’t really match the song.

On “Run It!,” Chris Brown makes some big claims. He says that he’s “the hottest thing in these streets,” and he promises that he “can definitely show you things to have you saying I can’t be 16.” But he sounds chaste enough that there’s some plausible deniability there. Where Usher always let you know that he was singing about fucking, Chris Brown might really just be singing about dancing.

Juelz Santana, on the other hand, definitely isn’t singing about dancing. At this point, I’d like to congratulate myself for waiting this long to discuss Juelz. You’ve probably already figured out that I’m much more excited to write about Juelz Santana than I am to relitigate Chris Brown’s arrival and the implications of his continued success. Chris Brown is a troubling figure. Juelz Santana, on the other hand, is just a fun guy to have around. Juelz’s two short verses on “Run It!” are clangingly awkward, but I’m glad the guy, then at the absolute peak of his career, stumbled onto a #1 hit.

“Juelz Santana” is not Juelz’s real name, so he’s no relation to Carlos. LaRon James comes from Harlem’s Sugar Hill neighborhood, and he started rapping when he was a little kid. (When Juelz was born, the J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold” was the #1 song in America.) As a teenager, Juelz was one half of a kiddie-rap duo called Draftpick who won some Amateur Nights at the Apollo Theater and who were briefly signed to Priority. Their one single, 1999’s “Play Ruff,” went nowhere.

Around the same time Draftpick broke up, Juelz Santana met fellow Harlem rapper Cam’ron, who’d just made it to #41 with his own debut single, the Mase collab “Horse & Carriage.” Juelz joined Cam’s Diplomats crew, and he appeared on a couple of tracks from Cam’s 2000 sophomore album S.D.E. Juelz also rapped on an all-star remix of “What Means The World To You,” the Police-sampling single Cam took to #83.

Juelz Santana and Cam’ron had an oddly beautiful chemistry. Cam was a goon poet, a true weirdo who always came up with the strangest and most ornate ways to flex his own magnificence. Juelz, six years younger than Cam, had none of Cam’s grace and nuance, and that was his charm. Juelz was still just 18 when Cam released S.D.E, and his insouciant teenage bluster contrasted sharply with Cam’s self-assured silliness. Juelz was always a clumsy rapper, but he had so much swagger that even the clumsiness sounded good.

That swagger came through even more forcefully when Cam signed to Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella empire and released the platinum 2002 album Come Home With Me. For lead single “Oh Boy,” producer Just Blaze turned a Rose Royce sample into euphorically hard helium-soul, and Juelz Santana rapped so grimily that something like two thirds of his verse had to be bleeped out for radio. Even as those bleeps turned “Oh Boy” into accidental experimental music, the single still made it to #4. (It’s a 10.) Cam hit even bigger when the album’s second single, the warmly ignorant sex-reminisce “Hey Ma,” made it to #3. (It’s another 10.) On that song, Juelz played the type of charming asshole who pulls grown women even though he’s too young to get into the club.

Come Home To Me did so well that Cam’ron and his Diplomats crew got their own imprint at Roc-A-Fella. Juelz Santana’s 2003 debut album From Me To U bricked commercially, and none of its singles charted. That same year, the Diplomats’ double album Diplomatic Immunity barely went gold. It didn’t really matter. The Diplomats maintained a constant presence on the mixtape circuit. Cam’ron’s bugged-out lyricism and the group’s flamboyant camaraderie made them critical favorites and New York folk heroes. The small-masterpiece videos for “Dipset Anthem” and the Juelz track “Dipset (Santana’s Town)” are glittering time capsules of that peak Dipset era.

I moved to New York in the summer of 2005, at the apex of the Dipset moment in New York. That was the summer of Juelz Santana’s “Mic Check,” a single that didn’t reach the Hot 100 even though it was an inescapable windows-open car-stereo banger all through the East Coast. The weekend I arrived in NYC, a local promoter had flown out a bunch of British grime MCs for a pair of shows at the Knitting Factory and a daytime showcase at the same East River bandshell where they’d filmed the climactic jam in the 1983 movie Wild Style. (It’s since been demolished, which is too bad.) Juelz came out for that bandshell show, doing a quick 15-minute set and then spending twice as long signing autographs for the kids from the nearby Lower East Side housing projects. Those kids didn’t care about the UK rappers, but they were losing their minds for Juelz.

A few weeks later, I covered a Scream Tour show at Madison Square Garden, and Juelz came out as a surprise guest. Juelz was nothing like the young R&B heartthrobs on the bill, but he was a cute young guy with dimples, so he made some kind of sense on that stage. Moreover, he was a New York hero, and his appearance caused the same kind of mass hysteria as all the slow-grinding boy-band types on the bill. I will never, ever forget the sight of an arena full of teenage girls screaming along with the hammering, discordant stomper “Dipset (Santana’s Town).”

I don’t know who decided that Chris Brown’s debut single needed a Juelz Santana guest-verse, but I bet that person was at the Garden to witness the Scream Tour crowd going off for Juelz. The combination makes its own strange kind of sense. Chris Brown had to walk a delicate line, coming off approachable and attractive without being soft. “Run It!” is not a remotely tough song, but Juelz’s presence gave it just a tiny bit of grit. And it’s fun to hear Juelz barking his way through the track, his hoarse and declamatory voice contrasting hard with Chris Brown’s frantic tenor. But Juelz’s “Run It!” verse is almost endearingly bad.

Look: It’s not easy to translate an unreconstructed knucklehead persona to a slick pop song where you don’t even get to cuss. But Juelz didn’t even try. Some of Juelz’s “Run It!” lyrics verge on gibberish: “Make it drop, honey/ Make it pop, honey/ Whip whop, tick-tock to the clock for me.” Juelz paraphrases lines from a few familiar songs, like the Waitresses’ “I Know What Boys Like” and the Ying Yang Twins’ “Wait (The Whisper Song).” In Juelz’s hands, though, “wait till you see my dick” becomes “wait till you see my ay!” He could’ve done better than that. (“I Know What Boys Like” peaked at #62 in 1982. “Wait (The Whisper Song)” peaked at #15 in 2005.)

So “Run It!” is a baldfaced ripoff of a better song, and it’s got a guest-rapper who just halfasses everything. Despite all that, “Run It!” isn’t a charmless song. It’s got energy and urgency and a hook that’s catchy enough to stick. The panicked edge in Chris Brown’s voice doesn’t make much sense, but it’s memorable. The song was just good enough, and it was timed and marketed to hit the zeitgeist hard. The video takes place at a guerrilla dance party in a high-school gym, which is kind of weird when you consider that they have actual legal dance parties in high-school gyms. But that whole plot conceit allowed for the fun final moment, when the security guards chase all the kids out and then start dancing themselves. The “Run It!” clip gives Chris Brown plenty of room to show off his own dance skills, and it pairs him up with Destiny Lightsy, one of the models from Usher’s “Yeah!” video.

The “Run It!” single eventually went triple platinum, and it reached #1 a few days before Chris Brown’s self-titled album came out. That album went triple platinum, too. Jermaine Dupri and Bow Wow showed up on a “Run It!” remix, and they performed it with Brown at the Kids’ Choice Awards. (Bow Wow’s highest-charting single, the 2005 Ciara collab “Like You,” peaked at #3. It’s a 3.) Brown followed “Run It!” with the lovelorn midtempo track “Yo (Excuse Me Miss),” which reached #7. (It’s a 5.) Lil Wayne, an artist who will eventually appear in this column, showed up on a remix of Brown’s next single “Gimme That,” which peaked at #15. Yet another single from that album, the breakup ballad “Say Goodbye,” made it to #10. (It’s a 6.)

At the Grammy Awards in 2006, there was a weird history-of-R&B segment with three performers: Smokey Robinson doing “Tracks Of My Tears,” Lionel Richie doing “Hello,” and then Chris Brown doing “Run It!” You could argue that this segment did not exactly say great things about the progression of crossover-friendly R&B. (“The Tracks Of My Tears” would’ve been an obvious 10, but it peaked at #16 in 1965.) That year, Brown was nominated for Best New Artist, and he lost to former Number Ones artist Carrie Underwood. Later in 2006, Chris Brown made his acting debut on the UPN sitcom One On One and guested on Bow Wow’s #6 hit “Shortie Like Mine.” (It’s a 5.)

Chris Brown will appear in this column again. Juelz Santana will not. Right after “Run It!” fell out of the #1 spot, Juelz got to #6 with his single “There It Go (The Whistle Song).” (It’s a 6.) His follow-up, the Marvelettes-sampling “Oh Yes,” peaked at #56, and his 2005 album What The Game’s Been Missing! went gold. That was Juelz’s commercial apex.

Juelz maintained his presence in the New York rap world for a while, and he and Lil Wayne were supposed to release a collaborative mixtape called I Can’t Feel My Face, but it never came out. The Diplomats fell out with Jay-Z and lost their spot at Roc-A-Fella, and the crew soon splintered. Juelz hasn’t been on the Hot 100 at all since he showed up on G-Unit member Lloyd Banks’ “Beamer, Benz, Or Bentley,” which peaked at #49 in 2010. I love that song, and I love Juelz on it: “Beamer, Benz, or Bentley! I be movin’, be movin’! Makin’ movies, Tom Cruisin’! If it’s action, then I’m shootin’!”

The Diplomats eventually got back together, and Juelz joined the cast of the reality show Love & Hip-Hop: New York. Juelz also struggled with addiction issues and served a couple of years in prison after getting caught with a gun at the Newark airport. (He served his federal time in Hopewell, Virginia, right down the road from Chris Brown’s hometown.) When he came home, Juelz rejoined the Diplomats. In 2021, Dipset had a deeply entertaining Verzuz battle against the Lox, which they lost in spectacular fashion. Juelz would probably rather the world forget about the moment that Jadakiss, mid-verse, snatched the bandana from his head and threw it on the ground.

I make fun of Juelz Santana, but I love Juelz Santana, and I miss the time when a guy like that could randomly appear on a #1 hit. That was a fun time. I don’t know if we’ll ever see a time like that again.

GRADE: 5/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s Detroit underground hero BabyTron rapping over the “Run It!” beat, and a whole lot of other beats, on his 2022 track “Emperor Of The Universe”:

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. Let me see how you buy it, buy it.

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