The Number Ones

February 4, 2006

The Number Ones: Beyoncé’s “Check On It” (Feat. Slim Thug & Bun B)

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.

Beyoncé is not a movie star. She has never been one. I’m not even sure whether Beyoncé has ever been good in a movie, unless you want to get cute and claim that the Lemonade visual album counts as a feature film or something. (I have a vague memory of her doing a nice job in Cadillac Records, but it’s been eons since I’ve watched that one.) For years, though, Beyoncé just kept showing up in forgettable mall-multiplex fare: Austin Powers In Goldmember, The Fighting Temptations, Obsessed. At a certain point, Beyoncé realized that this kind of work was beneath her, and she stopped doing it. That decision hasn’t hurt her mystique at all. If anything, it’s made her a bigger star.

Did Beyoncé even like acting? I don’t know, but I don’t know how much Beyoncé likes anything. I see Beyoncé as a relentless perfectionist who’s had her sights set on global cultural dominance since she was a literal child. She’s achieved that, and the whole idea of enjoying anything seems almost beside the point. Beyoncé is now a full-on no-joke legend, a figure whose name will come up in any conversation about the greatest pop stars of all time. Once upon a time, though, Beyoncé was reporting to work on the set of a middling popcorn flick that never should’ve existed in the first place.

In 2006, Beyoncé was the female lead in The Pink Panther, the film that attempted to reboot Peter Sellers’ old bumbling-detective comedy franchise. Steve Martin took over Sellers’ role as Inspector Clouseau. (Martin’s highest-charting single, 1978’s “King Tut,” peaked at #17.) Beyoncé played Xania, the pop-star girlfriend of Jason Statham’s murder-victim soccer coach. There’s a scene where Beyoncé attempts to seduce Steve Martin but then he loses his Viagra in a sink. It’s bad.

I’ve never seen this Pink Panther movie, and I very much doubt that I ever will. (I only know about that scene because I looked it up on YouTube just now.) The rebooted Pink Panther just doesn’t look like it has anything to offer me. Steve Martin has since proven, with Only Murders In The Building, that he can do great work alongside a much-younger female pop star, but this ain’t that. Martin and Selena Gomez, an artist who will eventually appear in this column, seem to have a great time whenever they’re onscreen together. Martin and Beyoncé seem like they’re on different planets.

Beyoncé wasn’t cast in The Pink Panther because she and Steve Martin had a crackling onscreen chemistry. She was cast because she was one of the world’s most glamorous, beautiful, famous women. That’s why she was cast in all those movies. Hollywood execs had another reason to put Beyoncé in films: She might record a soundtrack song, and that soundtrack song might help sell the picture.

Beyoncé had a lot of songs on a lot of soundtracks in the ’00s: “Work It Out” in Goldmember, “Fighting Temptation” and “Summertime” in The Fighting Temptations. Beyoncé might knock out a soundtrack song even if she wasn’t in the movie; in 2005, she covered “Wishing On A Star,” a song that former Number Ones artists Rose Royce first recorded in 1978, for the Bow Wow vehicle Roll Bounce. Many years later, when Beyoncé played a voice role in the Lion King remake, Disney got a whole compilation album out of the deal.

Most of those Beyoncé soundtrack songs have not been hits, but there’s one big exception. Absolutely nobody remembers the 2006 version of The Pink Panther, but a song that Beyoncé recorded for its soundtrack became one of the biggest chart hits of her entire career.

“Check On It” was not a passion project for Beyoncé. It was a throwaway, a song that wasn’t deemed fit for a proper album. Even though Beyoncé co-wrote “Check On It,” I never got the impression that she thought it might be a big song. But that tossed-off quality is exactly what makes “Check On It” work so well. “Check On It” doesn’t really sound like it was ever part of Beyoncé’s five-year plan. Instead, it was Bey trying something, working out a few ideas in a low-pressure situation. It also marked Bey’s first collaboration with a producer who would serve as one of her closest collaborators when she came out with her next album.

Before “Check On It,” you couldn’t really call Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean a pop producer. Instead, Swizz was one of the chief sonic architects of late-’90s club-banger New York rap. Swizz tracks were hard and ugly and convulsive. Sometimes, he sounded like a little kid hitting a Casio with a hammer. That worked for him. In the first few years of his career, Swizz was partly responsible for some anthems that helped to define an era. They just weren’t the kinds of songs that were making the pop charts back then.

Swizz Beatz grew up in the Bronx, and he broke into music through family connections. Two of Swizz’s uncles and one of his aunts started out as managers of rappers, and they founded Ruff Ryders Entertainment, a label that grew into a juggernaut when Yonkers head-buster DMX released his 1998 debut album It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot. When Ruff Ryders started, Swizz was a teenager who kept getting into trouble. Swizz’s family bought him equipment, and he started making beats. Swizz’s first big track was the tingly, hypnotic beat for DMX’s “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem,” the fearsome and urgent chant-along that helped reshape the rap landscape. (“Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” peaked at #93 after its release. After DMX died in 2021, it went all the way to #16.)

Through the late ’90s and early ’00s, Swizz Beatz kept producing tracks for the Ruff Ryders roster and for other hard-edged East Coast rappers. He did “Money, Cash, Hoes” for Jay-Z, “Wild Out” for the Lox, the face-wrecking posse cut “Banned From TV” for NORE. Those songs had impact, but this was a time when hardcore rap didn’t fare very well on the Billboard Hot 100. Even the most inescapable Swizz Beatz tracks — Jay-Z’s “That N***a Jigga,” DMX’s “Party Up (Up In Here)” — didn’t make the top 10. (“That N***a Jigga” peaked at #28, while “Party Up” made it to #27.)

Swizz Beatz held on even after DMX’s demons destroyed his career and the Ruff Ryders era ended. Swizz founded a new label called Full Surface and signed the Philly battle rapper Cassidy. In 2004, Cassidy made it to #4 with the Swizz-produced R. Kelly collab “Hotel,” giving Swizz his first top-10 hit. (That one doesn’t get a rating because R. Kelly.) Later that year, Swizz flipped a Jay-Z sample to make the beat for T.I.’s “Bring Em Out,” and that song peaked at #9. (It’s a 9. T.I. will eventually appear in this column, and you could make a strong argument that he deserves the R. Kelly treatment.)

By 2005, the mainstream was at least open to Swizz Beatz’ blaring, hammering production style. I’m not sure how Swizz and Beyoncé got together, though I’m betting that Jay-Z helped make the connection. Swizz and Beyoncé co-wrote “Check On It” with two songwriters. Sean Garrett had a hand in a ton of that moment’s biggest its: Usher’s “Yeah!,” Ciara’s “Goodies,” Chris Brown’s “Run It!” Angela Beyincé, meanwhile, is Beyoncé’s cousin, and she’s worked with Beyoncé a bunch of times over the years. She’d already co-written “Naughty Girl,” an extremely horny song that Beyoncé took to #3 in 2004. (It’s a 9. And yes, it’s confusing that Beyoncé has a cousin whose last name is Beyincé.)

“Check On It” isn’t exactly the kind of speaker-knocker monster that made Swizz Beatz famous in the first place, but you can still hear his sonic signature on the track. The “Check On It” beat is simple, and it’s got this nagging keyboard riff that goes beyond repetitive and into sublime territory. Most producers would’ve made the synth the lead instrument on the track, but that’s not Swizz’s style. For Swizz, the drums are what really matters, and the drums on “Check On It” are insane. They’re sharp and loud, and they cut right through the humming, barely-there bassline. Some of those drums come from unexpected angles, hitting the track at jagged intervals. They explode. All throughout, Swizz adds these tiny vocal embellishments — breaths, gasps, pants — that add to the strange, frantic urgency. Pop songs don’t usually sound this hard.

“Check On It” isn’t a song about being tough, though. It’s a playful flirtation. Beyoncé’s narrator directs the whole track at a guy who’s caught her eye. She lets him know that she’s available but that he’ll need to approach her in the right way. He can’t be too aggressive: “You can look at it as long as you don’t grab it.” But he’ll have to be assertive, too: “I can tell you wanna taste it, but I’ma make you chase it.” This isn’t a list of demands. It’s simply Beyoncé setting the ground rules. She wants to have some fun, and she’s hoping that the guy doesn’t fuck it up.

The “Check On It” lyrics aren’t great poetry, but what really matters isn’t what Beyoncé says; it’s how she says it. Her delivery on “Check On It” is just perfect. The hook is fast and breathless and rhythmically sophisticated; I love the insistence of the “dip it, pop it, twerk it, stop it” bit. She really just rides that beat. As the song reaches its ending, Beyoncé puts on a clinic. She lets out a raw, throaty wail. She finds little ad-libbed melodies that lock in with the main hook playing underneath her. She sounds like she’s having a blast. Beyoncé’s Destiny’s Child friend Kelly Rowland reportedly sang backup vocals on “Check On It,” and the track easily could’ve been a Destiny’s Child song. But I think it works even better as a solo-star vehicle — Beyoncé just radiating starpower all over the track.

There are some other stars on the track, too. Beyoncé is a global pop figure whose sound has never adhered to any kind of regional style. Every once in a while, though, she likes to remind the world that she’s from Houston. “Check On It” happened to come out during a moment when Houston rap was suddenly very hot, and she took advantage. “Check On It” doesn’t sound anything like Houston rap, and Swizz Beatz is an extremely New York producer. But look who creepin’, look who crawlin’, still ballin’ in the mix.

Stayve Thomas, the towering rumble-voiced rapper known to the world as Slim Thug, grew up on Houston’s Northside; that’s why he’s the Big Bawse of the Nawf. (When Slim was born, “Upside Down,” one of the greatest hits from Beyoncé’s spiritual foremother Diana Ross, was the #1 song in America.) As a teenager, Slim started rapping on mixtapes from DJ and Swishahouse label head Michael “5000” Watts. But when Slim saw how much money you could make in the regional rap business in the early ’00s, he left Swishahouse, founded his own Boss Hogg Outlawz label, and started cranking out his own mixtapes.

Slim Thug became an underground star in Houston, a living symbol of his city’s slow and idiosyncratic style. Slim’s deep, booming voice paired beautifully with Houston’s crawling, psychedelic production aesthetic, and at 6’6″, he cut an imposing figure. (Imposing to regular people, anyway. Not to me.) In 2003, Slim rapped alongside Mike Jones and Paul Wall on “Still Tippin’,” a track originally recorded for the Swishahouse compilation The Day Hell Broke Loose 2. That song blew up, reached #60 on the Hot 100, and caused a major-label feeding frenzy. (If you’re keeping score at home, I just hit all three “Still Tippin'” rappers in three consecutive columns. It’s Tom Breihan, baby. What you know ’bout me?) Slim signed with the Neptunes’ Star Trak label, and he released his first major-label album in 2005.

Slim called his Star Trak debut Already Platinum, using that title to convey the idea that he was already making major-label money back when he was on the Houston underground. But Already Platinum didn’t go platinum; it didn’t even go gold until 2018. None of Slim’s singles made the Hot 100. Maybe too many Houston rappers were releasing albums at the same time, or maybe Slim’s style didn’t quite fit right with the Neptunes’ minimalism. I like Already Platinum, though. Apparently, I reviewed it for Pitchfork, though I have absolutely no memory of doing that.

On the original version of “Check On It,” Slim Thug raps a couple of bars on the intro and then gets in a longer verse on the bridge. Both verses are lazy as hell. On the intro, Slim rhymes “wanksta” with “gangsta.” Later on, Slim says, “While you dance, I’ma glance at this beautiful view/ I’ma keep my hands in my pants, I need to glue ’em with glue.” But the lyrics don’t really matter. What matters is the way Slim’s nothing-but-bass drawl balances out all the treble on that track — not just Beyoncé’s voice but also the nattering keyboard line.

“Check On It” was supposed to come out on the Pink Panther soundtrack, but it got cut for some reason. (It still plays over the movie’s end credits, and Columbia still used the song in all the ads for the movie. Beyoncé also contributed a second song called “A Woman Like Me” to the soundtrack, and nobody remembers that one.) The release of The Pink Panther got held up. It was supposed to come out in summer 2005, but Columbia demanded a bunch of reshoots to make it more family-friendly, and the film got dumped in February 2006 instead. I’m guessing that “Check On It” was originally supposed to be a Destiny’s Child song, since Slim Thug has a line about “Slim Thug and DC outta H-Town.” The song originally came out on #1’s, a Destiny’s Child greatest-hits collection that the group released after they finished their final tour. “Check On It” is the only solo song on the compilation. It’s weird.

Destiny’s Child recorded a few extra songs for #1s, and those were their last songs as a group. But the album’s first single, the sleepy David Foster ballad “Stand Up For Love,” was a full-on flop that didn’t even reach the Hot 100. So Destiny’s Child — or I guess just Beyoncé — released “Check On It” as the second single from #1s. Maybe to cover up Slim Thug’s line about DC, the song got a new edit, and another iconic Texan rapper came on board.

Bun B — that’s Texas, baby. I’ve interviewed Bernard “Bun B” Freeman a couple of times, and he always made me feel perfectly at home. It’s what he does. Bun is famous for acting as an advocate and ambassador for his late rap partner, but he’s always done the same thing for Texas rap in general. Few people are better-qualified to assume that mantle. In his prime, Bun was also an absolute monster of a rapper; his verse on UGK’s 1996 deep cut “Murder” represents one of the most staggering displays of rap technique I’ve ever heard.

Bun B comes from the backwater city of Port Arthur, though he also partly grew up in Houston. (When Bun was born, Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song” was the #1 single in America.) In the late ’80s, Bun and his fellow Port Arthur native Pimp C formed a duo called UGK — Underground Kingz. That name was not an exaggeration. Pimp rapped and produced. His style was warm and bluesy and organic; he called it “country rap tunes.” As a rapper, Pimp had a stretched-out nasal drawl and a gift for saying wild shit. Bun counterbalanced him with gravitas. Bun’s style was technically dazzling, and his voice was deep and commanding, a true preacher’s boom. They fit together beautifully.

UGK signed with Jive in 1992, and they came to regret that deal. In the early ’90s, Texan rap was nowhere near the mainstream, and Jive had no idea how to sell it. UGK were a huge deal in Texas, and they were unknowns outside of their region. Every once in a while, UGK would threaten to blow up, as when their “Pocket Full Of Stones” showed up on the Menace II Society soundtrack, but it never quite happened. 1996’s Ridin’ Dirty, an absolute no-skips classic, went gold two years after its release on pure word-of-mouth. Then, in 2000, Jay-Z convinced UGK to rap on his single “Big Pimpin'” — the reluctant Pimp C worried that it was a sellout move — and that song reached #18 on the Hot 100. Suddenly, UGK had a hit. They really showed out on that song, too. If you’re ever in Texas, try to put yourself into a situation where you can hear a big crowd of people rapping along with Pimp’s “Big Pimpin'” verse. It’s life-affirming.

UGK didn’t get much of a chance to capitalize on that momentum. In 2000, Pimp C was arrested for threatening to shoot a woman at a Houston mall. Pimp was initially sentenced to probation, but he violated that probation and got an eight-year prison sentence in 2002. UGK had never been apart, but Bun took on the challenge of keeping the group’s name alive. He went on a legendary guest-verse blitz, bringing his leathery authority to every halfway-popular Southern rap mixtape and turning “free Pimp C” into a catchphrase. One of Bun’s best verses of that era is on Slim Thug’s single “3 Kings”: “We goin’ hard in the paint like Carmelo/ This is for them boys who sip purple and sip yellow/ Shorty, shake ya jelly like Jell-O/ She curvy like a cello/ Damn, baby put me up before I even said hello.”

Matthew Knowles asked Bun to rap on a version of “Check On It” when Beyoncé was already shooting the video with Belly director and reigning rap-video auteur Hype Williams. Bun was mostly just excited to be in the video. Bun knew that most Hype Williams videos had a shot of someone blowing smoke in extreme slow-motion, and Bun wanted to be that person. He got his wish. Bun isn’t officially credited on “Check On It” — if you look the song up in the Billboard archive, it just says “featuring Slim Thug” — but the version with Bun is the one that everyone knows.

Bun’s “Check On It” verse isn’t one of his best or anything, but it’s cool to hear him just erupting into the middle of the song, instinctively hitting the pocket of that Swizz Beatz track. In Houston, where the popularity of slowed-down screwed-up remixes made every rapper’s voice deep, it helped that Slim Thug and Bun B already had some of the deepest voices in rap. On “Check On It,” those voices complement Beyoncé’s playful lilt. They give the song a little bit more grit — not too much, but just enough.

Hype Williams’ “Check On It” video doesn’t have any clips from the Pink Panther movie, which is a small mercy. Instead, the video touts its allegiance to the film by going all-pink everything — billowy curtains, slick checkerboard walls, a series of extremely fancy outfits. In the MTV Making The Video special, Beyoncé complains about not having enough time to make the video that she wanted, and I’m sure she had a more cinematic experience in mind. But she looks incredible in the video. The big Diana Ross hair? The cornrows? Those shots of her in the angora sweater? Jesus Christ. It’s been 17 years, and some of those shots still haunt me.

The Pink Panther came out after “Check On It” was already the #1 song in America, and the song probably helped the film’s commercial prospects. The movie did OK business, taking in about $80 million at the domestic box office even after getting dreadful reviews. It was the #26 film that year — right below Charlotte’s Web, right above Eight Below. (This was not a good year for wide-release movies, give or take a Departed or a Casino Royale.) The Pink Panther got an even-more-pointless flop sequel three years later. Beyoncé wasn’t in that one.

“Check On It” has aged beautifully. Nostalgia is now part of the appeal, but the song is also in a small category of Beyoncé songs where she sounds like she’s just cutting loose and fucking around. (The 2014 one-off “7/11,” a #13 hit, might be the ultimate example of the Beyoncé-cutting-loose track.) In Beyoncé’s live-at-Coachella movie Homecoming, “Check On It” kills. She sings the song right before Jay-Z comes out for his “Deja Vu” appearance. It’s almost like “Check On It” summons Jay. (“Deja Vu” peaked at #4 later in 2006. It’s an 8.)

Later in 2006, Beyoncé released her second sophomore album B’Day. Swizz Beatz co-produced a bunch of tracks on the album, which goes for a harder and more intense sound than Beyoncé’s debut Dangerously In Love. The Swizz tracks are bangers, but they weren’t huge hits in the moment. Swizz had a hand in the blaring, hammering “Ring The Alarm,” which felt like a genuine experiment and which peaked at #11. Swizz also worked on the almighty “Get Me Bodied,” which is one of my favorite Beyoncé tracks but which only made it to #68. The big hit from B’Day turned out to be a much more conventional song, and it’ll be in this column soon enough.

Swizz Beatz never produced another #1 hit after “Check On It,” but he remained in the pop-music realm. In 2010, Swizz divorced his wife, the R&B singer Mashonda, and married Alicia Keys, an artist who’s been in this column a couple of times and who will be back. They’re still together, and they’ve got a few kids. Swizz doesn’t really sing or rap, but he’s a great hypeman, and that was apparently enough for him to release a few records of his own. Swizz’s highest-charting single, 2007’s “It’s Me, Bitches,” peaked at #83. I really like that song. (As a guest, Swizz got to #20 on the 2009 Chris Brown track “I Can Transform Ya.”) Swizz and Timbaland, an artist who will eventually appear in this column, also founded the pandemic-era beat-battle platform Verzuz after they noticed how much people enjoyed watching them playing their hits and talking shit to each other on Instagram Live. He’s doing great.

Slim Thug parted ways with Star Trak and went back to his life as an independent Houston rapper. He’s still doing that now, and he’s in that Paul Wall zone where he confers H-Town authenticity and nostalgia whenever he shows up on someone else’s track. That’s basically where Bun B is now, too, but Bun had a more tumultuous ride. When “Check On It” reached #1, Pimp C had just gotten out of prison. UGK were back together again, triumphant, and they recorded the great 2007 double album Underground Kingz. One of that album’s singles, the regal OutKast collab “International Players Anthem,” made it to #70 on the Hot 100. It’s a perfect song.

Later in 2007, Pimp C was found dead in a Los Angeles hotel room. Pimp’s codeine cough syrup had worked with his sleep apnea to kill him. He was 32. Bun B finished one last UGK album with the music that Pimp had left behind, and he went back to work as a solo artist. Bun remains a warm, generous presence, and he performs live about 15 times a day at SXSW every year, but there’s something so sad about seeing him without Pimp. These days, Bun releases occasional solo music and teaches at Rice University.

For Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled album, she made videos for every track. One of those videos, the one for “No Angel,” is a slow-motion love-letter to Houston rap culture, and it’s full of appearances from the city’s rap heroes. Slim Thug is in there. So is Bun B.

GRADE: 9/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s Doja Cat quoting from “Check On It” on her 2018 track “Doctor”:

(Doja Cat will eventually appear in this column.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. Dip it, pop it, twerk it, stop it, buy the book tonight.

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