The Number Ones

April 1, 2006

The Number Ones: Sean Paul’s “Temperature”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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.

Elephant Man looked out at the euphoric Hammerstein Ballroom crowd and bellowed, “I need a couple of big, fat women!” The wildly charismatic Jamaican dancehall deejay had his hair tied up in two buns, one dyed bright yellow and the other bright red. He was dressed in a campy parody of Western wear — tiny cowboy hat, six-shooter holsters, leather vest over bare chest — and he was already dripping with sweat. That night, Elephant Man didn’t really sing, and he didn’t really rap. Instead, he ran all around the stage and called out the names of dances: Signal di plane! Give dem a run! The entire crowd — virtually all Black, many waving flags of different Caribbean nations — did all those dances the second that Elephant Man called them out. It was a breathtaking spectacle.

When Elephant Man requested two larger ladies to come to the stage, he got his wish. I don’t know whether these two women were plants or whether they were really out there in the audience, but both of them dwarfed Elephant Man, who is not small. Elephant Man then demanded that Diddy, who’d been watching the show from the side of the stage all night, come out. Elephant Man and Diddy proceeded to perform some extremely explicit dances with these two women. Then, Elephant Man scooped one of them up and held her aloft. With this lady’s legs wrapped around his torso, Elephant Man ran all over the stage, even leaping on speaker stacks, all while vigorously humping his partner. He almost dropped her a couple of times, but he kept his grip. It was something Benny Hill would’ve done if he’d been an Olympic-level athlete.

That utterly absurd Elephant Man set was the climax of one of the greatest nights of live music I’ve ever witnessed. That evening, Hot 97, the New York rap-radio giant, rounded up most of dancehall’s hottest acts — Vybz Kartel, T.O.K., I Wayne, Assassin — for a show called On Da Reggae Tip. Damian Marley, fire burning in his eyes, growled his way through “Welcome To Jamrock,” one of that year’s biggest anthems. Sizzla, the deeply intense cult hero, emerged from his compound to soak in the love of the crowd. The entire night, the crowd’s energy barely dipped. I’d moved to New York a few weeks earlier, and I couldn’t believe that I got to be in that room.

On a night like that, you might expect Sean Paul to headline. At that point, Sean Paul was right in the middle of a huge crossover run. A couple of years earlier, Sean had topped the Hot 100 with “Get Busy,” arguably the first straight-up dancehall anthem to reach #1. That success had led to a guest spot on Beyoncé’s “Baby Boy,” another chart-topper. Soon after the Hammerstein show, Sean Paul would once again top the Hot 100, and he’d do it with another dancehall track that didn’t go far out of its way to appear to international audiences. Sean Paul was a dancehall deejay who’d become a pop star, and he did it without leaving dancehall behind. You’d think that those accomplishments would make Sean Paul a conquering hero at a massive dancehall show, but that’s not what happened.

That night, Sean Paul showed up in the middle of the bill, performed a quick 15-minute set, and bounced. He wasn’t the big draw of the evening, and he knew it. Elephant Man and Sizzla were the headliners, and the crowd reacted to both of them with absolute hysteria. That crowd liked Sean Paul, but the response just wasn’t the same. Part of it was that Sean just didn’t have the same stage presence as Elephant Man and Sizzla, two very different performers who carry themselves like stadium-level superstars whenever they’re in front of people. But I think Sean Paul understood his role. Dancehall is a genre with its own rules and codes, and it feeds off of an emotional and physical connection with its audience. Dancehall has room for a crossover pop star like Sean Paul, but crossover pop success won’t necessarily make someone the biggest name on a bill full of big names.

Sean Paul has always understood his role. He’s not an energy god like Elephant Man or a prophet like Sizzla. He’s a handsome guy who makes catchy party songs with a distinctly Jamaican perspective and aesthetic. Sean Paul’s pop successes just happened to hit the pop zeitgeist in the right way at the right time. But when someone keeps having that success over and over, it means it’s not a fluke. Sean Paul isn’t the type of pop star who involves the general public in the ongoing spectacle of his life. The average fan probably doesn’t know too many details about Sean Paul’s life story, but that fan will still probably hit the dancefloor when “Temperature” comes on. That’s Sean Paul’s role. His job is to make you move, and he’s good at his job.

Sean Paul had a huge year in 2003: two chart-toppers in “Get Busy” and “Baby Boy,” more hits like “Like Glue” and “I’m Still In Love With You,” the double platinum album Dutty Rock. It’s not easy to keep a run like that going, but Sean Paul kept making hits. In September 2005, a few weeks after I saw him at that Hammerstein reggae show, Sean released his album The Trinity. After the success of Dutty Rock, Sean Paul could’ve gone full-on pop. He could’ve worked with pop stars and pop producers. Instead, he remained in his comfort zone, cranking out another album of party-starting dancehall tracks that played by the genre’s rules. Maybe that was a strategic retrenchment, a message to Sean Paul’s core audience that he hadn’t forgotten about them. Or maybe Sean just knew that his pop appeal existed outside the bounds of regular American pop music.

Either way, Sean Paul still had that pop appeal. The first single from The Trinity, the slinky weed anthem “We Be Burnin’,” was a #6 hit in the US, and it did even better in the UK and Canada. (It’s a 7.) The album was already gold by the time Sean Paul released its second single, but that second single turned out to be the real hit. In a lot of ways, “Temperature” was Sean Paul just doing the things that Sean Paul does: Talking to women over a percolating, club-friendly beat, delivering smooth melodies in an assured baritone. Like “Get Busy” before it, “Temperature” uses a well-established dancehall riddim — an instrumental that becomes the basis for songs from virtually every noteworthy performer in the genre.

“Get Busy” had been built on the Diwali riddim, and that backing track became an actual pop-chart phenomenon, powering hits from Wayne Wonder and Lumidee and Rihanna. The Applause riddim, the track behind “Temperature,” never achieved anything like that kind of saturation, but the track was big within dancehall. Jamaican producer Rohan “Jah Snowcone” Fuller created the Applause riddim, which presumably got its name from its gigantic and relentless handclap sound. Most of the other tracks that use that instrumental don’t sound anything like “Temperature”; consider, for instance, Sizzla’s fiery growl “Run Out Pon Dem.”

The Applause riddim instrumental is cool. Keyboards buzz and twinkle and bloop, while that handclap pulses repetitively. But the riddim doesn’t really sound like pop music unless it’s got Sean Paul on it. While Sizzla brings passionate mania, Sean is a steady presence. His melodies sound inevitable. They come off almost as incantations, as if their cadences have always existed. Sean locks in with the track, coming up with his own sticky melodies and delivering them with total confidence.

You can hear “Temperature” once and get the basic message: Woman, the way the time cold, Sean Paul wanna be keeping you warm. He’s got the right temperature fi shelter you from the storm. Because of the way he leans into his patois, Sean gets away with lyrics that would sound tortuously awkward if they came from anyone else. He somehow avoids all squickiness when he says that he wants to be the papa and you can be the mom, oh-oooooh. That perfectly placed “oh-oooooh” does a lot of the heavy lifting there. Sean Paul always understood how a certain sound could perfectly punctuate a hook, and “Temperature” is practically all hook.

By dancehall standards, Sean Paul’s accent isn’t very thick. But if you don’t have a trained ear for patois, you’ll miss a lot of what he says. Until I looked up the “Temperature” lyrics, I had no idea there was anything in there about steamed fish and green bananas. There are also TV references: “Gyal, don’t say me crazy now/ This strange love, it a no Brigitte and Flavor show,” “Woman, don’t play me now/ ‘Cause I no Fred Sanford, not Grady, yo.” (The season of The Surreal Life with Flavor Flav and Brigitte Nielsen aired in 2004, and I guess Jamaica got Sanford And Son reruns.) It’s easy to enjoy a Sean Paul track without getting any of that. The resonance of his voice says more than his actual lyrics.

As it happens, 2006 was a truly great year for dancehall. That was the year of anthems like Tony Matterhorn’s “Dutty Wine” and Mavado’s “Weh Dem A Do.” When Sean Paul performed at Hot 97’s Summer Jam stadium show in 2006, he got his biggest reaction when he brought out surprise guest Baby Cham to perform the thunderous “Ghetto Story,” my favorite single of that year. That whole stadium crowd went off for “Ghetto Story.” It was a moment.

But those other dancehall bangers didn’t cross over the same way. “Dutty Wine” and “Weh Dem A Do” missed the Hot 100 entirely. “Ghetto Story” needed a (great) Alicia Keys remix to get as high as #77. Even the mighty “Welcome To Jamrock” peaked at #55 the previous year. Sean Paul, by contrast, kept racking up chart hits. Something about the man — his voice, his melodies, his approach — just resonated over here.

I don’t think “Temperature” is Sean Paul’s best single, but it’s got its own hypnotic power. “Temperature” has legs, too. The song is still floating in the air. In a video that went viral a few years ago, an Irish guy entertained his friends by singing “Temperature” while slapping his belly. This led to a whole “Temperature” TikTok challenge, which is silly as hell but which also says something about the lingering affection for the song.

@ladbibleireland Best cover of Temperature that we’ve ever heard 😅 #fyp #ireland #irish #irishtiktok #belfast #derry #dublin #galway #cork #lol #banter #seanpaul #song #cover #viral #blowthisup #funny #belly #lads #lad ♬ original sound – LADbible Ireland

Sean Paul’s hits didn’t stop with “Temperature,” either. After The Trinity went platinum, the young R&B star Keyshia Cole showed up on a remix of the album track “(When You Gonna) Give It Up To Me,” and that remix appeared on the soundtrack of the first Step Up movie. That version of “Give It Up To Me” was a #3 hit. (It’s a 7. Keyshia Cole’s highest-charting lead-artist single, the 2007 Lil Kim/Missy Elliott collab “Let It Go,” peaked at #7. It’s an 8.) Before the year was over, Sean Paul was back in the top 10 again. He guested on “Break It Off,” a single from the young Bajan star Rihanna, and that song made it to #9 even though it didn’t have a video or anything. (“Break It Off” is an 8. We’ll soon see a whole lot of Rihanna in this column.)

Those hits couldn’t last forever. When Sean Paul followed The Trinity with his album Imperial Blaze in 2009, lead single “So Fine” only made it to #50. As lead artist, Sean Paul hasn’t been on the Hot 100 since 2011, when his cheesy dance-pop track “She Doesn’t Mind” peaked at #78. After Sean’s 2013 album Full Frequency failed to spin off any chart hits, Atlantic dropped him, and he went back to releasing music independently. But then something funny happened. A full decade after “Frequency,” Sean Paul started making global hits again. In 2016, Sean Paul teamed up with an ascendant Dua Lipa on his single “No Lie,” which didn’t make the Hot 100 but which became a massive hit overseas. These days, “No Lie” has way more streams than any other Sean Paul track. (Dua Lipa’s two biggest Hot 100 hits, 2019’s “Don’t Start Now” and 2020’s “Levitating,” both peaked at #2. “Don’t Start Now” is a 9, and “Levitating” is an 8.)

“No Lie” was only one part of the Sean Paul comeback. Around the same time, Sean also put in appearances on a bunch of hit songs from other artists. In that capacity, Sean Paul will eventually return to this column.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kay Flock, Cardi B, Dougie B, and Bory300 rapping over a “Temperature” sample on the Bronx drill anthem “Shake It,” one of my favorite singles of last year:

(“Shake It” peaked at #51. Akon’s 2005 track “Belly Dancer (Bananza),” the other song that gets sampled on “Shake It,” peaked at #30. Cardi B will appear in this column a bunch of times.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. Five million and forty naughty shorties say that you should buy it here.

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