The Number Ones

February 24, 2007

The Number Ones: Nelly Furtado’s “Say It Right”

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.

Nelly Furtado wrote “Say It Right,” but she doesn’t know what “Say It Right” is about. A few years after Furtado scored her second #1 hit, she tried to explain “Say It Right” in a BBC interview — or, more accurately, she tried to explain that she couldn’t explain it: “I still can’t put into words what it’s about. I think it’s maybe about personal, visceral abandon — throwing yourself into something without inhibitions.”

When pop artists give quotes like that, I usually roll my eyes. Generally speaking, global chart hits don’t come from divine inspiration. They’re the products of hard work, expert craft, canny decision-making, lucky timing. When you write a big song, you’re usually not channeling the mystical forces of the universe. You’re thinking about what would sound good, and then you’re making that thing. For the most part, when pop stars pretend to have some connection to another astral sphere, they’re just being pretentious. But I believe Nelly Furtado. I’m fully open to the idea that she has no idea what “Say It Right” is about. I don’t really know, either. That’s what I love about the song.

Nelly Furtado was never above the idea of craven pop music. When Furtado broke through, she was marketed as an artsy singer-songwriter type, but this was at a time when artsy singer-songwriter types were making hits. Later, when the climate changed, Furtado changed with it. “Promiscuous,” the song that Furtado took to #1 in the summer of 2006, is a big and brash and silly pop song, and it was made for its moment. There’s no mystery in “Promiscuous.”

“Maneater” was the first Loose single in Europe, where it was a huge hit, and it also reached #16 in the US. There’s no mystery in “Maneater,” either. It’s another piece of well-made club-pop. I really like “Maneater,” but I don’t feel like I’m connecting to the spirit of infinity when I hear it. There is, however, something mysterious about “Say It Right.”

In that BBC interview, Nelly Furtado says that she and her collaborators Timbaland and Danja wrote “Say It Right” around 4AM one night, after a long night of studio sessions. Furtado and Timbaland had been working together here and there for a few years, but when they made Loose, both of them were pushing toward different sounds. Both of them were inspired by ’80s new wave acts like the Eurythmics, but both of them were weird enough that this influence would never come through too cleanly. Furtado also says that Pink Floyd’s movie version of The Wall had been playing on mute in the studio all day when they wrote “Say It Right” and that “it was playing into our subconscious a little bit.” People used to always put that movie on during sleepovers when I was a kid, so I could see how that psychic drip might happen.

“Say It Right” would make sense in a club, but it’s not a direct and obvious club track like “Promiscuous” or “Maneater.” Instead, I think of “Say It Right” as the platonic ideal of the Timbaland/Nelly Furtado experiment. I didn’t like much of the music on Furtado’s first two albums, but she always had a giddy, exploratory quality that I thought was cool. She loved a whole lot of different kinds of music, and she wanted her own stuff to reflect as many of those influences as possible. In 2006, Timbaland was moving away from his brain-melt future-funk style and into a more conventional form of global dance-pop, but he still had some of that alien wizard shit in his sound. On “Say It Right,” it all comes together.

“Say It Right” could be a song about a breakup, or it could be a seduction. It could be an invitation to dig into the inner recesses of your own mind or to find some deep connection with another person. On the chorus, Nelly Furtado is multi-tracked to the point where she’s a choir of Nelly Furtados, and her voice flows like a waterfall: “You don’t mean nothing at all to me/ But you got what it takes to set me free/ Oh, you could mean everything to me.” On the verses, she’s halting, but she still brings a cutting authority: “From my body, I could show you a place God knows/ You should know the space/ Do you really wanna go?” When someone asks you a question like that, it’s fine that you don’t have any idea what she’s talking about. When someone asks you a question like that, the answer is always “yes.”

On paper, Nelly Furtado’s “Say It Right” lyrics don’t look especially profound. They look vague and indecisive — as if Furtado is reaching for some feeling that she doesn’t really know how to express. But song lyrics aren’t supposed to live on paper. In practice, those lyrics really do gesture towards the infinite because they sound awesome. There’s a bit of torch-singer in Furtado’s delivery, but her voice is too sharp and her delivery too rhythmic to ever get too languid. Instead, even when she’s in deep-contemplation mode, Nelly Furtado sounds like she’s dancing. Timbaland and Danja give her a reason to dance.

In some ways, the “Say It Right” instrumental track sounds like something that Timbaland might’ve produced for Aaliyah. It’s got the layered mouth-clicks, the tricky counter-rhythms, the oceans of negative space. But “Say It Right” isn’t an R&B track, and it doesn’t try to be one. Instead, “Say It Right” invokes the majestic, all-encompassing atmosphere of the sounds that former ’70s prog warriors were making in the ’80s. I hear Peter Gabriel in “Say It Right.” I hear Kate Bush. I hear Brian Eno. In plenty of contexts, Timbaland’s human-beatbox stuff can sound truly silly. On “Say It Right,” though, Tim turns his beatboxing into something almost symphonic. Tim going “gadingading” shouldn’t work as a bassline, but here, it sounds gorgeous. Timbaland and Danja pulled off similar miracles on Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” and on another Timberlake song that’ll appear in this column very soon. In that moment, they were really in a zone.

“Say It Right” probably wouldn’t work if the entire backing track was made up of Timbaland’s one-man a cappella shenanigans, even if he does put those shenanigans to sublime use. But there’s so much else at work in “Say It Right” — the tingling bells, the wispy synths, the sudden flare-ups of echoed-out power chords. Session guitarist Kevin Rudolf — a guy who would later make a few hits of his own — doesn’t do standard guitar-hero shit. Instead, he slathers so much delay on his instrument that he sounds like he’s trying to be the Edge. On a song like this one, the Edge makes for a great role model. (Kevin Rudolf’s highest-charting single is the deeply silly 2008 Lil Wayne collab “Let It Rock,” and Rudolf definitely isn’t going for an Edge thing on that one. “Let It Rock” peaked at #5. It’s too goofy to hate, so I’ll give it a 5.)

When “Say It Right” came out as a single, it made its own kind of sense. Nelly Furtado had just dropped two hit uptempo club jams, so here was her ballad. But “Say It Right” isn’t really a ballad. It isn’t really anything, and maybe that’s why it’s remarkable that it did so well. We don’t often hear big chart hits that aim for some kind of cosmic tingle. Aaliyah did it, but Aaliyah was off in her own world. Nelly Furtado, on the other hand, is a pop artist with an all-over-the-place catalog. “Say It Right,” at least to me, is the moment that she overachieved and made something truly far out.

“Say It Right” is planetarium music, music for considering the things that you will never understand. There’s some silliness on “Say It Right,” mostly in the Timbaland-beatboxing stuff. At certain points, Timbaland is even scatting, which is ridiculous. But the ridiculousness doesn’t hurt the song. It just makes it even stranger and more endearing. Writing about “Say It Right” at the time, I said that Nelly Furtado “sounds like she’s singing a duet with a volcano — she can’t overpower it, so she lets her voice float lazily over the fires.” I’m trying to remember what the fuck I was thinking when I wrote that, and I have no idea. Maybe I’m like Nelly Furtado. Maybe I was feeling the sort of inspiration that you can’t reconstruct.

The “Say It Right” video isn’t really anything special, but there’s one thing about it that I love. At the beginning of the clip, Nelly Furtado arrives, via helicopter, on the roof of a skyscraper. The helicopter has Nelly Furtado’s logo on it, and so does the helipad. How baller is that? I don’t even have a logo, let alone a helipad with my logo on it. In that moment, Nelly Furtado looks like a true pop star. But I saw Furtado when she was touring behind Loose in 2007, and she didn’t really look like a pop star then. I don’t remember too much about the Furtado live experience, but I do remember that it was messy and unfocused. She’d already played around in too many stylistic sandboxes, and she couldn’t quite get all those sounds and aesthetics to make sense together over the course of a single night.

In some ways, “Say It Right” marked the end of the Nelly Furtado pop-star moment. She followed that single with “All Good Things (Come To An End),” which she, Timbaland, and Danja co-wrote with Coldplay’s Chris Martin. (Coldplay will eventually appear in this column.) That song went for the same spaced-out feel as “Say It Right,” and it didn’t get there. “All Good Things (Come To An End)” peaked at #86, and it would be weirdly poetic if that was her last Hot 100 hit. But no, the Loose track “Do It” also got to #88.

Loose was Nelly Furtado’s one big pop-star moment. In retrospect, it seems like she intentionally walked away from all of that, like she opted not to build on whatever momentum the album had given her career. Some people achieve pop stardom and then do whatever they can to maintain that position, and some just move on to other phases of their lives. Nelly Furtado is in the latter category. Her next album, 2009’s Mi Plan, was a Spanish-language detour. She didn’t try to make another mainstream pop record until 2012’s The Spirit Indestructible. By that time, Furtado’s moment had passed. The album flopped, and none of its singles charted.

After The Spirit Indestructible, Nelly Furtado parted ways with Interscope, and she started her own indie label. She guested on a Blood Orange record and released 2017’s The Ride, which she recorded with the art-rock-inclined indie producer John Congleton. During this whole time, Furtado mostly stayed out of the public eye. She married one of the sound engineers who worked on Loose, had a couple more kids, and broke up with her husband — all quietly, all without the PR blitzes that come with so many big events in other pop stars’ lives. When Furtado was a surprise guest at Drake’s OVO Fest last year, it was her first public performance of any kind in five years.

In the post-Loose era, Nelly Furtado has shown up on the Hot 100 a few times, always on other people’s songs. In 2009, for instance, she sang the hooks on future Number Ones subject Flo Rida’s “Jump,” which made it to #54, and Timbaland’s “Morning After Dark,” which peaked at #61. In 2012, Furtado guested on the Canadian rapper K’naan’s song “Is Anybody Out There,” which got to #92. (I had no idea that any of these songs existed.) I’m not anticipating any big Nelly Furtado comeback, but this column isn’t quite done with her yet. Just as the Loose era was drawing to a close, Nelly Furtado made a big single with a couple of her famous friends, and that song will soon appear in this column.

GRADE: 9/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Say It Right” cover that Bloc Party recorded for a BBC Live Lounge session in 2007:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a fan-made video of Nelly Furtado and Dev Hynes performing an acoustic “Say It Right” — along with a bit of Phil Collins’ “Another Day In Paradise” — at a 2015 Blood Orange benefit show at the Apollo Theater:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Tame Impala doing a cool keyboards-and-voice version of “Say It Right” during a live lockdown-era BBC session in 2020:

From my hands, I could give you something that I made. It’s The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music, and it’s out now via Hachette Books. Buy it here.

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