The Number Ones

August 11, 2007

The Number Ones: Sean Kingston’s “Beautiful Girls”

Stayed at #1:

4 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.

When the night has come and the land is dark and the moon is the only light we’ll see, we’ll still have “Stand By Me.” If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall or the mountains should crumble to the sea, we’ll still have “Stand By Me.” Ben E. King, the man who sang “Stand By Me,” has already been in this column as the lead singer of the Drifters; motherfucking “Save The Last Dance For Me” was the first 10/10 song in this column’s history. King left the Drifters to go solo in 1960, before “Save The Last Dance For Me” even came out. A few months later, King released “Stand By Me.”

At least for those of us under the age of 50, it’s hard to imagine a time when “Stand By Me” could’ve been contemporary pop music. “Stand By Me” is an elemental force, a song that you learn through sheer osmosis by the time you’re old enough to understand what a song even is. Ben E. King was adapting an old gospel song when he started to write “Stand By Me,” and his song has some of that same ancient wisdom to it. The track is warm and buoyant — simple but sophisticated. The shuffling beat always sounded a bit like an old typewriter to me, but the song offsets that beat with flighty strings and graceful backing vocals. King himself sounds raw but ebullient, channelling the grainy polish of his contemporary Sam Cooke.

“Stand By Me” is all about being vulnerable. Ben E. King’s narrator reaches out to a friend, asking for support. If King’s narrator knows he has that support, then the world could fall apart, and he won’t shed a tear. The inverse goes unspoken: If this person doesn’t stand by King’s narrator, then he’ll be lost completely. King doesn’t need to say that; it’s understood. King co-wrote “Stand By Me” with Brill Building overlords Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who produced the single, and the song became a big hit. But “Stand By Me” never went to #1.

“Stand By Me” had a couple of cracks at the pop charts. In 1961, when “Stand By Me” first came out, it peaked at #4. (It’s a 10, obviously, and it’s the solo Ben E. King’s highest-charting single.) A quarter-century later, “Stand By Me” had another run. That’s when the movie Stand By Me — Rob Reiner’s Stephen King adaptation about kids who go looking for a dead body in the woods — came out. At that point, a reissued “Stand By Me” single climbed back up the charts. This wasn’t a grassroots revival, like the whole “Running Up That Hill” phenomenon last year. A label had to press up copies of the “Stand By Me” single and work it to radio stations; oldies almost never went through revivals l like that. But it still happened with “Stand By Me.” In 1986, the reissued single peaked at #9.

In 2007, many years after Ben E. King first released the single, a teenager sang a chirpy ode to crippling romantic depression over a “Stand By Me” sample. This kid wasn’t even born when the Stand By Me movie came out. He didn’t hear “Stand By Me” as a source of nostalgia. Instead, he heard it as a bright and engaging bassline, a sample source. That kid took his “Stand By Me” sample all the way to #1 — an accomplishment that “Stand By Me” itself never quite managed.

Sean Kingston was the first artist born in the ’90s to score a #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. (When Kingston was born, Michael Bolton’s “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You” was the #1 song in America.) Kingston was 17 years old when his first single reached #1, but he’d already lived an eventful life.

Kisean Paul Anderson was born into a Jamaican family in Miami, and he spent much of his childhood in Jamaica. He’s the grandson of Lawrence Lindo, the reggae producer who worked on a lot of classic Burning Spear records and who went by the name Jack Ruby. (I think it’s incredibly cool that a reggae producer chose Jack Ruby as his stage name.) Anderson spent much of his childhood in Jamaica, and he went through some hard times. At age 11, Anderson was arrested for breaking and entering; he spent a few weeks in jail and then had to go to boot camp. When Anderson was 13, his mother and sister were sent to prison for identity fraud.

After Kisean Anderson’s mother went to jail, he found himself homeless, sleeping in bus shelters around Jamaica. Eventually, Anderson’s estranged aunt invited him to live with her. At that point, Anderson really wanted to make it as a rapper. He adapted the Sean Kingston name, recorded a demo, and posted it on MySpace. Kingston had to work in secret, since his aunt hated rap music. On MySpace, Kingston repeatedly spammed the producer JR Rotem with messages. This stragegy worked, Eventually, Kingston scored himself a record deal.

JR Rotem has already been in this column for co-writing and producing Rihanna’s “SOS,” another song built on an obvious sample. Rotem and his brother Tommy founded an Epic subsidiary called Beluga Heights in 2006, and Tommy liked Sean Kingston’s demo. Kingston wanted to be a rapper, and Rotem later told HitQuarters that “it was a development process to get him more melodic.” But Kingston discovered that he had a gift for melody. He could sing or rap, and he could switch back and forth between patois and an American accent. That freed him up to play around in different sandboxes: dancehall, rap, R&B, down-the-middle pop music.

Kingston says that he heard “Stand By Me” on the radio one night when he was in the studio and that he then asked JR Rotem to sample the song on a track. Kingston claims that he wrote “Beautiful Girls” very quickly, based on that sample. A girlfriend had cheated on him with one of his best friends, and he put those feelings into the song. Kingston ultimately shared songwriting credit with JR Rotem and co-producer Peter Harrison, as well as Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber, and Mike Stoller.

Some producers use samples as elements to be chopped up and reassembled. That’s not JR Rotem’s style. In that HitQuarters interview, Rotem describes how he would often use a recognizable sample as the main hook of a track: “I usually hear the sample and base the track around it, as I want it to be the nucleus of the song.” With “Beautiful Girls,” the sample is the obvious star. The track takes the “Stand By Me” bassline and backing track, barely altering everything. I’m guessing Rotem put Sean Kingston’s voice on the song right up front so that people wouldn’t get disappointed when the song on the radio turned out to be something other than “Stand By Me.”

“Beautiful Girls” is a very, very weird song. The “Stand By Me” sample conditions you to expect something bright and life-affirming. If you’re not paying attention to the lyrics, “Beautiful Girls” conforms to that shape. Sean Kingston sounds cute. His voice is a frictionless tenor. There’s noticeable Auto-Tune all over the song, and Kingston never goes for vocal theatrics. Instead, he just delivers his melodies as straight as possible. He sounds a lot like Akon, an artist who was taking up a whole lot of pop-chart real estate when Kingston’s career was starting. On “Beautiful Girls,” Kingston sounds happy, but the lyrics tell a different story.

“Beautiful Girls” is a song about wanting to keep away from relationships because you know it’s never going to work: “Damn, all these beautiful girls/ They only wanna do you dirt/ They’ll have you suicidal, suicidal when they say it’s over.” A lot of people really do approach relationships with that kind of sad fatalism — that idea that it’s not worth the effort since you know you’ll only get hurt in the end. But that’s not really a perspective that you hear from male pop singers very often. To find another song that mirrors the weary, resigned romantic pessimism of “Beautiful Girls,” you might have to reach for something like Weezer’s Pinkerton deep cut “Why Bother.”

On the “Beautiful Girls” verses, Sean Kingston talks about why he’s so sad. When they’re kids, Kingston’s narrator and a girl meet and fall in puppy love, but then life gets in the way: “It was back in ’99, watchin’ movies all the time/ Oh, when I went away for doin’ my first crime/ And I never thought that we was gonna see each other.” The couple does get back together, but the feeling isn’t the same. Kingston can’t accept the idea that he and this girl are simply growing apart. Instead, he thinks of himself as some kind of victim: “You’re dating other guys, you’re telling me lies/ Oh, I can’t believe what I’m seein’ with my eyes/ I’m losin’ my mind, and I don’t think it’s clever.”

Those “Beautiful Girls” lyrics are nursery-rhyme simple, but they reflect the same kind of love-life desolation that drove a lot of that era’s emo songs. Sean Kingston’s narrator should just move on with his life, but he can’t believe that a girl did this to him. The line about being “suicidal” is classic over-dramatic teenage shit, but it’s very strange to hear it in the context of a bright, sunny pop song with a “Stand By Me” sample. That shit wouldn’t fly today. It didn’t really fly in 2007, either.

Sean Kingston had a policy against cursing on record, but some radio stations still wouldn’t play “Beautiful Girls” until Kingston cut an alternate version with different lyrics — “in denial” instead of “suicidal,” “man, all these beautiful girls” instead of “damn, all these beautiful girls,” “rush back just to see you in time” instead of “went away for doing my first crime.” Those changes are probably improvements, but when you know what Kingston is actually singing, they’re pretty distracting.

For the “Beautiful Girls” video, Friday After Next auteur Marcus Raboy steered into the received oldies nostalgia of the “Stand By Me” sample, swiping the time-traveling effect from Lauryn Hill’s “Doo-Wop (That Thing)” video. We see versions of Sean Kingston and his friends partying in a diner, both in the present day and in Grease-looking olden days. In both versions, Kingston looks chipmunk-cute and smiles a lot. He does not look like he’s singing about feeling suicidal after a breakup.

When “Beautiful Girls” reached #1, Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber, and Mike Stoller all got credit for their first hit in decades. All three of them were still alive at the time; only Mike Stoller is still alive today. (He’s 90.) Leiber and Stoller could be considered pioneers of the whole song-factory model, and a producer like JR Rotem might be their distant stylistic descendant. “Beautiful Girls” became Leiber and Stoller’s first #1 hit since Wilbert Harrison’s “Kansas City” 48 years earlier.

“Beautiful Girls” is a truly baffling time capsule, both of the 2007 ringtone era and the received nostalgia for the early-’60s past, a time that nobody in the intended audience for “Beautiful Girls” would’ve been old enough to remember. It sounds more like a novelty song than like the basis of a long-lasting career, and you probably won’t be surprised to learn that Sean Kingston has never equalled that success again. But Kingston did keep working, and he notched up a few more hits. Kingston’s self-titled debut album went gold, and he got to #7 with “Take You There,” a song about showing a date around the real Jamaica. (It’s a 5.)

For a while, Sean Kingston was doing pretty well. While his debut album was still percolating, he guested on “Love Like This,” a Natasha Bedingfield single that made it to #11. Kingston released his sophomore album Tomorrow in 2009, and he got to #5 with the dancehall-EDM confection “Fire Burning.” (It’s a 3.) That same year, Kingston also co-wrote a song that will eventually appear in this column. In 2010, Kingston and a very young Justin Bieber teamed up on the #15 hit “Eenie Meenie.” That song sucks! (Bieber will appear in this column a bunch of times.)

In 2011, Sean Kingston crashed a jet ski in Miami, and the accident almost killed him. He was in critical condition for weeks, and he needed emergency open heart surgery. There were rumors that Kingston had actually died, but he made a full recovery. Two years later, Kingston released an album called Back 2 Life, and its lead single, the Chris Brown/Wiz Khalifa collab “Beat It,” peaked at #52. Kingston hasn’t been back on the Hot 100 since. (Chris Brown has already been in this column once, and he’ll be back. Wiz Khalifa will appear in this column, too.)

After Back 2 Life, Sean Kingston parted ways with JR Rotem’s Beluga Heights label, and he languished for a while. Kingston finally released another album called Road To Deliverance independently last year, but it didn’t make much of a ripple. Still, there’s a place for Sean Kingston on the nostalgia circuit. This summer, he’s heading out on tour with TLC, Shaggy, and En Vogue. Kingston is significantly younger than every other act on the bill, and he doesn’t have nearly as many hits, but he still makes some kind of sense as that tour’s opening act. There are worse fates. And who knows? Maybe someone will sample “Beautiful Girls” on a #1 hit in another 20 years, and maybe that’ll introduce the song to entire new generations who weren’t alive when the song first came out. Stranger things have happened.

GRADE: 4/10

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BONUS BEATS: When “Beautiful Girls” went to #1, the song knocked Plain White T’s’ “Hey There Delilah” out of the top spot. In a kind of tribute, Plain White T’s played an acoustic “Beautiful Girls” cover in a live session for Yahoo. Honestly, the whole lyrical standpoint of “Beautiful Girls” isn’t that different from plenty of the stuff that Plain White T’s were writing on their own songs. Here’s their “Beautiful Girls” cover:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Beautiful Girls Reply,” the “Beautiful Girls” answer song that the teen star JoJo released in 2007:

(JoJo’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “Too Little Too Late,” peaked at #3. It’s an 8.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In the 2008 found-footage monster movie Cloverfield, “Beautiful Girls” plays during a party scene while TJ Miller unsuccessfully hits on Lizzy Caplan. It’s probably the last song that a lot of these characters ever hear, since the alien kaiju shows up in New York City immediately afterward. Here’s an obnoxiously long YouTube rip of the entire Cloverfield opening; that one scene is somewhere in there:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s eventual second-place finisher David Archuleta singing “Stand By Me” and throwing in a bit of “Beautiful Girls” on a 2008 episode of American Idol:

(David Archuleta’s highest-charting single, 2008’s “Crush,” peaked at #2. It’s a 6.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Colombian star Karol G interpolating the hell out of “Beautiful Girls” on “Beautiful Boy,” her 2021 single with Ludacris, an artist who’s been in this column a few times, and Emilee:

(Karol G’s highest-charting single is the Shakira collab “TQG,” which peaked at #7 just a couple of weeks ago. It’s a 7.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music, is out now via Hachette Books. It’s a beautiful book; that’s why it’ll never work. Buy it here.

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