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.
There’s a story that’s been passed around in the music business for years, an urban legend whispered late at night in recording-studio lounges and nightclub greenrooms. Nobody knows if it’s true, and we’ll probably never find out, since people are afraid to dig into it. Honestly, I’m not sure I should even discuss this story in public. It feels like bad luck to even invoke this tale. If you ask anyone else about this, they’ll feign confusion, but we all know the story. Most of the versions that I’ve heard go something like this:
Shawty had them Apple Bottom jeans. Boots with the fur. The whole club was looking at her. She hit the floor. Next thing you know, shawty got low low low low low low low. Them baggy sweatpants and them Reeboks with the strap. Turned around and gave that big booty a slap. She hit the floor. Next thing you know, shawty got low low low low low low low.
Let me talk to ’em: Nobody had ever heard of the Miami rapper Flo Rida before he came out with the biggest single of 2008. Flo Rida was a cipher, an unknowable force, propelled to pop infamy by a relentlessly catchy jam that capitalized on a whole bunch of different currents floating around that moment’s zeitgeist. After “Low,” Flo Rida was still a cipher, even as he kept racking up hits. Going by sheer chart statistics, Flo Rida is a superstar, a generational figure. But how much do you know about Flo Rida?
Flo Rida was a new kind of rap star: A crossover figure who never really got play on rap radio but who dominated the pop sphere anyway. Most big-name rappers come up through the rap ecosystem. They start out with local followings, then become regional stars, then maybe push their way to the national stage. They project larger-than-life personalities, and they make fans feel involved in their personal narratives. That’s not Flo Rida. Instead, Flo Rida rode one clubby, anonymous mega-smash to global fame, and then he kept making different versions of that one hit again and again, almost entirely bypassing rap audiences. For years, that strategy made Flo Rida into a pop-chart mainstay. Now that his run is over, Flo Rida can still play to big audiences around the world, since his hits will always evoke a specific pop era.
Before “Low,” Flo Rida was just some guy — a struggling journeyman in the Miami rap world, mostly notable for his stupid-clever rap name. (He’s from Florida, and he rides flows. You get it.) Flo Rida was born Tramar Dillard, and he grew up in Dade County’s rough Carol City neighborhood. (When Flo Rida was born, the Knack’s “My Sharona” was the #1 song in America. That’s my birthdate #1, too; Flo Rida is six days younger than me.) Carol City has a small population, but it’s produced a whole lot of important rap stars, from JT Money to Denzel Curry. As a teenager, Flo Rida got really into lifting weights, and he also joined up with a few friends to start a rap group called the GroundHoggz.
Flo Rida had seven sisters, and when he was young, one of them died of bronchitis. When he got famous, Flo Rida said that this loss motivated him; he told Billboard, “That gave me the drive to work harder to try to make it. You’re never promised tomorrow, so I decided to take full advantage.” Flo Rida had a brother who worked as a hypeman for the horny and controversial Miami stars 2 Live Crew. (2 Live Crew’s highest-charting single, 1990’s “Banned In The USA,” peaked at #20.) Through that connection, Flo Rida joined the 2 Live Crew fold, and he started doing hypeman work for the late Crew member Fresh Kid Ice’s solo gigs. Eventually, Flo Rida guested on Fresh Kid Ice’s 2004 track “Make Ya Baby Daddy Madd.”
At the suggestion of the other GroundHoggz, Flo Rida made a solo demo tape, which caught the attention of former Jodeci member DeVante Swing. DeVante invited Flo Rida to Los Angeles, so he took a Greyhound bus all the way across the country. Flo Rida lived there for a few years, working with DeVante and trying to land a record deal. It went nowhere. Flo Rida worked day jobs and had a couple of short stints in college. He moved in with one of his sisters in Las Vegas. Nothing was working. Eventually, Elric “E-Class” Prince called Flo Rida and told him to come back to Miami. E-Class was the founder of Poe Boy Records, the Miami label that had given rappers like Rick Ross and Jackie-O their starts. Flo Rida returned, and his fortunes changed when he started working with Poe Boy.
Flo Rida got his first big look in the summer of 2007, when he showed up alongside local stars like Trick Daddy, Trina, and Rick Ross on DJ Khaled’s Miami-pride posse cut “Bitch I’m From Dade County.” (Khaled will eventually appear in this column.) Through Poe Boy, Flo Rida landed a deal with Atlantic Records. Later that year, he released “Birthday,” another track with Rick Ross, whose career was really exploding at the time. (As lead artist, Rick Ross’ highest-charting single is the 2008 T-Pain collab “The Boss,” which peaked at #17. In 2021, Ross made it to #3 as a guest on Drake’s “Lemon Pepper Freestyle.” That one is a 6.) “Birthday” wasn’t a hit, but its swirling Euro-club synths pretty much defined what would become Flo Rida’s style.
“Low” didn’t originate with Flo Rida. Instead, the track started out as a beat from DJ Montay, an Atlanta producer and club DJ. Montay saw what made girls dance, and he set out to make beats that could accomplish that. In 2006, Montay co-wrote Unk’s chirpy dance-craze hit “Walk It Out,” which peaked at #10. (It’s a 7.) With its synth-whistles and its splattering keyboard sounds, Montay’s “Low” beat recalled the peak of Atlanta crunk. But the beat was brighter and cleaner than the sort of thing that someone like Lil Jon might’ve made, and it was faster than most rap music of the time. Its aesthetic owed a lot to big-room Euro-house music.
DJ Montay sent that beat to Mike Caren, an A&R executive at Atlantic Records. In a 2021 interview, Montay said that Paul Wall and Juvenile, two rappers who have appeared in this column, recorded a song over that beat, but Paul decided that he didn’t want to release the track. Caren told Montay that he’d give the beat to Flo Rida instead. Montay’s reaction: “Who the fuck is Flo Rida?” (That’s almost exactly the title of the first piece that I ever wrote about Flo Rida.)
Before Mike Caren took “Low” to Flo Rida, though, he took it to T-Pain. This was a good idea. In the second half of 2007, T-Pain was the absolute king of the pop charts. Years later, T-Pain told USA Today that he wrote the “Low” hook in a one-night writing session with Caren: “He gave me a bunch of beats, and I just ran down the list and did a bunch of hooks. A lot of them turned into singles for Atlantic artists.”
For “Low,” T-Pain came up with an exuberant mantra about a girl with Apple Bottom jeans and boots with the fur: “It was a rich white girl’s uniform. It was so weird. Now, it’s like Uggs and yoga pants and Starbucks cups. It was just what I was seeing girls wear in the club, and it kind of wrote itself.” (Nelly, an artist who’s been in this column a bunch of times, founded the Apple Bottom brand in 2003. I’m sure he sold a lot more jeans on the strength of “Low,” though everyone who bought those jeans probably regretted it because they probably had to deal with people singing “Low” to them whenever they wore those jeans out of the house.)
T-Pain’s “Low” hook is an absolutely merciless earworm. It’s the platonic ideal of the ringtone chorus — the nagging and insistent melody that will cut right through the air and get stuck in your head for days at a time. That hook, combined with the laser-light Euro-bounce beat, was an absolute monster. T-Pain sounds so excited about what this girl is wearing, and his enthusiasm is infectious. To this day, plenty of people still think the song is called “Apple Bottom Jeans.” The hook has endured. My kids, both born after “Low” had its pop-chart moment, sing the “Low” hook all the time, and that’s not something that I can say about too many 2008 chart hits. (T-Pain is credited as the co-producer of “Low,” though I don’t know how much he changed the original DJ Mantay beat.)
When he was given “Low,” with its hammering cotton-candy beat and its unstoppable T-Pain chorus, Flo Rida knew exactly what to do: He stayed out of the way. “Low” is a horny song on paper, but Flo Rida never sounds that horny. He uses his verses to talk about a stripper, even though you don’t see too many Apple Bottom jeans or boots with the fur on strip-club stages. The chorus is about clothes, but Flo Rida is more into nudity: “I’ma say that I prefer them no clothes/ I’m into that, I love women exposed.” Flo Rida talks about blowing through $3,000 in the club, and he claims that he invented the rubber band. Mostly, though, he sounds chilly and businesslike, there to fill up the spaces between choruses without killing the vibe.
Flo Rida is a gifted rap technician. On “Low,” he raps with breezy speed, working little melodies into his verses and almost never saying anything memorable. His “Low” verses are full of tricky little internal rhymes, but they’re also dumber than a box of rocks: “So lucky, oh me, I was just like a clover/ Shawty was hot like a toaster/ Sorry, but I had to fold her like a pornography poster.” The key to “Low” is that it sounds more like a T-Pain song than a Flo Rida one. T-Pain is the one bringing all the personality to the table, while Flo Rida is just there to get us from chorus A to chorus B. But that’s an important job, and Flo Rida does it well.
Around the time that “Low” celebrated its 10th anniversary, Flo Rida told Billboard that T-Pain gave him some of the melodies for the verses, which might be why the transitions between hooks and verses are so clean. Flo Rida also says that he wrote all his parts for the song in an hour and that the beat reminded him of Miami bass, which was right in his comfort zone. The track reminds me more of the Euro-style hip-house of the early ’90s, and Flo Rida sounds like an evolution of guys like Chill Rob G, the muscular and blustery and anonymous rapper whose voice was all over Snap!’s biggest hits. So please, stay off Flo Rida’s back. Or he will attack. And you don’t want that. (“The Power” peaked at #2. It’s a 9.)
Even with that T-Pain hook, it might’ve been hard to sell a rapper as color-by-numbers as Flo Rida to America. But Atlantic Records had the perfect delivery mechanism for “Low”: The soundtrack for the Jon M. Chu motion picture Step Up 2: The Streets. The first Step Up was a fluffy teenage dance movie, but it at least gestured at social-drama realism. Channing Tatum is a hard-knock street kid who gets caught vandalizing a fictionalized version of the Baltimore School For The Arts and who has to do community service there. In fulfilling his duties, Tatum meets Jenna Dewan, a sheltered ballet dancer. Tatum and Dewan start to dance together, and then a romance blooms through the magic of krumping. The role made Tatum a star, and he later married and divorced Dewan.
The Step Up sequels went a different direction. Every successive Step Up movie only really exists as a threadbare excuse to string together psychedelic, logic-defying dance sequences. Those movies mostly star dancers who can’t act, and the storylines could not possibly matter less. The movies aren’t even about the same characters, though there’s usually some connective tissue from one to the next. (In Step Up 2, Channing Tatum has an extended cameo, winning a dance battle in a nightclub that has trampolines hidden in its floors.) I love these movies. They are pure cinema, perfect stoner fare. Step Up 2 gestures at gritty realism in its cinematography, but it takes place in a beautiful alien version of Baltimore that looks nothing like my own. It also introduces Adam Sevani’s lovable goofball Moose, one of the most endearing characters in all of 21st-century film.
Like Rocky or Hoosiers, Step Up 2: The Streets is one of those vaguely troubling white-underdog stories. In this case, it’s the story of a group of art-school kids who take on Baltimore’s most feared street-dance team in a battle known as the Streets. Our heroes win the respect of their rivals and their uptight dance teacher with their big finale, which happens outside, during a dramatic downpour. Most of the Step Up 2 soundtrack is Timbaland and Missy Elliott deep cuts, or it’s generic club-rap that strives for Timbaland deep-cut status. “Low” is only barely in the movie, soundtracking a quick pre-battle montage and then returning for the end credits. But that was apparently enough to launch the song.
Actually, “Low” was already the #1 song in America by the time Step Up 2 reached theaters in February 2008. The movie is heavily teased in the “Low” video, which is otherwise just scenes of Flo Rida and T-Pain in a nightclub somewhere. Some of the cast members get cameos, and some bits from the rain-dance finale get cut into the clip. (Step Up 2 star Briana Evigan looks like a sexpot in those out-of-context scenes, but she’s way more of a plucky underdog in the movie.) “Low” probably helped the tiny-budgeted Step Up 2 earn $58 million at the domestic box office — slightly less than Burn After Reading, slightly more than Saw V. “Low” is probably part of the reason we’ve been granted so many Step Up sequels.
Here’s something fucked up: “Low” didn’t win the Oscar for Best Original Song. It wasn’t even nominated. That year, A.R. Rahman won the Academy Award for “Jai Ho,” from Slumdog Millionaire. That’s a pretty good song with a memorable dance sequence of its own, so it could be worse. Still, “Jai Ho” doesn’t have any Apple Bottom jeans or boots with the fur. Everyone fussed about The Dark Knight getting snubbed for Best Picture, but people should’ve been just as mad about an Oscar-night ceremony with absolutely no T-Pain.
Flo Rida released his debut album Mail On Sunday in March of 2008, a few weeks after “Low” finally fell out of the #1 spot. It was like the people at Atlantic knew that Flo Rida had no shot at becoming an albums artist, like they wanted to see just how long they could rely on iTunes downloads of “Low.” The single really did sell; by the time Mail On Sunday came out, “Low” was already triple platinum. Today, thanks in part to streams, “Low” is now diamond. Mail On Sunday never even went gold.
Mail On Sunday isn’t a particularly good album. It never attempts to present a more fleshed-out version of Flo Rida, and the nods to rap orthodoxy, like the track with Lil Wayne, mostly sound hopelessly out-of-place. Most of the album is just Flo Rida trying for another “Low.” On follow-up single “Elevator,” Flo Rida teamed up with former Number Ones artist Timbaland, who was already running out of ideas and who attempted to jack Rihanna’s “Umbrella” in the way that he sang the song’s title. (“Elevator” peaked at #16.)
Flo Rida did a little better with his album’s third single. On “In The Ayer,” Flo Rida teamed up with Black Eyed Peas leader will.i.am, who supplied the ’80s-electro beat and the stupidly memorable hook. The track landed right in Flo Rida’s club-rap wheelhouse, and it got as far as #9. (It’s a 6.) I’m guessing that will.i.am closely followed the success of “Low,” since that kind of rave-rap soon gave the Black Eyed Peas their biggest hits. (The Black Eyed Peas will eventually appear in this column, and will.i.am will also show up in this space in a guest-rapper role. As lead artist, will.i.am’s highest-charting single is the 2012 Britney Spears collab “Scream & Shout,” which peaked at #3. It’s a 4.)
“Low” turned out to be the last #1 hit with a T-Pain hook, which is kind of sad. T-Pain got close in 2009, when he guested on Jamie Foxx’s #2 hit “Blame It.” (That one is an 8.) It’s possible that T-Pain’s most memorable non-“Low” hook is the one that he sang on DJ Khaled’s 2010 single “All I Do Is Win,” but that one only made it to #24. Barring a very-possible comeback, we won’t see T-Pain in this column again. Flo Rida is another story. With “Low,” Flo Rida figured out a shockingly durable crossover pop-rap style, and he rode that style for longer than anyone could’ve thought possible. We’ll see him again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from Ben Stiller’s 2008 film Tropic Thunder where a fat-suited Tom Cruise, doing a barely-disguised Harvey Weinstein impression, tries to convince Matthew McConaughey to betray Stiller while dancing to “Low”:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kid Cudi singing about Apple Bottom jeans and boots with the fur over Band Of Horses’ “The Funeral” on his 2008 mixtape track “The Prayer”:
(Kid Cudi will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In a scene from the 2010 Karate Kid remake, Jaden Smith attempts to impress a girl by dancing to “Low” on a Dance Dance Revolution-type video game. Based on this scene, I have to assume that Karate Kid remake director Harald Zwart has never seen a Dance Dance Revolution-type video game. Here’s the scene in question:
(Jaden Smith doesn’t have any Hot 100 hits of his own, but he reached #8 as a guest on Justin Bieber’s 2010 single “Never Say Never.” It’s is a 4. The other song from that Karate Kid scene will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 2011 motion picture Zookeeper where Kevin James and the Nick Nolte-voiced gorilla ride around enjoying “Low”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Gucci Mane and Chief Keef rapping over a “Low” sample on their 2014 mixtape track “Semi On Em”:
(As lead artist, Gucci Mane’s highest-charting singles, the 2017 Migos collab “I Get The Bag” and the 2018 Bruno Mars/Kodak Black collab “Wake Up In The Sky,” both peaked at #11. As a guest, Gucci will eventually appear in this column. Chief Keef’s highest-charting lead-artist single is 2012’s “Love Sosa,” which peaked at #56, though Keef also got to #19 as a guest on Lil Uzi Vert’s “Bean (Kobe)” in 2020.)
THE 10S: Rihanna’s Michael Jackson-sampling dance-pop juggernaut “Don’t Stop The Music” peaked at #3 behind “Low.” Its aura is incredible, and it’s a 10.
Webbie, Lil Boosie, and the late Lil Phat’s honking gutbucket feminist/not-feminist bounce-rap masterpiece “Independent” peaked at #9 behind “Low.” I be like yeaaaahhhh when this song come on. It’s another 10. Do you know what that mean, man?
The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. Whoa, shawty. Yeah, it’s worth the money. Buy it here.