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.
In 2005, computer screens around the world lit up with the image of a goofy-looking kid doing an even goofier chair-dance to a song that most Americans had never heard. Gary Brolsma, a 19-year-old from New Jersey, flailed his arms and lip-synced along with an extremely cheesy Romanian-language dance-pop tune, and he turned himself into an instant internet legend. Brolsma’s performance was magnificent. He waggled his eyebrows with perfect comic timing. He ramped up from deadpan flatness to bugged-out euphoria with ease. He made the most ridiculous faces. He was a star.
Gary Brolsma was not ready to be a star. Brolsma’s video, which quickly became known as “Numa Numa,” went up on a pre-YouTube site called Newgrounds, and it put Brolsma right into the early-viral-video hall of fame alongside Tay Zonday and lonelygirl15 and the Star Wars kid. Millions of people watched Gary Brolsma dance, and The New York Times reported that a humiliated Brolsma had gone into hiding at his parents’ house. Brolsma’s video would have long-term effects, and one of those effects would smash its way to the top of the Hot 100 a few years later.
The weirdly addictive song that made Gary Brolsma dance like that had its own ridiculous video. The song was not called “Numa Numa,” though that’s the name that most Americans knew it by. Instead, the track in question was “Dragostea Din Tei,” a 2003 single from a Moldovan dance-pop group called O-Zone. The “Dragostea Din Tei” video featured the hairgelled-up Euro-dudes of O-Zone dancing on a plane’s wing while its engines turned into giant CGI speakers. O-Zone broke up in 2005, but that video had its own viral moment in the wake of Gary Brolsma’s dancing.
“Dragostea Din Tei” had already done better than anyone in O-Zone could’ve possibly hoped. Upon its release, “Dragostea Din Tei” was a massive hit all across Europe, and it even made it to #3 in the UK. This particular brand of oontz-oontz sugar-rush house-pop was simply nowhere near the American mainstream in 2003, but when it was presented to us in the form of a 19-year-old chair-dancing on a low-res webcam, we couldn’t resist. Back then, nobody knew how to monetize that kind of viral fame, but people would soon figure it out. In 2008, when YouTube was still finding its legs as a cultural force, T.I. and Rihanna turned a “Dragostea Din Tei” sample into a global smash. “Live Your Life” is not a silly song, but its origins lie in that drab and featureless room where Gary Brolsma once ecstatically pumped his arms at the ceiling.
Just Blaze thought he was joking when he made the “Live Your Life” beat. Justin “Just Blaze” Smith — a New Jersey native like Gary Brolsma — had seen the “Numa Numa” video. In this, Just Blaze was not unique. Everyone saw that thing. On a podcast with Talib Kweli last year, Just said, “I was looking at it, like ‘Yo, we should make something out of this’ — just to be silly, throw it up on MySpace. As I started doing it — I did the core of it, the homie Canei [Finch] came through and added some strings and played my horns over — things started coming to me, lyric-wise and concept-wise.”
Just Blaze came up with the “Live Your Life” hook because he was mad at his ex-girlfriend, and the song stopped being a joke once he’d written that hook. Instead, the track developed into its own thing. On that podcast, Just says, “At a certain point, I started to strategize. This fat kid singing video has gone super-viral; everyone around the world has seen it. They’re automatically gonna hear that chant, and it’s gonna be familiar to them. That was definitely a Jedi mind trick of sorts.” A day after Just Blaze made the beat, T.I. called Just, telling him that he needed a record right away. Soon enough, Just Blaze’s joke-song became the biggest hit of his career.
I always forget that Just Blaze made the “Live Your Life” beat, and I’m always shocked when someone reminds me. Just Blaze is one of this century’s greatest sample-flipping producers, but most of the tracks that he sampled did not sound like “Dragostea Din Tei.” In the early ’00s, Just Blaze and Kanye West were the two producers who revolutionized Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella sound, adding concussive drums to chopped-up and sped-up soul samples. I generally preferred Just Blaze’s beats, which felt like a whole new mutation of classic East Coast boom-bap.
For a few years, whenever Just Blaze would shout his own name on a track’s intro, I would get an immediate serotonin rush. Those two words meant that explosions were about to go off. Just produced banger after banger: Cam’ron’s “Oh Boy,” Dipset’s “I Really Mean It,” Freeway’s “What We Do,” Joe Budden’s “Pump It Up,” Fabolous’ “Breathe,” Jay-Z’s “Public Service Announcement (Interlude),” Usher’s “Throwback,” Kanye West’s “Touch The Sky.” In 2006, I profiled Just Blaze for the Village Voice, which meant that I got to follow him around while he bought insanely expensive rare records and hung out with the Alchemist at Baseline Studio. I bought him a slice of pizza, too. That was a good day.
T.I. worked with Just Blaze before “Live Your Life.” In 2003, T.I. and Trick Daddy guested on “Round Here,” a single from Jay-Z’s permanent understudy Memphis Bleek. Two years later, Just produced “King Back,” the opening track from T.I.’s album King. The “King Back” beat, with its thundering drums and its chaotic bursts of regal trumpet, is the kind of thing that you expect from Just Blaze. The “Live Your Life” beat is not. But “Live Your Life,” it turned out, was exactly what T.I. needed.
“Live Your Life” found its home on Paper Trail, the album that T.I. recorded while waiting to serve out his year-long prison sentence for gun possession. Just Blaze might’ve written the hook as a spiteful message to an ex, but T.I. turned it into a motivational anthem. T.I. kept the spite, though. Whereas T.I. adapted a melodic singsong flow on “Whatever You Like,” his previous chart-topper, he’s in rapper mode on the “Live Your Life” verses. On “Live Your Life,” T.I. raps from the perspective of a disappointed elder who doesn’t think his younger peers pay him the respect that he’s due.
On the “Live Your Life” intro, T.I. shouts out “all my soldiers over there in Iraq,” a rare pop-song acknowledgment of things that were actually happening in the world. But T.I. doesn’t really talk to those soldiers on the song. Instead, he addresses his haters: “Consider them my protege, homage I think they should pay/ Instead of bein’ gracious, they violate in a major way.” T.I. explains that he has reasons for no longer living in a dangerous neighborhood: “Some move away to make a way, not move away cause they afraid/ I brought back to the hood, and all you ever did was take away.” And he shows some real contempt for his peers: “Your values is a disarray, prioritizin’ horribly/ Unhappy with the riches ’cause you’re piss-poor morally.”
T.I.’s twisty, loquacious flow is on full display on “Live Your Life.” Later on, there would be memes about T.I.’s Tyson-style usage of SAT words, and you can hear some of that on “Live Your Life”: “Allergic to the counterfeit, impartial to the politics/ Articulate, but still I’ll grab a n***a by the collar quick.” The flow is impeccable, but T.I. still sounds like he’s merely killing time in between choruses. That’s the kind of thing that happens when you’ve got a Rihanna hook.
In that podcast with Talib Kweli, Just Blaze talks about when “Live Your Life” got its Rihanna chorus: “Rihanna’s agreed to do it. She’s in Italy. She’s, I think, shooting a commercial for Gucci, Louis Vuitton, something. But they were like, ‘She has time tonight to go into the studio, lay it down.'” At that point, Rihanna had never sung a hook on a rapper’s single. This was a moment when Rihanna’s voice could automatically push a record to hit status. T.I. was on his own hot streak, and the combination of Rihanna, T.I., and the “Numa Numa” sample meant that “Live Your Life” was basically an automatic smash.
It’s a weird record, though. The pieces don’t quite come together. The reason the “Numa Numa” dance went viral was its all-out silliness, and that’s nowhere to be found on “Live Your Life.” T.I. wasn’t really capable of silliness, so we get the disconnect of Rihanna singing about being a shining star over the sample of O-Zone’s dizzy yodeling. Just Blaze and co-producer Canei Finch layer on all these big cinematic effects — triumphant stings, rumbling horns, booming drums. It sounds huge and impressive, but it’s all built around this fundamentally goofy melody that’s had its goofiness methodically stripped away.
T.I. sounds like a guest on his own record, dwarfed by the production’s trumpet trills and hey-ho chants. Rihanna comes off titanic on the hook, and I really like the way she pronounces the phrase “paper chaser.” But the O-Zone melody doesn’t fit her. The “Dragostea Din Tei” hook, once so powerfully silly, becomes merely annoying. The highlight of “Live Your Life” is the bridge, where Rihanna turns it into a Rihanna track: “Got my mind on my money, and I’m not going awaaaaay.” For that one moment, the awkwardness of “Life Your Life” fades, and the song reaches the motivational-anthem status that it clearly wanted so badly.
Rihanna really did have her mind on her money, and she really wasn’t going away. Rihanna will appear in this column many more times — both on her own and as a hook-singer on people’s singles. I’m guessing that the “Live Your Life” bridge came from Makeba Riddick, Rihanna’s regular vocal producer. Riddick, who’s already been in this column for co-writing Jennifer Lopez and LL Cool J’s “All I Have,” shares “Live Your Life” writing credits with T.I., Just Blaze, and O-Zone member Dan Bălan, the original writer of “Dragostea Din Tei.”
“Live Your Life” was an early example of a new phenomenon. In the years ahead, YouTube would become the primary driving force behind the pop charts. Viral videos had already pushed Soulja Boy’s “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” to #1, and they would lift many, many more songs to the top. But “Live Your Life” might’ve been the original meme hit. With “Live Your Life,” already-established stars capitalized on a viral video, and they turned it into something else. They used people’s familiarity with “Dragostea Din Tei,” but they didn’t capture the spirit of that “Numa Numa” dance. Later on, meme hits would become a little more efficient.
You couldn’t expect anything to run too efficiently in 2008. I will always associate “Live Your Life” with one very strange memory. A few weeks before “Live Your Life” reached #1, Diesel threw itself a very expensive 30th-anniversary party. The company built a giant circus tent on a Brooklyn pier, and they filled it with ice sculptures and circus performers — strongmen and acrobats, just doing their things in corners, largely ignored while everyone mobbed the open bar and the entire Gossip Girl cast posed for red-carpet pictures.
This was an invite-only event, and for some reason, I got one of those invitations, despite never having owned an item of Diesel clothing in my life. Diesel must’ve blown a whole Scrooge McDuck money bin on the evening’s entertainment. A very pregnant M.I.A. performed that night. So did N.E.R.D. We got Chaka Khan singing her hits, with Hot Chip as her backing band. And we also got the random-ass combination of T.I. and Franz Ferdinand, with Alex Kapranos singing the “Live Your Life” hook over Rihanna’s recorded voice. (Franz Ferdinand’s highest-charting Hot 100 single, 2004’s “Take Me Out,” peaked at #66.)
Just before the Diesel party, the subprime mortgage crisis had cratered the American economy. A bunch of my friends had already lost their jobs, and I guessed, correctly, that I was next. At the time, I worked for a startup music website that hadn’t yet launched, and that launch would be cancelled by the end of the month. I remember looking around at that Diesel party and thinking that nothing like that would ever happen again. Me, T.I., Franz Ferdinand, the Gossip Girl cast, the acrobats — we must’ve all looked like revelers at the last Roman orgy before the Visigoths crashed the gates.
In that moment, T.I. already knew what his immediate future would hold. T.I. released one more single from his Paper Trail album, and that song came very close to giving him another chart-topper. On the mournful “Dead And Gone,” T.I. and his “My Love” collaborator Justin Timberlake mourned departed loved ones and pondered life’s impermanence, and the song reached #2. (It’s a 6.) Paper Trail ultimately went double platinum, but by the time it gots its plaque, T.I. was serving the year-long prison sentence that had been hanging over him for the whole album rollout.
T.I. came home from prison in March of 2010, and he went right back to work. His comeback single “I’m Back” peaked at #44. T.I. had plans for an album called King Uncaged, but those plans had to change a few months later, when T.I. and wife Tameka “Tiny” Cottle were arrested for ecstasy possession after a Los Angeles traffic stop. T.I. got sentenced to another 11 months in prison for parole violation. King Uncaged was hastily retitled No Mercy, and it flopped. The LP’s biggest hit, the Eminem collab “That’s All She Wrote,” peaked at #18.
Just like that, T.I.’s imperial era was over. T.I. kept recording, but he eased into an elder-statesman role. The pop landscape had shifted, and nobody wanted to hear T.I. rapping over EDM beats. (Just Blaze never really made the club-music transition, either. His biggest post-“Live Your Life” hit came when he sampled Haddaway’s “What Is Love” on Eminem’s Lil Wayne collab “No Love” in 2010; that song peaked at #23.) Every once in a while, T.I. would catch a burst of inspiration and make a banger — a song like the Young Thug collab “About The Money,” which made it to #42 in 2018. But T.I. wasn’t really a pop star anymore. Instead, he took on a different role.
In the time after “Live Your Life,” T.I. found huge success as an executive. His Grand Hustle label signed a few big stars, and some of his proteges will eventually appear in this column. T.I. will also be back in this column in a guest-rapper role. T.I. played a supporting role in the first two Ant-Man movies, starred in a bunch of reality shows, and generally came off as a familiar, reliable presence. On “Ye Vs. The People,” a 2018 Kanye West track that peaked at #85, T.I. even did a plausible job in the role of “the people,” attempting to talk Kanye out of his Trump fixation.
T.I. can never play the voice of reason again. He’s always shown some real troubling weirdo tendencies. In 2015, T.I. said he couldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton for president because “women make rash decisions emotionally” and he “sure would hate to just set off a nuke.” In a 2019 podcast interview, he proudly claimed that he and his daughter “have yearly trips to the gynecologist to check her hymen.” And in 2021, dozens of women came forward to accuse T.I. and Tiny of drugging and sexually assaulting them.
T.I. has loudly, angrily proclaimed his innocence. After an investigation, prosecutors in Los Angeles decided not to charge T.I. and Tiny. But those extremely disturbing allegations cast T.I. in a terrible new light. T.I. still gets booked for festivals and tours, and other Atlanta rappers are still working with him, but he’s lost any claim to serving as an inspirational figure. His legacy is permanently tarnished, and if he goes away forever, I won’t miss him. I’ll just live my life.
BONUS BEATS: On “Mind On My Money,” a track from her 2009 breakout mixtape Beam Me Up Scotty, Nicki Minaj raps over a chopped-up “Live Your Life” sample alongside guests Busta Rhymes and Brinx. Here’s that song:
(Busta Rhymes’ two highest-charting singles, the 1999 Janet Jackson collab “What’s It Gonna Be?!” and the 2003 Mariah Carey/Flipmode Squad collab “I Know What You Want,” both peaked at #3. “What’s It Gonna Be?!” is a 6, and “I Know What You Want” is a 7. Nicki Minaj will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Big Sean rapping over a “Live Your Life” sample on his 2009 mixtape track “Paper Chaser”:
(Big Sean’s highest-charting single, 2016’s “Bounce Back,” peaked at #6. It’s a 6.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Taylor Swift welcoming T.I. to the stage and performing “Live Your Life” with him at a 2011 show in Atlanta:
(Taylor Swift will appear in this column many times.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s T.I. performing “Live Your Life” with Fall Out Boy and London Grammar on the pilot episode of VH1’s SoundClash in 2014:
(Fall Out Boy’s highest-charting single, 2007’s “This Ain’t A Scene, It’s An Arms Race,” peaked at #2. It’s a 4. London Grammer don’t have any Hot 100 hits, but they’ve got some good songs.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Live Your Life” soundtracking a climactic fight scene in the pretty-great 2021 animated film The Mitchells Vs. The Machines:
(That voice talking about weird neighbors saving the world? That’s John Legend. He’ll appear in this column eventually.)
The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. Buy it here and see the way I’m writing if you really want to.