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. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.
“Down,” the only real American hit from the British singer Jay Sean, is effectively a song with no genre. “Down” came out on Cash Money Records, and Lil Wayne is on it, but it’s got nothing to do with the New Orleans bounce that built the Cash Money brand or even with the bugged-out arena-rap that Wayne was making at his commercial peak. “Down” isn’t really R&B or dance-pop, either. It sounds a bit like a late-’90s boy-band record, with its streamlined hooks and its pleading tone, but it’s got levels of Auto-Tune that would’ve sounded positively experimental in the late ’90s. It’s got bright, giddy synth-strings and hammering 808s, but it’s not quite club music. It’s also got lyrics that couldn’t possibly mean less.
“Down” is an anodyne piece of work, a song that resists context. Listening to “Down,” you get absolutely no hint of personality from Jay Sean — no backstory, no distinct viewpoint, no sense of where he might exist in the musical continuum. If Jay Sean sounds like anyone, it’s probably Akon, a singer who managed to make his own blankness into a commercial selling point in the years just before Jay Sean recorded “Down.” The frictionless, anonymous qualities of “Down” seem intentional, maybe even studied. It’s like someone expressly set out to make the most pleasantly bland and forgettable piece of uptempo, life-affirming late-’00s pop music that anyone could imagine. In the context of “Down,” even Lil Wayne, a certifiable freak, almost becomes faceless.
The sleek emptiness of “Down” isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. Plenty of great songs started off as anonymous work-for-hire pieces. Jay Sean and his collaborators definitely understood what the market wanted, and they supplied it. As a result, “Down” became the song that finally ended the Black Eyed Peas’ six-month reign of terror atop the Hot 100. Plenty of artists much more famous and distinctive than Jay Sean — Jamie Foxx, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Jay-Z, Jay Sean’s ascendant labelmate Drake — had seen their hits stall out at #2, failing to dislodge those unstoppable BEP smashes. Through some fluke of timing and canniness, Jay Sean was able to do something that none of them could manage. But “Down” was always fated to be Jay Sean’s one big moment on the US charts. You couldn’t hang a career on a song like “Down.”
Today, Jay Sean’s name rings no bells, at least in the US. If you remember the man at all, you remember him for “Down,” a remarkably unremarkable piece of music. That’s a shame, since Jay Sean’s origins are a lot more interesting, and since he started out making a kind of fusion pop music that was truly exciting in its time. In his moment of greatest visibility, though, Jay crafted a wildly average track. That song gave him a global hit, but it also made it virtually impossible for him to transcend that hit. Maybe he regrets that, or maybe he’s just happy that he managed to make a real impact for a brief minute. I wonder.
Kamaljit Singh Jhooti was raised in a traditional Punjabi Sikh family in Southall, a part of West London with a huge South Asian population. (When Jhooti was born, REO Speedwagon’s “Keep On Loving You” was the #1 song in America. In the UK, it was Roxy Music’s version of “Jealous Guy.”) When Jhooti and his cousin were kids, they started an amateur rap group. Jhooti’s rap name was Nicki J, and his friends came to know him as “Jay.” The “Sean” part of his name comes from “Shaan,” his grandmother’s Punjabi nickname for him. Before he became Jay Sean, though, Jhooti went to a fancy high school and then briefly studied medicine at university before dropping out to focus on music.
Jay Sean came up in London’s Asian underground scene — a whole South Asian music community that combined Indian bhangra with different forms of Western pop music. Jay Sean loved American R&B, and his track “One Minute” earned the attention of Rishi Rich, a London producer who was starting up a group called the Rishi Rich Project. In 2003, the Rishi Rich Project released “Dance With You (Nachna Tere Naal),” a song that featured Jay singing and rapping in English while fellow Southall native Juggy D sang and rapped in Punjabi. “Dance With You” has a great restless energy, and became a crossover hit in the UK, reaching #12 on the singles chart. Its success earned Jay Sean a deal with Virgin.
Jay Sean recorded most of his 2004 debut album Me Against Myself with Rishi Rich. It’s a sharp, ingratiating pop record, but it’s rooted in a sound and a point of view. Rishi Rich co-produced lead single “Eyes On You” with Stargate, who were still a few years away from their breakthrough on the American charts. In the UK, “Eyes On You” was a #6 hit.
Rishi Rich and Stargate also produced Jay Sean’s follow-up single “Stolen,” which was even bigger. That song made it to #4 in the UK, and the video featured the Bollywood star Bipasha Basu. The Me Against Myself album was big in the UK, but it was even bigger across Asia — especially in India, where it went quintuple platinum.
Jay Sean didn’t release another album until 2008. By that time, he’d split from Virgin and started his own label. He’d written and recorded a song called “Deal With It,” which he intended to release on his own but instead became a 2007 single for the High School Musical star Corbin Bleu. (“Deal With It” didn’t chart. Corbin Bleu’s highest-charting non-High School Musical single, 2007’s “Push It To The Limit,” peaked at #14.)
Jay Sean released versions of his 2008 sophomore LP My Own Way in both English and Hindi, and he reached #11 on the UK chart with his single “Ride It.” That album found weird pockets of support around the world — Russia, Turkey, Japan. Jay still had no profile in the US, but Birdman and Slim Williams, the two founders of Cash Money, took notice of the fact that Jay was doing huge numbers, especially on YouTube, without an American deal. In 2008, the year that Lil Wayne was at his absolute peak, Jay Sean announced that he’d signed with Cash Money.
Cash Money was on a signing spree at the time, and the label was moving beyond its Southern rap base into something resembling pop music. One signing was Kevin Rudolf, a session guitarist from New York who’d played on a bunch of Timbaland records. In 2008, Rudolf made it to #5 with an extremely goofy Lil Wayne collab called “Let It Rock.” (It’s a 5.)
At the same time, Lil Wayne was putting together his dense and colorful Young Money crew, and they were having a ton of success out of the gate. A few months before “Down” reached #1, Wayne and some of his proteges — Drake, Jae Millz, Gudda Gudda, Mack Maine — made it to #10 with “Every Girl,” a posse cut about wanting to “fuck every girl in the world,” a real galaxy-brain concept for a song. (It’s a 5.) Some of the individual Young Money members were already showing real star potential, and a couple of them will eventually appear in this column.
Lil Wayne’s career was in a weird place in 2009. He was coming off of the wild success of Tha Carter III, and he was pretty much able to do whatever he wanted. He wanted to do a lot. That’s when he released the utterly godawful rock album Rebirth, and it’s also when he released the pretty-good No Ceilings mixtape. Wayne was also dropping guest verses on singles from Busta Rhymes, Jadakiss, Rick Ross, and anyone else willing to ask. He was on a lot of tracks from Drake’s breakout mixtape So Far Gone, and he was also on the Drake/Kanye West/Eminem posse cut “Forever,” which peaked at #8. (It’s a 6.) That whole time, Wayne was awaiting sentencing on a New York gun charge; he’d spend most of 2010 incarcerated on Rikers Island.
Jay Sean’s 2009 album All Or Nothing didn’t really sound like the flashy, ostentatious rap that was coming out on Cash Money, and it didn’t carry too many traces of his Asian underground roots, either. Instead, Jay Sean recorded most of the album with Jeremy “JRemy” Skaller and Robert “Bobby Bass” Larow, two producers who met at the University Of Vermont and who started a production company called Orange Factory Music in 1999. Before they started working with Jay Sean, JRemy and Bobby Bass were mostly remixers; for whatever reason, they did a lot of Yoko Ono remixes.
Digging through the Orange Factory Discogs page, there’s one credit that makes perfect sense. In 2008, JRemy and Bobby Bass did a club remix of “Forever,” the Chris Brown hit that started off as a Doublemint Gum jingle. (“Forever” peaked at #2. It’s a 6.) That’s a song that doesn’t really belong to any particular genre. It’s R&B and dance and down-the-line pop music all at once. Maybe “Down” was what happened when those guys tried to make their own version of “Forever.”
Jay Sean had another collaborator on “Down”: Jared Cotter, a singer from Long Island who’d been a contestant on the 2007 season of American Idol. (That’s the one that Jordin Sparks won. Cotter didn’t get very far in the competition.) After Idol, Cotter got hired as a host on The Sauce, a show on the cable network Fuse. That’s where Jay Sean met him. Cotter helped write a few songs on the All Or Nothing album, and he also sang backup.
“Down” isn’t really a song about anything. It’s Jay Sean asking a girl if she’s going to be with him through whatever terrible things might happen in the future. Even if the sky is falling down, baby, is she down down down down down? The lyrics are pure club-pop boilerplate: Tonight’s the night to let it go, to get away and make an escape, to turn this place into their private getaway, etc. When the song was still rising up the charts, Jay Sean told Billboard, “The news was on, everything was depressing, and we were like, ‘Look at this, man — everything’s so down in the dumps. Why don’t we write a song to take everyone’s mind away from being down?'” That means “Down” is a pretty definitive recession song — an escapist trifle, served up to a world that seemed to really, really want escapist trifles.
Jay Sean didn’t know that Lil Wayne would be on “Down” until Slim Williams played him the final version of the song. As it is, Wayne is really just barely on “Down.” He shows up on the bridge, croaking a few PG-13 bars about falling in love: “She cold, over-freeze/ I got that girl from overseas/ Now she my Miss America/ Now can I be her soldier, please?” Wayne really phones that verse in, but I still perk up a little bit when he arrives. Unlike Jay Sean, Wayne sounds like he’s having fun. I like how he says the words “battlefield of love,” and I like that he ends that verse saying that honestly, he’s down like the economy.
The “Down” video is mostly a forgettable dance party in a mansion, but when Wayne says that line about being down like the economy, he opens up his jacket to reveal a red T-shirt with the word “Communist” on it. What was that? “Down” came out around the same time as “Steady Mobbin’,” a great Young Money track with an all-time classic Gucci Mane verse. (“East Atlanta, cockin’ hammers, bandanas on car antennas/ No, we do not to talk to strangers/ Just cut off these n***as’ fingers.” “Toni Braxton sniper rifle, make you never breathe again.” Gucci was going bananas on that thing.) On that song, Wayne announces that he’s “the hip-hop socialist.” I would love to know more about what Comrade Wayne was thinking right then. Sadly, we never got Wayne talking about seizing the means of production from the capitalist parasites. (“Steady Mobbin'” peaked at #48. Guest-rapper Lil Wayne will appear in this column again.)
You might’ve noticed that this column is pretty heavy on tangents. I noticed it, too. The problem is that there just isn’t much to say about “Down” itself. The song isn’t bad. It’s a perfectly agreeable piece of pop music. It’s got a hook that might actually get stuck in someone’s head. It sounds very much like its moment — the aggressive Auto-Tune, the clipped 808s, the vague R&B touches that don’t carry any of the intense longing that most of us tend to associate with R&B. The track just doesn’t bear any scrutiny. It sounds just like any other song that might’ve come out around the same time. There’s nothing special about it. I just can’t summon the energy to react to it. It’s simply there.
“Down” is an easy song to ignore, and Jay Sean had more songs like that on deck. He followed “Down” with “Do You Remember,” a song with Lil Jon and Sean Paul, two figures who have been in this column before. That one is just as pleasantly forgettable as “Down,” and it peaked at #10. (It’s a 5.) Over the next year or two, Jay Sean recorded more singles with more Cash Money artists. He appeared on Kevin Rudolf’s posse cut “I Made It (Cash Money Heroes),” which peaked at #17. He teamed up with Nicki Minaj, someone who will eventually appear in this column, on “2012 (It Ain’t The End),” a compilation track that peaked at #31. He reunited with Wayne on the 2011 one-off “Hit The Lights,” which topped out at #18.
Jay Sean hasn’t been on the Hot 100 since 2012, when he teamed up with Pitbull, a man who will eventually appear in this column, for “I’m All Yours,” the lead single from his album Neon. “I’m All Yours” only made it to #85, and Neon flopped hard. Jay split from Cash Money, went back to the UK, and rejoined the Rishi Rich Project. In recent years, he’s done a lot of work with dance producers and with British artists like the movie star and part-time rapper Riz Ahmed. It’s cool that someone from Jay Sean’s background was able to make an international splash, but it’s too bad that his biggest song has all the dimension of a styrofoam packing peanut.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Nota, the Puerto Rican a cappella group who won the first season of the competition show The Sing-Off, performing a version of “Down” on the show in 2009:
And here’s Jay Sean showing up on the season finale of The Sing-Off to do “Down” with Nota:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: You know who really liked Jay Sean? Taylor Swift. At the 2010 Grammys, Taylor won the first of her three Album Of The Year trophies. On the red carpet before the show, she told Mario Lopez that Jay Sean was one of her favorites, and she sang a little bit of “Down.” Here’s that:
(Taylor Swift will appear in this column many times.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Two different quasi-punk bands released vaguely ironic “Down” covers in 2010. Here’s the difficult-to-explain Denver duo Breathe Carolina’s fascinatingly shitty version of the song, from those Punk Goes Pop compilations:
That same year, the Dutch band Destine also came out with a slightly-less-shitty take on “Down.” Here’s their video:
(Breathe Carolina’s only Hot 100 hit, 2011’s “Blackout,” peaked at #32.)
The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. Even if the sky is falling down, baby, I hope you buy it here.