The Number Ones

February 8, 2014

The Number Ones: Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” (Feat. Juicy J)

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. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.

My job was done. Summer 2008, I was about to leave the Village Voice, the mythic and now-defunct alt-weekly that hired me three years earlier. It was my first job writing about music, and I’d already given notice after being offered a job at a startup website that paid significantly better. The Voice was in a state of constant bedlam because the new owners were howlingly incompetent, and my union was on the verge of striking that week. (We got a better contract at the 11th hour, so the strike never happened.)

Many of my friends had already been let go, and there was a bunker mentality among those who remained. I felt weird leaving. The Voice music section was the gold standard for my entire lifetime. The paper’s troubles were at least familiar, and my new job was a total unknown. As it turned out, I was right to be nervous. The new website was shut down before launch, a casualty of the 2008 market crash, and all of us were laid off. The Voice died a much slower death. Anyway, that afternoon, I went to the pizza joint across the street, and I saw a face that was both familiar and surprising.

Anytime I see a celebrity in public, I manage to convince myself that it’s not actually the person in question. I almost physically crashed into Dave Matthews while turning into an aisle in Wegman’s a couple of years ago — had a full second of eye contact and everything — and I still walked away thinking, “Wow, that guy looked a lot like Dave Matthews.” (Everyone else in the store recognized him soon enough.) In this case, though, there was no mistaking it. That was Juicy J, one half of the team behind my favorite rap group of all time. Nobody else looks like Juicy, and I would’ve known him even not for the shirt that read, in huge letters, “I LOVE HAVING SEX” across the front and “BUT I’D RATHER GET SOME HEAD” across the back. (Three 6 Mafia’s 2008 single “I’d Rather” was a total flop that missed the Hot 100.)

At that moment, Juicy’s group Three 6 Mafia were on their last legs. A few years earlier, they’d made their biggest hit ever, and then they’d randomly won the Best Original Song Oscar in a glorious freak occurrence that raised their mainstream visibility to strange new heights. But Three 6 attempted to capitalize on those successes by making some terrible pop-adjacent moves and a nearly-unwatchable MTV reality show. Already, they were in steep decline. I still freaked out. I’d interviewed Juicy at least once, but it was a phoner, and there was no reason that he’d remember me. So I just asked for a selfie, my first, and took a flip-phone picture that managed to cut off both of our faces and render us unrecognizable. (You can see the picture deep in the body of this piece, but you won’t get anything out of it.) The interaction only lasted for a couple of minutes, but I took it as a sign of hope. I met Juicy J, so I was doing something right.

That day in 2008, “I Kissed A Girl,” the debut single from a new singer named Katy Perry, was the #1 song in America. Six years later, Juicy J popped up on Katy Perry’s last #1 hit. You never know with these things.

“Dark Horse” was massive — diamond sales, nearly four billion YouTube views. The song is obviously important in the whole story of Katy Perry, and it also help mark the shift away from the Dr. Luke-style turbo-pop that made Katy Perry famous in the first place. But if you suspect that I’m mostly going to use this column to talk about Juicy J and Three 6 Mafia, you’re absolutely goddamn right. Juicy J isn’t even on “Dark Horse” that much, but his presence signifies a shift in the cultural winds. Besides, I’ll take any excuse to talk about the Triple Six. Get comfortable. We’re going to be here for a while.

Three 6 Mafia were important. They’re still important. The music that they made, both as a shadowy underground collective in the ’90s and as persistently underestimated major-label B-listers in the ’00s, remains a touchpoint. Memphis’ violent, flickering underground rap sound helped pave the way for the success of the concurrent syllable-twisters in Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and for the crunk explosion of the ’00s. I still hear echoes of it everywhere — in the swirling crunch that remains popular in the more interesting corners of the underground and in the arena-goth boom that reverberates at the genre’s highest level. Influence aside, Three 6 Mafia just made good music. For years, I kept buying new CDs from Memphis rappers I’d never heard of just because I knew I’d get to hear some new Paul and Juicy Beats.

Jordan Michael Houston III comes from North Memphis, which is not an easy place to be from. (When Juicy J was born, Minnie Riperton’s “Lovin’ You” was the #1 song in America.) His older brother is Project Pat, a longtime Three 6 affiliate who never officially joined the group for whatever reason. Pat is one of the greatest rappers of all time, a panting ghoul who turns his own voice into a cartoonish echo. Pat finds new hooks and patterns in every beat. He hears currents that are inaudible to everyone else, and finds ways to sound ghostly and menacing and funny and absurd all at once. Lots of people try to rap like Pat, and everyone fails. (Pat’s only Hot 100 hit as lead artist is “Chicken Head,” which peaked at #87 in 2001. But Pat is also featured on Drake and 21 Savage’s “Knife Talk,” which reached #4 in 2021, two decades after that one crossover hit. It’s a 9.)

As a rapper, Juicy J has a lot of Project Pat’s impeccably weird timing. He’s got a cool baritone, a traditionally commanding rap voice, but he rarely plays the lead on tracks because there’s something fundamentally silly about his playfully behind-the-beat bounce. Juicy fell in love with rap as a kid, and he learned to DJ before he learned to rap. In the late ’80s, Juicy and his friend DJ Paul played house parties together, and then they started making beats. They assembled a crew of young and hungry local rappers, including Paul’s brother Lord Infamous, and they made tapes that flirted with dark themes and horror-movie sounds.

The early Three 6 tapes are heavy and murky — gothed-out cult shit that seems to exist off in its own world. Today, $uicideboy$ are touring arenas by doing a face-tatted emo-punk white-dirtbag tribute to those early tapes. The sound still resonates. As the group’s regional rep grew, Paul and Juicy started their own Hypnotize Minds label, and they released Three 6’s debut album Mystic Stylez in 1995. They got national distribution and went gold with 1997’s Chapter 2: World Domination, and then they got a major-label deal and went platinum with 2000’s When The Smoke Clears: Sixty 6, Sixty 1. That album had the classic UGK collab “Sippin’ On Some Syrup,” a blinking and twinkling ode to codeine cough syrup that caught a lot of national attention without ever reaching the Hot 100.

When The Smoke Clears was where I jumped on board. I bought a bootleg copy of that CD after reading something that Kelefa Sanneh wrote about them in the Village Voice, and I wore that motherfucker out. The group’s sound was so thick and heavy. Its structure was chaotic, full of heavy-accented voices who all had their own twists and personalities. Even beyond the six members of the ungainly group, there were all these undefined allies — Project Pat, La Chat, Indo G — who turned out to have their own albums full of DJ Paul and Juicy J beats. For years, I kept buying albums from any rapper with a Three 6 association: Lil Wyte, Frayser Boy, Chrome, the Choices II soundtrack that came with a DVD copy of the terrible movie that the Three 6 guys made. Those albums all kicked ass, and they were all produced entirely by DJ Paul and Juicy J. Every CD ended with a full-crew posse cut, and they were always amazing. Those guys worked hard.

Early in the ’00s, one rapper after another split away from Three 6 Mafia and got into specific, difficult-to-parse feuds with the remaining group members. Now, half of the original team is gone; Lord Infamous, Koopsta Knicca, and the great Gangsta Boo all died young because of some health problem or other. Eventually, after parting ways with magnetic wheezy-voiced hypeman Crunchy Black, DJ Paul and Juicy J were the only members of Three 6 Mafia left. Before that happened, though, they rode the tide of the Southern rap boom they’d helped inspire and scored an always-elusive crossover hit.

In 2005, Three 6 Mafia made it to #13 with “Stay Fly,” a Willie Hutch-sampling Tennessee pride posse cut with 8Ball, MJG, and Young Buck. That same year, they did some music for Hustle & Flow, an independent film about a Memphis pimp trying to become a rapper. A year later, Paul, Juicy, and Frayser Boy were onstage at the Oscars, accepting the Best Original Song award for “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp.”

After that, Three 6 Mafia landed a few more minor Hot 100 hits, but they didn’t seem to know what to do with the attention that came with “Stay Fly” and the Oscar win. Three 6 went dormant sometime around 2010, and Juicy J made a couple of mixtapes with Lex Luger, a young Virginia producer who was having a big moment with an over-the-top churn that owed its existence to Paul and Juicy’s sound. Those tapes had bangers, and they came out just as Three 6 were becoming a cool influence for flashy young rappers like Drake and A$AP Rocky to reference. Juicy J joined Wiz Khalifa’s Taylor Gang crew, signed a deal with Dr. Luke’s Kemosabe label, and landed a big solo hit of his own when “Bandz A Make Her Dance,” a horny and funny strip-club anthem with Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz, reached #29. Juicy J was back.

I don’t know what to make of the Dr. Luke connection. Luke was once loosely involved in the New York backpack-rap world, but his own maximal thump had none of the space and syncopation of actual rap music. Whenever Luke worked with rappers, it seemed like he was dragging them into his own glossy four-four world, and it never worked for me. His music just wasn’t funky. But Luke must’ve noticed the rise of the Atlanta trap sound that would eventually knock his own turbo-pop out of its central chart place. Juicy wasn’t an Atlanta trap guy, but he was comfortable with that sound, and star Atlanta producer Mike Will Made-It made the “Bandz A Make Her Dance” beat. Juicy, who’d already came close to falling off once, was happy to play the game, doing his horny-uncle routine on tracks with people like Mike Will’s little buddy Miley Cyrus. In a 2013 New Yorker profile, Luke referred to Juicy as “my rapper.”

When Dr. Luke and his collaborators made the beat that Katy Perry used for “E.T.,” Luke originally had Three 6 Mafia in mind for the track. “Dark Horse” is Katy Perry and her team’s effort to make a new spin on that song, though I think “Dark Horse” is a lot better than “E.T.”

“Dark Horse” came out of a writing session that Katy Perry did with her friend Sarah Hudson in Perry’s Santa Barbara hometown. Katy Perry’s real name is Hudson, but she’s not related to Sarah Hudson. Perry had to change her stage name because “Katy Hudson” sounded too close to Kate Hudson, the movie star, and Sarah Hudson is related to Kate Hudson. They’re cousins. Sarah’s father Mark wrote songs for bands like Aerosmith. Sarah released a failed major-label album in 2004 and then started a club-pop group called Ultraviolet Sound and eased into a career as a behind-the-scenes songwriter. “Dark Horse” is her first big credit, but she went on to write on hits for people like Iggy Azalea and Dua Lipa.

Once they had the rough idea for “Dark Horse,” Katy Perry took the song to Dr. Luke, who co-produced the track with Max Martin and Cirkut. Their beat has what Perry diplomatically called “a little bit of an urban kind of hip-hop-flavored background.” Basically, it’s Dr. Luke attempting to do trap, a sound that should be far outside his wheelhouse. Luke is a maximalist, and trap depends on the empty space that you really need so that those trunk-rattle bass hits can properly buzz and hum. But the “Dark Horse” beat works. It’s just pop enough and just trap enough.

I love the eerie synth that runs all through “Dark Horse” — nattering evilly on the intro and then breaking down into the “Moments In Love” gasp-stomp of the verses. The bass-booms and fingersnaps hit at the right time, and the beat doesn’t even get too busy when it blows out into a big arena-goth chorus with echoing chants and EDM ramp-ups. Juicy J didn’t help make the beat, but the slowed-down voices and militaristic hey chants show that Luke and his collaborators were at least paying attention.

“Dark Horse” isn’t really about anything. I’m not sure what the title even has anything to do with the rest of the song. Katy Perry doesn’t seem to be singing about a dark horse in the way that we generally use the term — a stealthy and unexpected candidate entering a contest. Instead, it’s altogether possible that she means an actual horse. She later said that the song was inspired by The Craft, the fun and dumb 1996 teenage-witch movie. Perry is supposed to be a witch in the same way that she’s supposed to be an alien on “E.T.” She’s saying that you better mean it if you fall in love with her because she’ll curse you, or something, if you betray her. If you’re gonna play with magic, you should know what you’re fighting for. Are you ready for ready for? A perfect storm perfect storm? Whatever. Doesn’t matter. It’s nonsense, but it’s the right kind of nonsense.

The hooks hit hard. You’d hope so, right? Given the people involved, it would be weird if the hooks didn’t hit hard. Max Martin is good at his job. His career has kept thriving even as the Dr. Luke turbo-pop style faded from the spotlight. At this point, he’s co-written more #1 hits than anyone who wasn’t a Beatle. On “Dark Horse,” you can hear the icily precise Max Martin melodic-math style applied to trap, a sound that has nothing to do with icily precise melodic math. But a hook is a hook, and “Dark Horse” is full of them.

Katy Perry sings the verses in a cool, menacing goth-purr and then goes into arena-overdrive mode on the chorus, and she hits all these tiny melodic turns that worm their way into my head. It’s all tension, no release. Whenever the song seems like it’s about to burst into EDM catharsis, the pitched-down devil voice comes in and says that there’s no going back, and all the extraneous stuff immediately disappears, as if by magic.

Katy Perry told Dr. Luke that she wanted Juicy J on the song. Maybe it was a make-good for taking “E.T.” away from Three 6. Maybe Juicy J was the only rapper that Katy Perry knew well enough to ask. Juicy was surprised at the invitation, but he came in and knocked out three different versions of his “Dark Horse” verse. He later talked about how impressively in-control and professional she was in the studio. In the version of the verse that Perry used, Juicy raps about how Katy Perry is both sexy and dangerous, and he sounds awesome.

The Juicy J of “Dark Horse” is the ultra-sanitized version of Juicy J, but he comes off like he’s just teetering on the verge of saying some nasty shit anyway. If you’ve spent enough time with Three 6’s music, you can’t hear Juicy’s “Dark Horse” verse and forget that he’s the guy who wrote “Slob On My Knob.” Juicy rhymes “karma” with “Jeffrey Dahmer,” talks about a witchy woman riding him like a roller coaster and turning his love into a fair, and generally gives the song a sense of dramatic stakes just with the grain of his voice. He signs off like this: “Her love is like a drug, I was tryna hit it and quit it/ But lil mama so dope, I messed around and got addictedddddd.” The way he stretches out that last syllable is pure Project Pat.

Katy Perry didn’t know what she had with “Dark Horse.” Her Prism album is full of one-off genre experiments, but most of the songs are way more obvious and overwhelming. After the initial success of “Roar,” most of them weren’t hitting. Perry followed that single with “Unconditionally,” a big ballad that I think is pretty good. It peaked at #14, which must’ve been a disappointment after all the Teenage Dream singles that went all the way to #1. Before Prism came out, Perry asked her fans, in a Pepsi-sponsored Twitter poll, which of two songs she should drop before the LP. “Dark Horse” won that poll, and it reached #17 on downloads alone. As “Unconditionally” underperformed, the “Dark Horse” download kept selling, so Perry’s label decided to make it the next single.

Capitol started pushing “Dark Horse” to radio in December 2013. A month later, Katy Perry and Juicy J performed the song at the Grammys, giving it an over-the-top goth drama-nerd production with an onstage graveyard and a big, red-eyed puppet-horse thing. The next week, “Dark Horse” made it to #1. The video wasn’t even out yet.

That video arrived while “Dark Horse” sat at #1, and it’s absolutely fucking ridiculous. Matthew Cullen, Perry’s “California Gurls” director, made a CGI slopfest that tries to go for a “Remember The Time” thing and fails. In “Memphis, Egypt a crazy long time ago,” Perry’s sorcerer-queen lady turns a series of central-casting suitors into sand. It’s ugly and stupid. If Perry wasn’t already going full cultural-appropriation making “Dark Horse” in the first place, then she really walked into it with all the Egyptian imagery. Even in 2014, people weren’t ready to ignore all that. Muslim groups objected when they noticed that one of Perry’s victims wore jewelry in the shape of the Arabic word for “Allah,” but that bit was digitally removed, and the video remained. It’s not a good video, but I like the bit where Juicy J pops out of a sarcophagus.

“Dark Horse” stuck around. It stayed in the top 10 for months and on the Hot 100 for more than a year. Two years after its release, it went diamond; it’s now 11 times platinum. A few months after the song hit #1, the Christian rapper Flame and his producers sued Katy Perry for copyright infringement. Flame’s contention was that “Dark Horse” ripped off his own generic 2008 gospel-track song “Joyful Noise.” He said that his reputation had been hurt by any association with the “witchcraft, paganism, black magic, and Illuminati imagery” of the “Dark Horse” clip. Lecrae, the much more successful Christian rapper featured on “Joyful Noise,” bowed out of the lawsuit, signing all rights to the track over to Flame.

After the “Blurred Lines” verdict, there were a lot of lawsuits like this. Perry and her collaborators opted to fight the case, which was almost extremely expensive for them. I’m sure it was expensive, what with all the lawyers involved, but it was almost much worse. The trial dragged for years. In 2019, a federal jury found against Perry. Flame and his collaborators were owed $2.78 million for the incidental similarities between the two songs, and Perry herself was on the hook for $550,000. Dr. Luke and his collaborators testified that they’d never heard “Joyful Noise,” but it didn’t matter. Juries, man. Perry appealed the case, and the verdict was overturned in 2020. She didn’t have to pay after all.

It’s a good thing that Katy Perry got to hold onto “Dark Horse,” since she never made a hit that big again. The other singles from Prism all fell short, with Perry’s immediate follow-up, the buoyantly funky new wave pastiche “Birthday,” peaking at #17. The album still went quintuple platinum, which wasn’t that far short of Teenage Dream. A year after “Dark Horse” reached #1, Perry played the Super Bowl Halftime Show, giving an engagingly absurd performance that briefly turned one of her shark-costumed backup dancers into an internet star. Naturally, “Dark Horse” made the setlist. That night really put the exclamation mark on Katy Perry’s dominant run. It was all downhill from there.

Katy Perry’s career downturn has been dramatic and undeniable, and there’s at least one pretty clear reason for it. When Kesha sued Dr. Luke later in 2014, Katy Perry was one of the artists who stopped working with Luke. Perry made almost all her hits with Luke, and she never found another collaborator who could lock in with her the same way. She still had access to all the best people working in pop, but she couldn’t recapture that spark. I’m totally in favor of Perry’s decision to separate herself from Luke, but the results speak for themselves. I don’t think that’s the only reason that she fell off, but it’s definitely a factor.

In 2016, Perry released “Rise,” a one-off single that had something to do with that year’s Olympics. It was going for a “Roar” thing, but people weren’t looking for a “Roar” thing then, and the song peaked at #11. Perry also stumped hard for Hillary Clinton, and we saw how that turned out. When she rolled out her Witness album a year later, she made a big point about how it was “purposeful pop” — music that attempted to respond to a fraught historical moment by vaguely gesturing in political directions. Perry recorded the robotically reggae-adjacent lead single “Chained To The Rhythm” with Skip Marley, Bob’s grandson, and it reached #4. (It’s a 6. I remember thinking that song sucked at the time, but it’s not so bad. Maybe I was just too used to Katy Perry albums with world-obliterating lead singles.)

Katy Perry hasn’t been back in the top 10 since. Witness limped its way to gold status, and the album is generally considered a total embarrassment these days. The other singles all flopped resoundingly. Perry presumably tried to recapture some of the trap-adjacent “Dark Horse” flavor by teaming up with the Migos, a group that’ll eventually appear in this column, on “Bon Appétit.” It did not work, and the song peaked at #59. That was a rough year for Katy Perry, and the one bright spot wasn’t even a song on her album. Instead, she sang the hook on “Feels,” a pretty good Calvin Harris track that also featured Pharrell and Big Sean. That song made it to #20 and went double platinum, and I still hear it every once in a while, like the last time I got a haircut.

In 2018, Katy Perry became a judge on the post-peak version of American Idol, and she still holds that position, though she says she’s done after this season. She started dating Orlando Bloom in 2016, and they got engaged in 2019. She’s living out the childhood dream of my little sister, who once had a life-size Legolas cutout in her room. Perry became a mother in 2020. Two days after her daughter’s birth, she released the pandemic-cursed album Smile, which disappeared with barely a ripple. The early single “Never Really Over” made it to #15 in 2019. Great song. That was it for hits, though.

Katy Perry has released a couple of nonstarter one-off tracks since Smile, but there’s nothing that you need to worry about. She started up a successful Las Vegas residency in 2021, and the videos from that show look fun. For the past few years, she’s existed firmly in the cloistered celebrity-weirdo zone. She sang at the Biden inauguration and the Charles coronation. She backed bloodsucking billionaire Rick Caruso’s unsuccessful attempt to buy his way into becoming Los Angeles mayor. She bought a former convent and got into a legal battle with the nuns who’d lived there, one of whom collapsed and died in court. Then she got into another lawsuit after allegedly pressuring another octogenarian into selling her his house. Last year, a proposed California law shielding seniors from financial exploitation became known as the “Katy PERRY Act,” with the “PERRY” supposedly standing for “Protecting Elder Realty for Retirement Years.” Wild shit.

Juicy J rapped on a few more minor hits after “Dark Horse.” The biggest of them was Usher’s 2014 track “I Don’t Mind,” which peaked at #11. Three 6 Mafia got back together, and they play music festivals sometimes. In 2021, they did a Verzuz event with their old rivals, former Number Ones artists Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Early in the night, Bizzy Bone threw a water bottle at Gangsta Boo, and the live broadcast quickly cut out as a shoving match broke out. When things settled down, though, it turned into a truly fun night on the late-pandemic internet. Tons of guests showed up: Lil Wayne, Chamillionaire, Lil Jon, Terrence Howard. For a second, I wondered whether Katy Perry would come out to sing “Dark Horse.” She didn’t, but Juicy J rapped his verse anyway. I love any show where a performance of a diamond single follows an onstage fistfight.

Nobody expected Juicy J to make another “Dark Horse.” People probably did expect Katy Perry to make one, but she didn’t, and she won’t. Perry will definitely make more music, and she might even score more hits, but she’ll never have that aura of inevitability again. Perry’s six-year run is the stuff of legend, but the world is different now, and I can’t imagine her keeping that same hold over the zeitgeist again. She’ll always be famous, but her moment as an unstoppable pop force is over. That’s fine. People can’t keep winning forever. Besides, Katy Perry met Juicy J, so she did something right.

GRADE: 8/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s Molly Lapatine, daughter of my boss Scott, singing “Dark Horse” when she was four:

THE NUMBER TWOS: Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s operatically horny reverie “Drunk In Love” peaked at #2 behind “Dark Horse.” It’s a 9, and it would probably be a 10 if Jay’s verse was just a little bit less lame.

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. Are you ready for ready for? A perfect book perfect book? ‘Cause once it’s yours once it’s yours ohhhhhh, there’s no goin’ back. Buy it here.

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