The Number Ones

April 25, 2015

The Number Ones: Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again” (Feat. Charlie Puth)

Stayed at #1:

12 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.

Paul Walker died. It didn’t seem real then, and it doesn’t really seem real now. Walker wasn’t exactly one of his generation’s finest actors, and he was only really a movie star in a particular context. But that context made all the difference. For six films in the Fast & Furious series, Walker was Brian O’Connor, the cop who went undercover to bust up Dominic Toretto’s street-racing crime ring and who then became Toretto’s best friend and confidant. We almost never see an actor become quite so inextricable with a certain character, but that was Paul Walker and Brian O’Connor. I felt like they were the same guy, and I felt like I knew both of them. Millions agreed.

Walker was a child actor in cheesy ’80s and ’90s B-movies like Monster In The Closet and Tammy And The T-Rex, and he had a brief teenage run on The Young And The Restless in 1992. In the late ’90s, Walker became one of many interchangeable handsome guys on the teen-movie landscape. He was in Meet The Deedles, Pleasantville, Varsity Blues, She’s All That, and The Skulls, and I barely remember him in any of them. But then came the first Fast And The Furious in 2001, and nothing was the same.

The Fast And The Furious, a late-summer low-budget crime flick without many expectations, nakedly and unambiguously ripped off Point Break, except with street racers instead of surfers. None of the stars were especially well-known; the most famous person in the cast was Ja Rule, who only stuck around for a few minutes. Paul Walker was clearly cast because his kind eyes and mellow demeanor reminded someone of Keanu Reeves. When the movie became a surprise hit, it seemed like a one-off. Director Rob Cohen and Vin Diesel didn’t come back for the 2003 sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious. Nobody came back for 2006’s Tokyo Drift, except for Vin Diesel in a quick cameo at the end, and the franchise seemed like it was done. But then the original cast reunited for 2009’s Fast & Furious, and an absurdist summer-blockbuster staple was born.

Over the next few years, every new Fast & Furious movie was a global event. Dominic Toretto’s mutiracial team expanded to include a cross-generational cadre of action stars, and the Toretto Crew members went from car-racing crooks to international secret agents. The movies were full of insane, impossible stunts and just-as-insane moments of extreme sentimentality, with Toretto Crew members talking about themselves, again and again, as a family. Furious 7 was going to be the biggest and goofiest of the bunch, with Vin Diesel and friends parachuting their cars onto mountain roads and jumping cars from one Abu Dhabi skyscraper to another. Then, in the middle of production, Paul Walker died.

In November 2013, the 40-year-old Walker left a charity event in California, riding in a friend’s Porsche. The speeding driver spun out and hit a lamppost and some trees in Valencia, and he and Walker were both killed. Walker’s death was shocking, at least in part, because it seemed like something that could never happen to a Fast & Furious character. They’re always crashing their cars in increasingly unfathomable ways, and they’re always OK. Real life doesn’t work that way. It was hard to accept.

In Furious 7, there’s a plotline about Brian O’Connor leaving behind his daredevil ways to be a dad. When Walker died, the film’s producers rearranged everything, turning the finished product into a ridiculous CGI-heavy smash-up that’s also an emotional send-off to one of its stars. In the final scene, after Dominic Toretto has vanquished Jason Statham or whatever, he has a quiet moment on the beach, sitting and watching Brian with his family. Dom tries to slip away, but then Brian catches up, and the two old friends race one last time. Eventually, the road forks, and they go in different directions.

That final Furious 7 is shamelessly manipulative blockbuster filmmaking at its finest. In the context of the film itself, it barely makes any sense. In canon, Brian O’Connor is still alive, and he still comes up in conversation in the later sequels. But everyone who saw Furious 7 knew about Paul Walker’s passing, and that context adds weight. Paul Walker isn’t actually in that scene. It’s one of his brothers, with Walker’s face digitally pasted on. The effects are impressive, but there’s an unavoidable uncanny-valley queasiness to the whole thing. Still, that scene absolutely annihilates me.

I love the Fast & Furious movies. I had a good time with all of them, at least up until they finally blew it with last year’s absolute fucking mess Fast X. And I always appreciated the weird seriousness with which the series treated its characters. The movies are silly, but Vin Diesel and Paul Walker always communicated genuine affection for one another. When Walker died, the actors all came together, as if they were the family that they always talked about being in the movies. Something about that camaraderie hits me on a deep level, and that’s a big part of the reason that I fall apart whenever I watch that scene. Another is the shamelessly manipulative song playing over that footage. They got me with that one.

“See You Again,” the Furious 7 soundtrack ballad that became a giant hit for Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth, is pure corporate product. Universal Pictures needed to figure out how to finish Furious 7 without one of its leads and to turn this in-progress production into salable product, and the final sentimental ballad was a big part of that. Universal put out a call to the songwriters and producers of Los Angeles, looking for a ballad that could play during this important emotional moment, and Charlie Puth responded.

Should Charlie Puth be a bigger artist? The question has been in the news lately, and I don’t have an answer. But at least for a minute, Puth was about as big as an artist could be, even if nobody actually knew who he was. Charles Otto Puth Jr. was 23 years old when “See You Again,” the Wiz Khalifa ballad with his chorus, became one of the biggest Billboard hits in history. The young man was hungies.

Charlie Puth grew up in suburban New Jersey, and his music-teacher mother had him playing piano when he was four. (When Puth was born, PM Dawn’s “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss” was the #1 song in America.) He was a prodigy, mastering different instruments and writing songs when he was still a kid. Puth started posting music-based videos on YouTube in 2009, when he was still in high school, and then he went off to study at Berklee College Of Music a year later.

While Charlie Puth was at Berklee, he and a singer named Emily Luther went viral with a cover of Adele’s “Someone Like You,” and Ellen DeGeneres liked it enough that she had the two singers on her show and signed them to her record label, the Warner subsidiary eleveneleven. This raises the question: Why did they give Ellen DeGeneres her own record label? I can’t answer that one. Puth never released much of anything on that label, and soon enough he was writing music for other YouTubers, but it was a foot in the door.

In 2015, Charlie Puth moved out to LA, signed a new deal with Atlantic, and released his proper debut single. It’s not good. Puth and former Number Ones artist Meghan Trainor teamed up on “Marvin Gaye,” an extremely cheesy retro-soul novelty about “let’s Marvin Gaye and get it on.” “Marvin Gaye” made it to #21, and Puth played Trainor’s love interest in the video for one of her songs, the #14 hit “Dear Future Husband.” Puth was a cute young white guy making cutely sassy if terrible Meghan Trainor-esque songs, and that was a perfectly solid career path at the time. But then Puth got the Furious 7 assignment.

Charlie Puth’s publisher put him into a songwriting session with DJ Frank E, the Denver-born producer who’s already been in this column for his work on Flo Rida’s “Right Round” and “Whistle.” The melodic ideas for “See You Again” were already in place. Frank E had been working on the track with its co-producers, including Flo Rida collaborator Andrew Cedar and record execs Kevin Weaver and Mike Caren. Australian rock-band types Dann Hume and Phoebe Lou also have their names in the credits, as does Josh Hardy. (I don’t think it’s the Josh Hardy who’s in Australian rock band the Chats, but I’m honestly not sure.) The song already had a whole lot of people working behind the scenes, but it needed Charlie Puth.

Charie Puth wrote the “See You Again” chorus within 10 minutes, and he had the idea to turn it into a ballad, rather than the dance track that it was supposedly going to be. Puth hadn’t yet seen Furious 7, but he had a rough idea of what that final scene was supposed to convey, and he knew how much screen time he had to fill. (This is where the story gets a little confusing, since I can’t believe that anyone ever wanted to end Furious 7 with a dance track.) While at Berklee, Puth lost a friend in a motorcycle accident, and he was thinking about that friend when he came up with the chorus. DJ Frank E had a friend who’d died the same way, and he connected. Puth told Entertainment Weekly, “We just looked at each other like we had known each other for years.”

“See You Again” is a work made for hire, but it’s an emotional thing, too. It’s not art exactly. It’s commerce. But it’s the kind of commerce that has to evoke a feeling, and to do that, the writers had to access that feeling themselves. I guess that’s how pop music always works. Anyway, the Furious 7 producers and executives all loved Puth’s “See You Again” chorus, but it took some machination before it became an actual song. 50 Cent later claimed that both he and Eminem were offered “See You Again” and turned it down. They were both involved in the Jake Gyllenhaal boxing movie Southpaw, so they didn’t want to have a song in another movie. Instead, “See You Again” made its way to Wiz Khalifa.

Four years before “See You Again,” Wiz Khalifa had an out-of-nowhere #1 smash with the Pittsburgh hometown pride anthem “Black And Yellow.” Wiz came up through the mixtape world and had a built-in internet-kid fanbase, and he adapted well to the pop universe. After “Black And Yellow,” Wiz made a few more crossover hits and became a constant presence on other rappers’ records. In 2012, he made it to #2 as a guest on the Maroon 5 single “Payphone.” (It’s a 3.) Wiz never seemed to work too hard on his conversational verses, and he hit the same chill-stoner talking points again and again. Nobody was looking to Wiz for emotional impact, but maybe that’s what makes him so effective on “See You Again.”

Charlie Puth was a big Wiz Khalifa fan, and he later said that he secretly wanted Wiz for “See You Again.” Wiz later told Genius, “They were gonna put some famous fucker on there and do what they usually do, but we kinda fought for it.” They almost replaced Charlie Puth with a famous fucker, too. Puth later said that Atlantic Records got Chris Brown, Sam Smith, and Jason Derulo to record their versions of the “See You Again” hook, but none of them sounded quite right. (Brown and Derulo have both been in this column, and Smith will show up here eventually.) Eventually, Puth was allowed to see a rough cut of Furious 7, and he was surprised to hear his own voice, from the “See You Again” demo, in the final scene. Soon afterward, though, Puth said that he threatened to pull the song from the movie if he wasn’t allowed to be in its video. In any case, the final version of “See You Again” used both Wiz Khalifa’s verses and the vocal from Puth’s demo.

The “See You Again” clip, from veteran music-video director Marc Klasfeld, is just as manipulative as the song. Charlie Puth, surrounded by muscle cars, sits on a hill above LA and plays piano in golden-hour light. Wiz Khalifa raps into the camera while perched on a cliff above a beach, the sunset behind him. Later on, he’s in the center of a circle of Fast & Furious cars, illuminated by their headlights. Throughout, we see worshipful slow-motion shots of the Fast & Furious cast members, Paul Walker in particular. It ends the same way that the movie does, with those two cars splitting apart and going in different directions.

As a song, “See You Again” is overproduced as all hell and clearly Frankensteined together. It doesn’t really sound like rap music. Puth’s piano is in full adult-contempo tinkle mode. The drums are a stiff march, full of murmured wordless melodies and rumbling synth-horns. Sometimes, especially when the massed whoa-oh-ah vocals come in, it sounds like the kind of ProTooled arena-rock that I associate with groups like Imagine Dragons. Wiz Khalifa’s lyrics speak vaguely of loss. He doesn’t mention Paul Walker or Brian O’Connor. He doesn’t even specifically bring up death, but the funereal mood comes through clearly.

“See You Again” is pretty clumsy in its manipulations, but when it catches me at the right time, I get swept up anyway. That chorus is good. The fantasy about talking to a friend in the afterlife is the kind of thing that you feel if you’ve ever lost anyone. I can hear both Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth buying in, putting emotion into their voices. Wiz’s actual rapping is nothing special, but I like the melodic lilt he adds to the bridge: “How can we not talk about family when family’s all we got?” When the song came out, Wiz was in a bitter custody battle with ex-wife Amber Rose. She reportedly broke down crying when she heard that part, and the two of them agreed to co-parent amicably. As calculated as the song may be, I hear the warmth that could translate to real life.

Plenty of critics dismiss “See You Again” as hackwork, and they’re not wrong. But part of the fun of pop music is letting yourself be manipulated, and I’m sentimental enough that “See You Again” really does it for me sometimes. That doesn’t mean it’s a great song — it’s not — but it’s effective in the right moments. It’s never more effective than when you’re a few beers deep and rewatching the Furious 7 ending for the third or fourth time.

Fast & Furious soundtracks are usually all-star genre-mash affairs, and they almost never produce an actual hit song. Furious 7 lead single “Ride Out” is a classic example — a personality-free posse cut with buzzy rappers Kid Ink, Tyga, Wale, YG, and Rich Homie Quan all doing nothing in particular. It’s fine, but it doesn’t stand out, and it didn’t really hit. (“Ride Out” peaked at #70.) Wiz Khalifa wasn’t on “Ride Out,” but he’d made plenty of songs like that, and he’d make plenty more in the future. “See You Again” was a different thing.

The “See You Again” single came out in March 2015, a month before Furious 7 opened, though the video didn’t drop until after the movie was already out. When Furious 7 arrived, “See You Again” took off — not because radio was playing it but because people were downloading it in huge numbers. After a few weeks, those downloads reached critical mass, and “See You Again” finally ended the long chart reign of “Uptown Funk!” Radio caught on soon enough. Adult-contemporary stations even played a rap-free, Puth-only mix of the song — one of those rare “Empire State Of Mind” situations where the actual lead artist gets taken off of his own song.

Furious 7 was a huge success. At the domestic box office, it earned about $350 million, which put it at #5 for the year — just behind Inside Out, just ahead of Minions. Internationally, Furious 7 did even better, pulling in $1.5 billion. “See You Again” was a big part of that. The song topped charts all over the world, and it went diamond in the US. The mostly forgettable Furious 7 soundtrack album went platinum, presumably on the strength of “See You Again.” The song’s video now has more than six billion views. For a brief window of time, it was the most-viewed clip in YouTube history.

“See You Again” owes a lot of its resonance to Paul Walker’s passing and to Furious 7, but the song ultimately became bigger than that. It became an all-purpose artifact of cultural mourning, a song for anyone who has ever died. The lack of specificity probably makes “See You Again” a worse song, but it increased its reach. I’ve never put on “See You Again” after losing someone, but I can understand why someone would.

Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth haven’t made anything else that had anything like the impact of “See You Again.” Wiz hasn’t even been in the top 10 since then. The closest that he’s come was another soundtrack song: “Sucker For Pain,” the way-too-busy Suicide Squad monstrosity where Wiz shared billing with Lil Wayne, Imagine Dragons, Logic, Ty Dolla $ign, and X Ambassadors. That song peaked at #15, and it sucks. This is how random-ass soundtrack songs usually turn out, and it highlights the simplicity that helped “See You Again” connect in the way that it did.

It’s been six years since Wiz Khalifa was on the Hot 100 in any capacity; “Fr Fr,” his 2018 Lil Skies collaboration, peaked at #73. But Wiz will always have a place as one of rap’s resident languid partiers. People just like him. Last year, Wiz and Snoop Dogg did a big co-headlining tour. I was backstage at the Seattle-area show to write a New York Times profile of Too Short, and I saw firsthand how crowds still react to Wiz. One thing that really struck me: When Too Short came out for his guest verse on Wiz’s track “On My Level,” I was on the side of the stage, and Wiz had a whole backing band out there — not onstage, but off in the wings, behind a curtain, almost on a loading dock. These weren’t balding session-musician types; they were good-looking young guys. Someone decided that the sonic mix needed more than a DJ could offer but that the band should be heard and not seen. That’s a different level of rap stardom — when you’re paying people to stay way behind the literal curtain.

Charlie Puth rushed his debut album Nine Track Mind into production, and it came out in January 2016. Some of its songs were big hits. The Selena Gomez collab “We Don’t Talk Anymore” made it to #9. (It’s a 6. Selena Gomez will eventually appear in this column.) Nine Track Mind went double platinum, but the reviews were dismal. With his 2018 sophomore album Voicenotes, though, Puth transcended his Meghan Trainor associations and became a stealthy critical favorite — a polymath who could convincingly deliver earworms in any style and who was fully fluent in the language of pop music. That album had “Attention,” the funky-bass strut that reached #5, becoming Puth’s biggest solo single. (It’s an 8.)

Puth hasn’t landed a top-10 hit since “Attention” — not on his own, anyway. (As a songwriter, he’ll appear in this column again.) He still hasn’t achieved A-list pop stardom, but he’s found a niche as a TikTok celeb and cult favorite. On social media, he’ll make clips about his songwriting process: What if, for instance, he built a whole song out of the sound of a light switch flicking? And then we get the ultra-smooth complete track, which sounds just a little better because we saw how it came into being. (“Light Switch” peaked at #27.)

@charlieputhI’m freaking out wtf just happened….. 💡♬ original sound – Charlie Puth

Earlier this year, Taylor Swift threw a random Charlie Puth namedrop into the title track of her blockbuster album The Tortured Poets Department: “You smoked, then ate seven bars of chocolate/ We declared Charlie Puth should be a bigger artist.” (“The Tortured Poets Department” peaked at #4. It’s a 7.) That lyric apparently took Puth by surprise. He said that he cried and that it gave him the courage to release his deeply OK recent single “Hero.” But “Hero” hasn’t charted, so Charlie Puth isn’t a bigger artist yet. Then again, Puth made “See You Again,” which is arguably a bigger hit than any song Taylor Swift has ever made. Maybe Charlie Puth will eventually be a bigger artist. Maybe not. Either way, he seems to be doing just fine.

GRADE: 6/10

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BONUS BEATS: The above-mentioned Taylor Swift brought out Wiz Khalifa as a surprise guest at a 2015 show in Houston. He got a hero’s reception, and the two of them performed “See You Again” together. Here’s the fan footage:

(Taylor Swift has already been in this column a handful of times, and she’ll be back very soon.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Swedish pop star Tove Lo covering “See You Again,” rap verses and all, in a 2015 visit to the BBC Live Lounge:

(Tove Lo’s highest-charting single, 2014’s “Habits (Stay High),” peaked at #3. It’s an 8.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2021, the Alabama sing-rapper NoCap released a version of “See You Again.” It’s not a cover, but it’s not not a cover. Here’s the video:

(NoCap doesn’t have any Hot 100 hits as lead artist yet, but he made it to #91 as a guest on Rylo Rodriguez’s 2023 track “Thang For You.”

THE 10S: Jack Ü, the short-lived duo of superstar DJs Diplo and Skrillex, got Justin Bieber to sing on “Where Are Ü Now,” their oddly graceful and beautiful dolphin-whistle mope-house monster, and it peaked at #8 behind “See You Again.” I need it the most. It’s a 10.

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. Let the light guide your way, hold every memory as your own, and also buy the book.

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