“I had to bust up the silence.” – Drake, “One Dance” (2016)
That Drake song is playing again—it’s always playing when I’m at the gym. Do I like it? I’m not sure. Does that matter? Nope. But I’m already humming it.
The kick drum is so prominent, so artificial in its bass contours, in its sub wobble, the way it seems jump out to fill the whole room even though the speaker on the ceiling is so small. It’s a super drum: I’ve never heard a real, acoustic drum sound like this. Maybe the sample is four drums into one? Or maybe it’s about the mix: How did they mix this song? What magical compressor-expander did they put on everything to make the sound spectrum so tall, so exaggeratedly long from its low frequencies to its highs? Music invites so many questions.
“One Dance” features the vocals of Kyla, a British house music singer. Actually, her vocal is a sample from her own 2008 song, “Do You Mind.” (See video below.) At times she sounds slightly out of tune and is left that way–it conveys being susceptible or vulnerable or not quite in control. Her sound is sampled because it sounds flirty, as if she’s interested in being here with Drake in this new context. Anyway, Kyla has such a tiny role on this song—all she gets to say, a few times, is Baby, I like your style. Meanwhile Drake is enthusiastically describing the scene at the club where he is having one last dance while talking, talking, talking—Grips on your waist/front way, back way/you know that I don’t play—while we can imagine Kyla smiling a polite frozen smile (who is this guy?) waiting for her chance to say her five words again when her interlocutor finally shuts up. The vocal conversation, such as it is, isn’t balanced, is it?
I try a few dips and keep listening. “Once Dance” has a tempo of about 104 beats per minute and a dancehall-esque beat. The tempo and easy syncopation give it a global appeal—it’s not too fast, but it does hum along, pleasantly. (The song hit number one in numerous countries.) Drake sings/melo-raps so softly within such a limited melodic range that it conjures him humming in the backseat of a car. I imagine the car is air-conditioned and the singer is on his way to the airport to go to a gig. Even better: he’s singing along to this very song which is playing on the car radio at this very moment, creating this interesting double-vocal effect that catches the attention of his driver who glances back through the rear-view mirror, smiling. This scenario comes to mind because there’s little else in “One Dance” to grab hold of as I listen while sitting on a weight machine, contemplating my next moves of resistance. Well, there’s those short little sampled piano stabs with their vintage slap-back echo glued to create a little fleeing resonance in the song. Everything else is so dry and up front.
What do we do with music like this when we encounter it, so dry and up front, over and over in public places? Can we use it, harnessing whatever power it might have? And if so, how do we do that? Can we imagine ourselves within its narrative? (No.) Is it a mini-movie in sound? (Sort of!) Are our memories surreptitiously attaching themselves to the song’s contours right this very moment, to be later unleashed years down the road, long after the song has outlived its relevance but not its circulation? (Oh I remember that song, you’ll say, remembering almost nothing to go along with it, surprised that your sense of recognition could float free of specific meanings like that.) Sometimes it’s worth thinking about such things when you have no choice as to the music you’re exposed to—like right now at the gym where I’m listening despite myself.
Today’s lesson then: every tiny moment of musical action can be exploded through analysis, leaps of association, and sometimes, insight.