Monday, May 14, 2018

"Will we remember the way we were?" The past and future tenses of Lauryn Hill's "Ex-Factor"

By Lauren Eldridge
"Care for me, care for me, you said you care for me
There for me, there for me, said you'd be there for me"
This couplet serves as the foundation for both the songs at #1 and #9 on the Apple Music charts as of Friday, April 13, 2018 by two artists listed several times on the Billboard Hot 100. Drake's "Nice for What" and Cardi B's "Be Careful" both sample "Ex-Factor" by Lauryn Hill (1998). By reading sampling as a vital creative process, these three songs become links in a chain connecting four decades of black American music.

Beyond the coterminous release of "Nice for What" and "Be Careful," there is much to think through in regards to the past and future tenses of "Ex-Factor," a single from Hill's 1998 album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.<1> "Ex-Factor" itself is the product of a sample of a sample of a cover.  Hill's opening verse - "It could all be so simple" - draws on "Can It Be All So Simple" by the Wu-Tang Clan (1993), which in turn samples Gladys Knight's voice in "The Way We Were" (1974), a cover of the same song by Barbra Streisand (1973). The first few moments of "Ex-Factor" are reminiscent of "Lovin' You" by Minnie Riperton (1974), with instrumentation that resembles acoustic piano and guitar, respectively, and chirping birds. This evocation of 1970's soul music, an intentional nostalgia meant to signal a dreamscape, serves to establish a sonic framework for the unrequited affection of the singer; the listener is meant to understand that this story will not end well. The specific callback to Riperton is in sharp contrast with the rest of the album, which combines such disparate sonic forces as the record scratches on "Lost Ones" and the gentle finger snaps on "Nothing Even Matters." Yet, each of these elements have the effect of invoking a sense of place, whether that scene is a street rap battle (Lost Ones) or a café ballad (Nothing Even Matters).

Though the beginning of "Ex-Factor" pulls from the past, it is the song's hook that is sampled by Drake and Cardi B. "Be Careful" plays with the word "care," eliding the refrain "be careful with me" with "care for me," resulting in the polysemic "be careful with, care for me, always said that you'd be there for me, there for me." The subject matter aligns closely with that of "Ex-Factor"; once again, the listener should not hold their breath for a happy ending. In stark contrast, "Nice for What" is ebullient in nature, praising its subject matter. The rapper (Drake) rebukes the singer (Hill) as she confesses "I keep letting you back in; how can I explain myself?" In this song, "care for me" becomes an incessant backdrop reinforcing the unnecessary nature of concern. Broken promises, intoned over and over again, lock together in a dance floor to which the listener is called by the emcee. But who is this emcee, especially in a song that samples from a subgenre of hip hop dependent on the right voice to get the party started?

"Nice for What" is an interpretation of bounce music from the North American Gulf South region. As a genre, bounce can be distinguished by its particular use of samples - extremely short sound clips are looped together to create a tapestry of danceable music. This music is then mixed and remade in live performance. Because a great deal of importance is placed on live performance, songs may have two subjects: one that can be grasped through the lyrics, and the other following the command of the master of ceremonies. After listening to a few moments of "Nice for What," it becomes clear that the dance caller isn't actually Drake, but another's voice at a remove, reproduced in lower definition. The sampled figure arguably more present than the spectral timbre of Lauryn Hill's nostalgia is bounce musician Big Freedia.<2> Her voice is frequently instrumentalized, mechanized, and compartmentalized into ever-reducing fragments of phrases that build new thoughts, new jokes, and new insights (see, for example, the descending chromatic scale that introduces the "Queen Diva" on the track "Explode" from Just Be Free).

At about 2' 07", Big Freedia interjects Drake's isolating call and response with a call and response of her own that literally crackles with liveness. The track abruptly shifts from a blend of smoothly constructed studio voices to Big Freedia calling on a microphone with feedback and an audience screaming in response. Drake does manage to signify on the verbosity of bounce music, a verbal density that results from multiple levels of sampling. Now "watch the breakdown": the track reduces all the way down to the Hill sample to rebuild over the next thirty seconds or so into its most recognizable bounce state. In order to fulfill the requisites of the genre, Drake himself is sampled, cutting and mixing earlier sing-song fragments into the 3-3-2 rhythm that undergirds the bounce.

Gladys Knight begins her version of "The Way We Were" (and the Wu Tang Clan's) by asserting that "everybody's talking about the good old days," but continues to wonder at the inevitability of the passage of time, and that future people, perhaps even her descendants would refer to her turbulent present reality as the "good old days." Lauryn Hill has noted the significance of her song being sampled in live performance, thus elevating it to the level of a "classic." These examples demonstrate the power of music legacy, in that sampling provides the opportunity to hear simultaneously "the way we were" and also what we might become.

<1>This year marks the 20th year anniversary of this celebrated album's release, for which Hill has planned a 26-city tour.
<2>Though beyond the scope of this piece, Big Freedia is a major national representative of this otherwise regional genre. Helpful resources in understanding her media reception can be found in the writing of Myles Johnson for Vice and Ben Dandridge-Lemco for the Fader.

Lauren Eldridge is an administrator and lecturer at Spelman College. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in Music in 2016, and usually writes about classical music in Haiti.

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