Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Umbrella, ella, ella...

I am no snob - there is great music to be found within every genre, and the idea of categorizing and labeling every artist and song could easily be termed "taste fascism."

Many people will often refuse to listen to more than one or two genres, dismissing artists simply because they are in the wrong section at the record store or the iTunes store.  Being supposedly cool and hip trumps having an open mind, and to be caught browsing the so-called easy listening or oldies section is akin to being caught with your pants down. And it goes both ways: some folks wouldn't touch a hip hop record or a rock record with a ten-foot pole.

Was it Ray Charles who said that there are only two kinds of music - good and bad? Smart man.

'Umbrella', co-written by Terius "The Dream" Nash, Christopher Stewart and Jay-Z (who does the intro rap) and with vocals by Rihanna is the good kind of music. Really, really good kind. A "pop" song so perfect I almost wept upon hearing it, but I was soon too busy singing along to be crying. The video is also one of the best ever made: the choreography, styling, directing, editing, and art production are all top notch.

The perfect "pop" aka popular song consists of 3-5 minutes where all the elements - melody, lyrics, vocals, arrangement and production - all blend into a smooth mix with a delicious hook. Bob Dylan once said that Smokey Robinson was the best American songwriter. 'Umbrella' has the same quality that for example most Motown and early Beatles hits had: almost unbearably catchy (just like the original nursery rhymes or as I like to think of them: the original pop songs.) Try coming up with a memorable melody and words that compliment it, sweating as if on deadline at the Brill Building in Manhattan where Carole King, Gerry Goffin and many other great songsmiths worked in the 1950s and 1960s - it's harder than you think.

Rihanna doesn't need the range or pipes of Whitney Houston or Aretha Franklin - she has exactly the right voice for this song: bouncy, ever so slightly nasal but not gratingly so, sweet, but not too sweet, her vocals surf on top of the beat and the music, playing with the title "umbrella, ella, ella, eh, eh, eh." That line may not look so hot on paper, but when Rihanna sings this chorus, it's a moment right up there with the best in pop music history. She nails it, and it takes some real talent to make a word like umbrella roll off the tongue. I bet even Bob Dylan sings along when "Umbrella" comes on the radio. Like any great songwriter, he knows the challenge of hitting the bull's eye.