Photo by Eva Rinaldi via Wikipedia
Last week, if you were among the dwindling group of people who follow Grammy announcements, you may have noticed a quirky nugget embedded in the somewhat unremarkable round of nominations. Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me,” his lugubrious worldwide breakout hit, received a nod for Record of the Year—with a parenthetical that the honor was designated for the single’s Darkchild version.
This intriguing specification is the second time in recent weeks that Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins has become conversational fodder for the music press after he suggested in a November interview with HITS Daily that Jessie J and Ariana Grande were slated to cover “The Boy Is Mine,” a late 90s R&B cut that married Brandy and Monica’s vocals with a signature Darkchild production. Although both Grande and Jessie J have since dismissed the collaboration as a rumor, the purported cover evoked plenty of irritation and confusion among those who consider the original recording an untouchable masterwork. But before letting these whitecaps of social media frustration recede into the ever-churning ocean of music journalism, I believe it’s worth everyone’s time to take a closer look at Darkchild, an undervalued architect of the last two decades of R&B and pop music, the producer behind a slew of songs ranging from Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” to Justin Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me.”
The current, #rememberthe'90s economic engine encourages a hyper-condensed view of history, refracting it through a handful of products like slime-themed Nickelodeon merchandise or sneakers with motion-triggered lights on the soles. There is an immediate, wistful pang of recognition in remembering specific items that enthralled us as child consumers, but there are textures to memories that this set of images fails to capture—specifically, the way the world sounded. That sound was largely the work of producers like Darkchild, who honed a particular style of emotional frisson via machine and then injected it, like a virus, into the discographies of multiple superstars.
In the years since, these sounds have not only become a touchstone for my own memories but also influential to the point of cliché, popping up as disembodied samples in countless UK dance tracks and more explicitly in instances like James Fauntleroy sampling “Say My Name” on Drake’s “Girls Love Beyonce.” Sometimes the influence is implied, as is the case with FKA Twigs’ clattering, sensual output, while other times it’s a few degrees removed: Darkchild’s remix of “If You Had My Love” inspired T-Pain’s fascination with Auto-Tune, which paved the way for the present sound of hip-hop, and Beyonce is now the biggest pop star on the planet. Yet, for all the current trends that trace their roots to Darkchild, his name does not rest on the same pedestal of recognition as contemporaries like Pharrell and Timbaland. To rectify that, here are ten less well known tracks that capture the spirit of Darkchild’s varied and influential career:
“Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” - Aaliyah (Blackground/Atlantic, 1996)
If music is susceptible to nostalgic, blocky categorization, Aaliyah is a proof of concept for how quickly fan-boyish reminiscing pivots into idol worship pivots into exasperating meme-ification. “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” has avoided this sort of treatment because it lurks in the shadows of mega-hits like “One In A Million,” many of which now frequently exist as flattened, drippy samples on Soundcloud accounts. Keeping the synth loops dusky and the percussive detailing restrained, Darkchild displays his grasp of Aaliyah’s ability to finesse blissful airiness and primal growling into unified, silky release. It’s a successful pairing, but one that bespeaks the artists’ location in their respective career trajectories. When One In A Million dropped in 1996, Aaliyah was already high on the fame of her previous debut while Darkchild was on the brink of becoming internationally renowned via his work on Mary J. Blige’s Share My World. Whereas Aaliyah sounds like an artist who has found a voice of her own, Darkchild has yet to fully embrace his distinctive, frenetic style.
“Revolution” - Kirk Franklin (B-Rite/Interscope, 1998)
Given that his father was a pastor, it is not surprising that Darkchild corralled his talents toward gospel-tinged music. By this point, Darkchild had started pushing his musical inclinations toward kinetic, emotionally charged sounds—indeed, “The Boy Is Mine” came out the same year as this. On “Revolution,” Darkchild showcases R&B and rap as vehicles for religion and religion as a vehicle for politics. A croaky rap-preacher, a critique of racism, and a cluster of city shout-outs that are equal parts jock jam and church call-and-response all collide. Yet Darkchild welds what could be chaotic fury into a well-oiled anger machine replete with wailing electric guitars and stabbing piano lines. His ability to commute passion—in this case, passionate outrage—into song is a distinguishing element in much of his work. In Darkchild’s world of R&B, the breakups are especially tortuous, the sex especially torrid. When Kirk Franklin, backed by a gospel choir, calls for a revolution, Darkchild makes sure you know he means it.
“Sunshine” - Coko (RCA, 1999)
The lead singer of 90s R&B girl-group SWV, Coko sought to embark on a solo career starting with this single. Beneath “Sunshine”s gorgeous, beaming, multi-layered vocals, Darkchild pads the song’s floor with a beat that is squarely in his late-90s wheelhouse, all interlocking jerky drum loops and squelching basslines. With this solid foundation in place, Darkchild builds up and out, letting the strings and Coko’s voice soar and flutter. It’s a sensible strategy for a song Coko allegedly dedicated to her then-baby son, Jazz—“Sunshine” is as rich and warm as the love it describes. That ability to mold rattling mechanics into something transcendent is what makes Darkchild such a magnetic producer. This song works not in spite of the stuttering production but because of it.
“He Wasn’t Man Enough” - Toni Braxton (LaFace, 2000)
At the time “He Wasn’t Man Enough” hit airwaves in the United States, Toni Braxton was well known for her generally slow-tempo ballads while Darkchild’s name evoked the fast-paced zig-zagging of “Say My Name” or the slick barb-trading of “The Boy Is Mine.” Reviewer Colin Ross noted upon its release that the song “seems to be an attempt to make some headway within the lucrative urban R&B market.” The era of smoldering Boyz II Men operatics was fading out, ceding territory to the quickened pulse of Darkchild’s skittering dramas. Ultimately, Braxton’s decision paid off, as the single rocketed into the upper tiers of music charts across the globe. But it was also a wise choice because Braxton’s tempered, husky voice allows for admiration of all the gizmos Darkchild has packed into the track—the insistent handclaps like jabs at Braxton’s lily-livered ex, the distraught strings twisting in a tight corkscrew only to burst with realization, the plaintive piano that ascends at the beginning of the second verse only to collapse into a fit of double-time rhythmics. Yet these goodies don’t distract; instead, Darkchild uses them to direct Braxton toward a fevered pitch so that the truth, delivered with a smirk and a snarl, hits like a falling wall.
“Celebrity” - *NSYNC (Jive, 2001)
Darkchild’s maximalism made him an ideal candidate for transitioning between genres in the early 00s, when contemporary pop was reveling in Max Martin’s orchestral climaxes. The pop credentials Darkchild established during this era of genre fluidity remain strong today—he produced two tracks from the deluxe edition of Britney Spears’s recent Femme Fatale. Yet “Celebrity” does more than showcase Darkchild’s deftness with poppier sounds—it also hints to the inspiration he draws from disco. This was already evident on Jennifer Lopez’s “If You Had My Love” and on Michael Jackson’s “You Rock My World,” but with *NSYNC's hectic indictment of fame vampires, Darkchild brings Saturday Night Fever into a 21st-century world of weaponized aural pyrotechnics. Strings pummel through and zip between major and minor keys, growing increasingly accusatory as Justin Timberlake and JC Chasez clench down ever harder on the lyrics “Would you be so into me / If I wasn’t a celebrity?” Listening to “Celebrity” is like touring a disturbed hornets’ nest.
“Overprotected (Darkchild Remix)” - Britney Spears (Jive, 2002)
Speaking of celebrity: Around the same time that Darkchild began wading into deeper pop waters, Britney Spears was promulgating her new image as a person taking ownership of her sexuality. First came “I’m A Slave 4 U,” then came “Overprotected.” When asked about his vision for the remix, Darkchild responded that he “took it old-school… but I still gave it her edge.” Darkchild’s goal of making room for the original conceit to breathe is its own metaphor for this junction of Britney’s career, where her switch to new sounds was part of a freeing process. As the production quakes and whines around Britney, it cooperates with her all the same. Leave it to Darkchild to integrate a stuttering sample of Britney’s gasp into a song about her feelings of claustrophobia in the public eye. Beyond its symbolic significance, the song is also danceable as hell, which explains why it quickly achieved heavy rotation in U.S. clubs. In fact, it was the remix and not the original version that the NOW series decided to include on NOW 10 album. Although many of Darkchild remixes bear out his keen ear and adaptive composition skills, this formidable one represents an important moment in his legacy because of the mainstream traction it gained.
“What About Us?” - Brandy (Atlantic, 2002)
It is impossible to talk about Darkchild’s legacy without mentioning Brandy. There is her sophomore album, Never Say Never. There is that evergreen crowdpleaser, “The Boy Is Mine.” And then there is “What About Us?,” one of many bangers from the wonderful Full Moon. In contrast to Brandy’s previous approach of perching her voice in higher ranges and gliding seamlessly from note to note, here she sounds like she is singing through a knot in her throat, the kind that forms after many sleepless nights spent contemplating a fraying relationship. She drives her fraught sentiments home by delivering them in clipped phrases, jettisoning all “the bullshit.” Meanwhile, Darkchild employs his toolbox of phaser-like basslines and glittering keyboard loops to slice the scenario into erratic, space-age pieces that, like the relationship Brandy describes, remain in a delicate balance, constantly threatening to implode. He also distorts Brandy’s voice into jagged bytes, prescient in its perception of the way technology mediates our interactions and relationships. When Brandy retells her reaction to first hearing Darkchild’s track—”Oh my God, Rodney, this is it.”—you know just what she means.
“Lose My Breath” - Destiny’s Child (Columbia, 2004)
Although Darkchild never contributed the same breadth of material to Destiny’s Child as he did to Brandy, the material he did provide the group is all canonical. “Say My Name” is better known, but “Lose My Breath” certainly holds its own, particularly because it doubled as an announcement that, following Beyoncé’s Dangerously in Love project, the ladies were back. Once more, Darkchild demonstrates a nuanced grasp of the multitudes contained in this song. The aggressive drumline, frequent panting, and high-wattage synths encompass notions of celebration (DC back!) and competition (Can you keep up with them tho?). Even the incessant question, “Can you keep up?” is a double entendre, referring both to sexual prowess and to Destiny Child’s breathtaking ability to keep pace with the racing production. Beyond delineating a new era for Destiny’s Child, “Lose My Breath” also signalled an evolution in Darkchild’s style, which involved venturing outside his keyboard-and-bass-heavy stock and trade. Here was something refreshing for everyone.
“One Wish” - Ray J (Sanctuary/Knockout, 2005)
For all the lurching and tension that goes on in Darkchild’s work, the man knows how to make a straightforward lush, pretty song. “One Wish” is beautiful in this way. The combination of cascading piano and twinkling guitar cuts straight to the heart. And Darkchild tamps down the percussive loops to let the instruments soak up an even greater proportion of the spotlight. Even more endearing about this is how the production cushions Ray J’s slightly pinched voice and makes it sound supple and earnest, even when his flow shares more with Destiny’s Child’s sing-rapping on “Say My Name” than Avant’s crooning on “Grown Ass Man.” Darkchild has achieved this booster effect with other, worse singers, which hints to how many of his productions would be superb standalone tracks.
“Playin’ Our Song” - Chrisette Michele (Def Jam, 2009)
Upon listening to the first few seconds of this, I was thrown by the possibility that Chrisette Michele and Darkchild had made a country song. It’s now clear to me that this is not country, but it still possesses strong pop sensibilities and would have been at home on Top 40 radio when Stargate were at their pinnacle of American influence. As music continues to splinter into increasingly narrow niches, this ability to tap into multiple genres is growing more crucial for producers. The recent work Darkchild has done for artists like Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Kelly Clarkson, and The Saturdays is markedly different from the work he has done for Mary J. Blige, Kelly Rowland, Ciara, and Mariah Carey. A lot has changed since Darkchild signed his first big record deal with EMI at the age of 17, but he continues to hustle and impress.
Other Tracks Worth Checking Out:
David Lehmann will keep writing as long as you love him. Follow him on Tumblr.