Day 84: "Down" – Jay Sean feat. Lil Wayne, All or Nothing , 2009Much of the Year of Lil Wayne so far has been devoted to documenting Lil Wayne's insane mixtape freestyles, which tend to be the songs that fans point to as proof Wayne is the greatest. They have a point! Have you listened to some of this stuff? But the fact of the matter is that the average music consumer who swears they love Lil Wayne is, for the most part, probably not talking about those songs. You have to be a fairly committed fan to listen to a mixtape discography that is essentially only available through semi-obscure online links—especially now, when you can pull up official albums on streaming services with a swipe of the finger. It's safe to say that your garden variety listener who sent "Lollipop" to number one has never even heard of something called Da Drought 3.
Rather, most people's understanding of Lil Wayne is through the lens of his ubiquity on pop radio. He's been a near-constant fixture there since 2006, and there was a particular run from 2008 to about 2011 where Wayne was on basically every hit song, or at least the remix. (N.B. As early as 2007, 50 Cent called Wayne a "whore" for jumping on so many songs—to which Wayne responded in XXL by saying, "Whores get paid. I don't care. It's music, let's make it. I'll only turn you down if you ain't got the price.") In 2012, Wayne surpassed Elvis as the solo artist with the most Billboard Hot 100 appearances ever, and the majority of those appearances (67 out of 109; he's now up to 132) were features on other people's songs. So to focus on Wayne's mixtape cuts is to ignore, say, more than a hundred of his best-known songs. Most of all, it ignores what might be Wayne's most prominent verse, one that was truly inescapable for a good two years: His eight bars on Jay Sean's "Down."
"Down" came out in 2009, and it captured the pop music zeitgeist at the time in all the ways that infuriated people. Artists like Taio Cruz, Jason Derulo, and Akon had pushed R&B into supremely glossy, processed territory in what felt—in retrospect even more so—like an attempt to stave off feat over the growing economic recession with a fantasia of bottle service and robot voices. Central to this sound was Auto-Tune, which had been around long enough to be recognizable and was wildly divisive, especially in the hip-hop world. Jay Z had proclaimed the "Death of Auto-Tune," Kanye West had recorded an entire album devoted to it in 808s and Heartbreak, and Lil Wayne was cruising along using it without comment because he recognized that it was both fun as hell and good as hell. Jay Sean's "Down" was the pinnacle of this movement, the ultra-glossy endpoint of ultra-glossy R&B. Moreover, it had the biggest rapper in the world on it, a guaranteed formula for a hit.
"People who wouldn't know me here in the United States would know Wayne was on another song, so let's check that song out," Jay Sean, who is British, told the Wall Street Journal in 2012, explaining the power of Wayne's presence. He went on to explain the value of features in general in a way that I can only describe as entirely and unexaggeratedly reflective of the song in question: "I always say, like, what would happen if Picasso and Van Gogh decided to do a painting together? What would happen if Mozart and Beethoven collaborated to do a symphony? What would happen? I love the idea of putting two creative minds together like that." Is "Down" bringing together Jay Sean and Lil Wayne the equivalent of Picasso and Van Gogh teaming up? Who am I to say otherwise?"Down," released on Cash Money (who recently had to pay him over $1 million in back royalties), reached number one on the Hot 100, the only Wayne song to do so other than "Lollipop." In 2009, according to Google, it also had the fifth most-searched lyrics of the year, behind Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, and Beyoncé. It's a pretty simple song, reflective, as I said, of the general anxiety of the time: "baby don't worry, you are my only, you won't be lonely, even if the sky is falling down." Jay Sean's voice soars and sparkles like a digitized graphic floating through space in an early 2000s sci-fi movie, assuring the object of his affection that everything will be OK. This song is very much the sonic equivalent of its video, which involves dudes in suits that can best be described as "going out suits" hitting uninspired hip-hop dance moves while Jay Sean waves light around with his hands. It is, to use a critic's term, music that sounds like a cologne commercial. Imagine a romance in which the two paramours find themselves threatened by the sundering powers of a velvet rope and you have a rough idea of the vibe. Now imagine said romance saved by a Cirque de Soleil dancer arriving on a trapeze with a sparkler-laden champagne bottle. The aroma of Acqua di Gio fills the room.
As those images suggest, this song might tend toward the too-sterile end of the spectrum were it not for Lil Wayne's martian voice swinging in to give it a humanizing touch. Just the part alone where he catches the word "down" from the hook to begin his verse is like a soothing balm of weirdness sweeping into the song. The girl becomes a more fascinating character—zero degrees cold, so cold in fact that she prompts Wayne to invent the term "over-freeze." She's foreign—here the video gives us a British flag to emphasize the cross-Atlantic collaboration between Wayne and Jay Sean—but Miss America to Wayne. And then, too, he gives it some stakes: "I'm fighting for this girl / on a battlefield of love / don't it look like baby cupid sending arrows from above." This love, which also involves this girl getting down low for Wayne, is suddenly a cosmic battle between the forces of Love and Not-love, with Wayne the brave soldier a mere pawn in their designs. Finally, we get that acknowledgement that makes everything snap into place, the current events reference of "and honestly I'm down like the economy" to close out the verse. I told you this music was the height of recession pop! If you need further proof, consider that Wayne is literally wearing a shirt that says "COMMUNISM" in the video. Iconic.What's truly iconic, though, is that Wayne took a totally generic pop song for the period, hopped onto it with his bizarro pop flow, and turned it into something memorable. Wayne's voice crooning "she coooold" is the kind of thing that echoes around in your brain for years, as important to his legacy as any bar over some skeletal Southern rap instrumental. The amount of movement in his short verse here is insane—a gurgling plunge of melody about a girl dropping it low to a rhythmic rapped riff on how attractive she is to a soaring croak describing a grand philosophical battle and deep declaration of love to a final jubilant evocation of the moment in time.All of it has infinitely more character than Jay Sean's conventional vocals. This song may have been criticized as one of Auto-Tune's most egregious moments, but if anything it's an example of how much Auto-Tune, when used as an atmospheric filter, can actually enhance the life and humanity of the words. Wayne isn't given as much credit for popularizing Auto-Tune as an effect in rap as, say, Kanye, but he is almost certainly more central to the narrative of it becoming a dominant tool. This song is one of the most prominent examples, a foreshadowing of the mutant sounds that an outsider vocalist's sense of melody and well-applied technology can create. In this short, disorienting verse and the little Auto-Tuned yelps that ride the rest of the song out are the roots of the Young Thugs and Lil Yachtys to come. If we are going to talk about what makes Wayne great, surely this verse, this huge moment in his career, this victory on the battlefield of love, warrants as much discussion as anything else.Follow Kyle Kramer on Twitter.