If It Wasn’t For You, I’d Be Alone.
One of my favourite songs right now (linked above) is Don’t Wait by Mapei. It’s exactly the kind of music I love listening to; a simple, pretty ode to friendship that uses flourishes of idiosyncratic production (vocoder-ed backing vocals, Brazilian baile funk drums, just the slightest tinge of hip hop) to add flavour without taking focus away from the main dish. The best thing about the song is that beneath its gorgeous tones, the message is endearingly sweet, and not one that I’m used to hearing in pop music, I’d state it myself but it’d be better for everyone if I just copied-and-pasted Mapei’s own explanation:
‘It’s like how sometimes you fight with your friends, but you really love them and you don’t want to piss them off or whatever… when we fight, it really hits my heart. I was just thinking about friends and lovers, and not waiting until I fuck up or something… like, don’t wait for life to say what you want to say.’
Anyway, one thing that struck me on repeat listens about this song is how odd one particular line is: ‘If it wasn’t for you I’d be alone.’ Out of context, that lone sentence is quite a dark and depressing thought, one which when spoken to a lover could seem almost threatening; I need you to be happy, you have a duty to look after me. And yet, upon listening to the actual song it feels impossible that could be the line’s true meaning, partly because of the lyrical context, but most significantly because of the way it is sung. Mapei sings it with a perfect balance of vulnerability and warmth that it sounds less like a warning of what being alone would be like and more of a celebration of something rare and valuable; true friendship. This talent for subverting a tentative, vulnerable lyric into an emotional sweet spot is what makes Mapei an exciting and unique prospect.
The talent of knowing not just what to sing/rap but how to deliver it is one of the most underrated and crucial in popular music, though I find its affects particularly fascinating when it comes to hip hop. Much has been made of various rapper’s ‘flows’; I remember once watching a documentary about Jay-Z’s success coming from his skills of emphasis, knowing exactly which words deserve to be the basis of a rhyming scheme and thus become a song’s most memorable.
And yet I can’t help but feel there’s even more to it than that; the best rappers can not only make their listeners remember the right words, but they can define how they are interpreted, just as Mapei does in Don’t Wait. Anyone can sit down for 8 hours with a rhyming dictionary and work out a clever set of lines that would sound cool coming out of Eminem’s mouth, but the talent that sets (most) successful rappers apart is knowing how to deliver them with convincing rigour. If delivered wrong, Kanye West’s I Am A God would have merged into the world of shit-talking that people associate with his press quotes, a dull celebration of his successes.
And yet, the mounting air of panic and frustration in the track makes it impossible to pin down in such simple terms; Kanye doesn’t sound like a contented monarch surveying his kingdom, he sounds like a Gladiator who has fought his way to the top, constantly weary of backstabbers and naysayers, as he gasps his way through the song’s paranoid lyrics desperate to claim his rightful title (before you accuse me of extreme hero-worship, consider the line which apparently inspired the song). The way he puts more emphasis into his shout of ‘Pink-ass polos with a fuckin’ backpack’ (imitating those who mocked him in his early days) than any of his arrogant claims puts the whole song on edge; he’s entirely aware of and bothered by his detractors, making him far more interesting – and maybe even relateable – than any rapper who claims not to ‘give a fuck about the haters’.