or: How To Sell Out Without Really Selling Out
The Roots were in a unique position as they travelled toward the album that came to be Rising Down. They were coming off their most celebrated record, Game Theory, which coincidentally was also the group’s biggest commercial disappointment. In short terms, Def Jam wanted to recoup some sales, and may or may not have gotten word to The Roots that it’d be a magnanimous gesture to deliver a hit now, thanks.
What transpired was a pairing with Patrick Stump (yes, the guy from Fall Out Boy) called, “Birthday Girl.” Soon after it was leaked, (in a youtube clip titled, “I Want To Be Patrick’s Birthday Girl,” no less) the band’s own community of hip-hop heads, okayplayer, reacted as if McCain were elected via recount in Florida. Soon after the song was leaked and the backlash came whipping in, it was kicked off the album and relegated to an iTunes bonus track and international single, a move that both times received furious backing from seemingly put-upon ?uestlove.
In the nonsense that transpired about if they were selling out, if it would “ruin the album,” and other wildly reactive topics, everyone missed a simple point: holy crap they could have REALLY sold out a decade ago, and look what they always chose to be. They can so easily craft a hit it’s just incredible. I’m writing this piece because I was walking around on a 70 degree night and it just popped in my head.
I don’t even own the song. I had to resort to YouTube and see the video starring the new hot porn star-cum-actress Sasha Grey. They could have been doing this all along and made truckloads of cash. They could be all over Z100 in a second if they wanted to. Instead, they made the Kid A of hip-hop and followed it up with an album (the rest of Rising Down) featuring a song with verses from the perspective an African child soldier, a high school shooter, and a terrorist bomber.
Listen to Birthday Girl and think about what a “sellout” song it truly isn’t. You have Black Thought just absolutely killing it in a little song about statutory rape. His flow is so rhythmic that you let him just slip in some incredible bars, such as the description of the young girl in question to start the song, “she got everyone gassed / like the car I drive,” or “But I shoulda known better / cause now I feel like America’s / underbelly R. Kelly gutter smut peddlers / internet predators, chat-room irregulars / This not my twist you trying to send me to the therapist, miss.” He never dogs it. He never takes a song off. I guess no one told him you don’t have to work that hard when you’re popular. A big reason why he’s one of the best ten MCs of all time, but I digress….
To bring it all home, we get the wonderful Patrick Stump lyric, “Now you’re old enough to buy a gun / so many better ways of having fun / right now, I can only think of one / you look lovely tonight.” That song was going to sweep America, folks, and they’d think it’s as poppy as Gnarls Barkley lyrics should appear to be. God, I would have been laughing hard.
To one generation, they’re one of the least appreciated acts of the decade. To a new one, they do Slow Jammin’ The News on Fallon. In the end, they gave us Things Fall Apart. If they put out an album of Birthday Girls, I don’t think I’ll be complaining.