In 1951, a young, half-deaf bisexual epileptic named John Alvin Ray entered Columbia Studios on 30th Street in New York City and recorded one of the greatest pop singles ever. "Cry," released over a half-century ago by Johnnie Ray, is a breathtaking example of what magic can be wrought in the length of one side of a 45 rpm record. Laying out in elongated consonants and voluptuous vowels the crippling depths of emotional despair, the song levels the heart of the tortured teenager in three minutes flat.
The masterpiece of "Cry" is not just in its economy of time but its economy of resources; Johnnie Ray paints the entire weight of his heart onto the thinnest of canvases, with just a small group of singers and a guitar-based quartet playing all but invisibly to back up his flamboyant wails. The recording succeeds primarily because its absence of production is as innocent as Ray's emotion. Recorded well before the stripped-down rock-and-roll era, "Cry" is razor-thin pop minimalism of the most pioneering and effective kind.
Fifty-seven years later, an addictively bizarre song reached the top of the charts. "A Milli" by the New Orleans rapper Lil' Wayne confounds like a 4am drug binge, its lyrical content a scattershot explosion of random ideas tossed off with the occasional excuse that you, the listener, are a motherfucker, and that he, Lil' Wayne, is ill. How the song went from one of hundreds of tracks that Wayne recorded in 2007 to a fan favorite on Internet leaks to the unlikely B-side of his first single to an even more unlikely No. 1 hit on its own is essentially the defining story of the unpredictable music industry in 2008.
Even more left-field than the song's rise to prominence, however, is the song's miniscule production, a direct descendant of Johnnie Ray's 1951 small studio band. Everyone who hears "A Milli" immediately notices the song's namesake vocal loop, which repeats through the track like a nag so incessant that it becomes easy to ignore, but the rest of its sounds are far less blatant: a bass drum; a sluggish, sparse snare fill that sounds like it's played by a robot on dead batteries; and stray handclaps. That's it.
Cue to the post&–"A Milli" landscape of 2008, and other artists have obviously taken the hint. These days, razor-thin pop production is a way for a track to stand out against the tidal wave of software plug-ins that overdecorate most 21st-century music, and while there have been traces of it in the past—the electronic blips of Ciara, the hi-hat hyphy of the Pack, the "snap music" of the Ying Yang Twins—it's gaining in prominence. The future hits next year very well may be more about curating from, rather than condensing down, the outer reaches of the technological infinite.
What makes razor-pop production so perfect is the illusion of humanity it presents—the sensation that the artist is singing on a street corner, standing around a burning trash can, with friends as accompanists. It may sound like a small party, but everyone's invited. Anybody can clap their hands and stomp their feet.
Earlier last month, for example, Beyoncé—whose first solo hit was a cluttered production overworking a full-bodied horn sample from a Chi-Lites song—released her take on the razor-pop single. "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" is a classic celebration of freedom; a juvenile admonishment to a loser ex-boyfriend who couldn't find it in himself to buy a ring and get down on bended knee.
But the song's effectiveness lies in its sparseness. Beyoncé doesn't need anyone to tell her how to feel about losing her man, just as she doesn't need to wait for the band to show up. Thus, "Single Ladies" rides along with handclaps, foot stomps and the sometime sound of a spaceship starting to land. End of story. At the end of the song's video—an astonishing juxtaposition of a grim black-and-white studio and a livelier-than-life dance routine by a leotard-clad Beyoncé and two cohorts—the camera focuses closely on Beyoncé's face, her exhausted breathing faintly audible. The sound could have easily been added to the bridge, and it'd have blended in perfectly.
Fellow hitmaker T-Pain, whose legacy is instantly dated by the rampant robot-voice effect he achieves with Auto-Tune software, is the walking definition of a "showy performer." He arrived at the MTV Video Music Awards this year on an elephant, a publicity gimmick for his circus-themed album, Thr33 Ringz. He performs in an oversized top hat, and his videos are colorful, busy expositions of quickly changing fantasy vignettes.
But T-Pain's recent hit single, "Can't Believe It," glides along with a floor thump, finger snaps and a keyboard you might find at the local drugstore with its tone knob turned all the way down. Like all the other razor-pop singles of 2008, it feels as if it'll crash in with an epic chorus, which, of course, never arrives. Four and a half minutes later, the vacuum is something internal in the listener, an uncommon small-plate feeling in pop music of perfection done slight. Clicking to listen to the song again is the inevitable, calculable response.
Who will be the razor-pop sensations of the future? The performers, interchangeable thanks to Auto-Tune, are impossible to predict, but the producers are likely to be a 23-year-old from Atlanta named Terius Nash, aka the Dream, and his 34-year-old partner, Chris "Tricky" Stewart. Nash and Stewart hit it big last year penning and producing Rihanna's mammoth hit "Umbrella," and have since gravitated toward the whispering power of the tiny, producing both "Single Ladies" for Beyoncé and another very tiny song, "High Price" for Ciara. The pair was also behind Mariah Carey's smash single "Touch My Body," constructed solely from a bass sound of kicking a cardboard box, hi-hats, finger snaps and two-note chords played on an analog synthesizer.
Nash has a new album due out in February, Love vs. Money, that can't help but make more of a splash than his first effort. Last year, Nash's debut Love Me All Summer, Hate Me All Winter was released to absolutely no fanfare in the week before Christmas, and currently has an unimpressive Amazon sales rank of 20,712. It's also an overlooked harbinger of hits to come. "Music is uninspiring right now," Nash remarked at the time of the album's release. "The bar needs to be raised; a creative standard should be set in music. I'm hoping that the real quality in these songs shines through."
Quality over quantity—such an idea. In the razor-pop future, it may be all we need.