Summer’s gone, sexy’s back

Summer is not only the season for big-budget popcorn crowd blockbusters, but also the only time it’s always worth listening to the radio. Here are the best singles of summer 2006, for those scene readers who spent the season out of the country, or worse, away from the Internet.

“Sexyback” — Justin Timberlake and “Promiscuous” — Nelly Furtado

Did anyone expect Timbaland to dominate the radio this summer? Like a late-career baseball player on steroids (with freakishly buff physique to match), the Virginia Beach producer most famous for Aaliyah’s 1998 smash “Are You That Somebody” somehow scored the biggest hits this season. Justin Timberlake’s “Sexyback,” as polarizing as it was ubiquitous, and Nelly Furtado’s career-redefining “Promiscuous” were two of the best and most popular singles of the summer.

“Sexyback” is uniquely perplexing. Despite its traditional song structure (with announced transitions, even) the song lacks a traditional hook. Unbelievably, by highlighting the genre’s reference points to Prince, Timbaland has made the first commercially viable electroclash single. (Sorry, Peaches.) This type of single is a fine excuse for the corporate programming of radio — if not for repeated plays, few would realize how wonderful it is.

“Promiscuous” is exactly the opposite. From chorus to verses to beats, Nelly Furtado’s is perhaps the best single Timbaland has produced for someone other than Aaliyah. In any case, Furtado seems a new muse for the producer, which is good news for pop fans everywhere. Note in particular the perfect pop moment when Furtado sings “Boy, I’m tired of running/ Let’s walk for a minute” and the measured crystalline echo of the chorus kicks in. Furtado herself is just as strong and charming as Timbaland, from her teasing lyrics to her Canadian-pride shout-out to Steve Nash.

“Bossy” — Kelis

Of course, for all his hard work, talent and vocal overdubs, even Timbaland couldn’t outdo Kelis’s “Bossy.” Third-album singles never raise an artist’s profile the way this one has, and in this regard the track is lyrically brilliant. Kelis fiercely introduces the track “You don’t have to love me/ You don’t even have to like me/ But you will respect me.” By claiming herself as the boss, she stakes a claim as an A-list female singer and as an artist in her own right, i.e. outside the umbrella of the Neptunes. This single should have hit as hard as “Crazy in Love” did two years ago. “Bossy” far outshines the lackluster singles from “B’day,” especially “Ring the Alarm” — didn’t Beyonce hear the part in Bossy about how Kelis is “the first girl to scream on a track?” Nas may have conceded (or at least settled) his beef with Jay-Z, but his girlfriend is schooling the Def Jam President’s First Lady.

“S.O.S.” — Rihanna

Beyonce’s not the only artist caught copying Kelis lately — watch the video for Rihanna’s single “S.O.S.” to see her crib visually and stylistically from both Kelis and Beyoncé. And with a single apparently comprised of Rihanna singing over an instrumental version of “Tainted Love” (even the lyrics express the same thematic sentiments as Soft Cell’s original cover), it’s tempting to write her off as completely unoriginal. Which she is, but that hardly makes the single anything less than compelling. The song’s easy to write off, but don’t — if necessary, think of it as a mashup, or as “Tainted Love” charting again. Just stop hating and listen in.

“Say I” — Christina Milian featuring Young Jeezy

Christina Milian has perhaps the most underappreciated single of the summer with “Say I”. Producers Cool & Dre gave Milian a stellar beat, which is unsurprising given that the Dre half of the production duo is currently dating the singer. And the guest verse from last summer’s hip-hop heavyweight Jeezy is as charismatic as anything off 2005’s deserved smash “Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101.” Milian, too, vows to “keep it gangsta,” but while she noticeably gives her all on this single, that sentiment is perhaps ill-advised. Based on the (lack of) radio staying power of “Say I,” (and on her decision not to record “S.O.S.,” which was offered to her before Rihanna), Milian was dropped from her label.

“Hustlin’” — Rick Ross

While Jeezy otherwise lay low in 2006, several upstart trappers burst onto the scene, most notably Miami’s Rick Ross. Ross’ subtly lazy flow matches the simplicity of his gruff drawl. These talents are skillfully juxtaposed against his straight-faced braggery (e.g. his “custom spinner wheels/ Ain’t drove in a week, them bitches spinnin’ still”). And anyone who can rhyme “twenty-two” with itself seven times without sounding ridiculous can hardly be called a bad rapper. The exaggerated personality of “Hustlin’” is as much a product of the beat as Ross himself. The organ and synthesized brass cranked to 11, dropping out at strategic points, match the rapper’s larger-than-life persona. (The “Hustlin’” remix featuring Jay-Z and Jeezy himself misses the point of the original, since the two guests, even at their most boastful, have a more cinema verite style that is wildly out of place here.)

“Ridin’” — Chamillionaire featuring Krayzie Bone

Chamillionaire provides Ross’s only competition for best summer rap single with “Ridin” featuring Krayzie Bone (rap novices note: he’s in Bone Thugs N Harmony, who sang “Crossroads”). The slightly baroque synth-string beat of “Ridin’” suits Chamillionaire’s rhymes about avoiding the police in his car, for the following reasons: his vehicle has illegal modifications (the mention of a “Playstation controller” in particular evokes a Pimp My Ride aesthetic); he’s a wanted man (“Got warrants in every city but Houston”); he’s playing his music loud (and “swangin’”); he’s black (this is also made explicit in the song’s video). While Paul Wall has been doing guest rhymes for anyone who’ll pay him enough (Paris Hilton?) and Mike Jones is apparently AWOL, Chamillionaire alone is carrying the luminous torch for Houston hip-hop these days.

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