Pop minimalism is one of the most interesting and distinct music trends of this decade. Particularly over the last four years, much of rap and Top 40 dance music has had no chord progression at all, only a repeating riff (“ostinato”) and/or a single note bass line.
The following club anthems are extreme examples of pop minimalism. They all are comprised almost entirely of rhythmic components, but all of them have at least some melodic content somewhere, including tuned 808s which usually will not be audible except in a night club or car stereo.
5) “Wait (Whisper Song)” by Ying Yang Twins (NSFW video)
When top producers make music today, they are imagining how a crowd will react to it in a night club environment, but even more specifically they’re thinking about strip clubs. Getting your single in rotation at strip clubs is a right of passage in the rap world and “Wait” is a perfect example of a song written explicitly for that purpose.
Aside from lyrical content, there is something raw (and therefore sexual) about sparse rap arrangements. The deep drum sounds in “Wait” are a mix between kicks, 808s, and toms. They are tuned, but each hit slides downward in pitch (sometimes erroneously referred to by drum techs as “the doppler effect”), so it would be futile to try to establish a key signature for this song. The only other element which is not entirely percussive is an “oooo” yell.
The deep drums likely inspired the tuned kicks in the next song, which uses an identical rhythm figure.
Billboard Hip-Hop Ranking: #3
Billboard Hot 100: #15
4) “Drop It Like It’s Hot” by Snoop Dogg (feat. Pharrell)
While Snoop’s chorus vocals have pitch to them, they are not discernible notes per se. It is more reminiscent of a tonal language (such as Chinese) than a scale. Other non-melodic elements include tuned kicks, an “ooo” vocal line and a synth progression which plays intermittently.
Just a hunch, but I have a feeling the snare pattern which ends each verse phrase inspired the producer of my #3 pick.
Billboard Hip-Hop Ranking: #1
Billboard Hot 100 Ranking: #1
3) “A Milli” by Lil Wayne
One of the most astounding things about this song is that in spite of all the fuss we make over choruses in this industry, “A Milli” simply doesn’t have a chorus. In fact, I would argue that the real “hook” of this song is the dotted-8th note snare pattern. Highly unusual. You can hear this snare pattern in what seems like every hip-hop song released since Tha Carter III, perhaps most notably Beyonce’s “Diva.”
“A Milli” outlines the trend exactly as I described it: a single note 808 bassline and a (very, very repetitive) ostinato pattern. The effect is almost trance-like, casting a hypnotic spell which translates well on the dance floor.
Billboard Hip-Hop Ranking: #1
Billboard Hot 100 Ranking: #6
2) “Hollaback Girl” by Gwen Stefani
This mega-hit is a a prime example of hip-hop influencing Top 40. It is also one of the few songs in recent memory to crossover into hip-hop rather than from it.
Co-written by Pharrell, “Hollaback Girl” became an instant sensation. The verse and refrain have no melodic content at all except for Stefani’s vocal melody. While the chorus (“that’s my shit”) does have some harmonic content, it’s certainly nothing to write home about aside from being a reprieve from the musiclessness of the rest of the tune.
Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend,” the most viewed Youtube video of all time, echoes this pop song’s music-free sentiment during its introduction.
Billboard Top 40: #1
Billboard Pop 100: #1
Billboard Hot 100: #1
Billboard Hip-Hop Ranking: #8
1) “Lip Gloss” by Lil Mama
Above all the other songs on this list, the sparseness of this song blows me away. As if she had this blog post in mind, in the video version of “Lip Gloss,” Lil Mama raps a verse where she chants “no music!”
It makes perfect sense when you’re in a club, but hearing “Lip Gloss” for the first time on Youtube was nothing short of surreal. It seemed like some kind of post-apocalyptic anthem, the kind of thing you’d imagine kids listening to in a George Orwell novel. The youthful energy with which Lil Mama raps is contrasted by the stark, cold isolation of the drums. For me, though, she officially goes over the top when she raps the slogan “L’Oreal, yep, cause I’m worth it”.
All this being said, I love the song. This debut single from the only mainstream female rapper out right now says a lot about the limitations (or lack thereof) of pop music. Not even the kicks are tuned. All we get is a (rather weak) melodic bridge thrown in near the end for good measure.
(Also, call me crazy, but I think the movie Drumline paved the way for this song more than any of the other songs on this list.)
Billboard Hot 100: #10
Billboard Hip-Hop Ranking: #16
Pop minimalism seems to be on its way out with the emergence of Auto-Tune vocal hooks and rap moving in a more pop direction in general, but its influence will likely remain for decades to come and eventually reemerge in another form.
Submit your own examples and thoughts in the comments section.