January 17, 2011


Like Her! Remember Her! What's Her Name?

Who's that asking who her name is in Rihanna's "What's My Name"? RiRi, right? Well, somebody's trying to make herself heard. For a song that's about asserting identity, it's kind of light on serious Rihanna action; for the first minute or so, it sounds like she's the hook girl and the song belongs to Drake. And even when he wanders away after his verse, Rihanna's voice is practically subsumed in electronic treatments and echoing synth stabs; the only part of the song where her personality really comes through is the "you're so amazing/you took the time to figure me out" bridge. (Back in November, Christopher Weingarten noted that the video's pretty low-key by her standards, too.)

The urgent demand for recognition, though, is one of the signature moves of the least well-known name on "What's My Name"'s writing credits. Songwriter Ester Dean has been batting one hit after another into the charts (including Katy Perry's "Firework"—which followed "What's My Name" to the top of the charts by just a couple of weeks—and Rihanna's own "Rude Boy"), but the titles of some of her songs have a not-so-hidden agenda: she's written or co-written "Google Me" for Teyana Taylor, "Like Me" for Girlicious, "Remember Me" for T.I., and "Grammy" for Soulja Boy.

The other non-performing co-writers on "What's My Name" tend to stay out of the limelight a bit more: Stargate, the professional name for a pair of Norwegian producers, Mikkel Storleer Eriksen and Tor Erik Hermansen, who've been cranking out R&B hits together since 1997. (Go back to one of the first significant songs Hermansen wrote—"Need You," for the Norwegian singer Noora—and you can hear the embryonic version of the sound of later Stargate hits like Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable," with stripped-down arrangements built around drum loops, acoustic guitar and carefully filigreed vocals.) Stargate produced "Firework" and "Rude Boy" too, as well as another Dean collaboration, Sean Kingston and Nicki Minaj's "Letting Go (Dutty Love)." And, in fact, they've followed up their end-of-2010 one-two punch with another huge hit of the moment—Wiz Khalifa's "Black and Yellow." (More on that next week.)

There are basically three models for pop figures who take on the task of writing and producing records for a slew of artists. One path is to be popular performers in their own right first. That's the Linda Perry model: she was Four Non Blondes' frontwoman before she started writing hits for the likes of Pink and Christina Aguilera. Another is to write and produce for other artists as an extension of their own career. See, for instance, the hits Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards wrote and produced for Sister Sledge, Norma Jean Wright and Diana Ross while they were charting on their own with Chic; everything they worked on had a "Chic Organization" credit on it.

The third, and slightly rarer, path is when a pop songwriter connects with an audience first behind the scenes and then in front of the cameras. The canonical example there is Carole King, who was a hugely successful songwriter in the '60s--she co-wrote "The Loco-Motion," "Up on the Roof," "Pleasant Valley Sunday" and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," among many others. But although she occasionally recorded on her own (her 1962 single "It Might as Well Rain Until September" is worth a listen), she didn't really catch on as a solo artist until 1971's Tapestry album—a decade after the first #1 single with her name on the credits, the Shirelles' "Will You Love Me Tomorrow").

That may be the route Ester Dean is trying to take. Dean's had exactly one solo single to date: 2009's minor hit "Drop It Low," from the More Than a Game soundtrack.

Oddly, it's an even more anonymous song than "What's My Name": it gives Dean very little presence as a vocalist or as a persona. (There was briefly a promotional campaign for "Drop It Low" that revolved around the fact that nobody really knew what she looked like.) Dean claims an album of her own will be coming "soon." Perhaps she could write a song for herself called "Friend Me."