April 4, 2011


All the Big Stars

Hype Williams' video for Kanye West's "All of the Lights" opens with a shot of dozens of names on a board. That might be a joke about the song itself: besides West and top-billed co-stars Rihanna and Kid Cudi, the recording features performances by Elton John, Drake, John Legend, The-Dream, Alicia Keys and a host of other middling-to-huge names, most of them shunted into the chorus. (Rihanna's outfit, surprisingly, doesn't get a credit of its own, despite providing an indelible reinterpretation of her line "want you to see everything.") And, as a consequence, "All of the Lights" runs into one of the trickiest problems in songcraft: how to construct a four-minute piece that lets a whole lot of different voices each get a star turn.

Usually, the words to pop songs are lyrics in the sense of "lyric poetry." If one voice is out front, the idea is that that person is speaking either as himself or herself, or as a character. (Maybe there are backup singers, or people singing harmony, but they're just emphasizing whatever the lead vocalist is doing.) Simple, right? Two people singing is a little trickier. It can be a conversational duet—the sort of thing George Jones and Tammy Wynette used to do—or two perspectives on the same thing, a la Sleater-Kinney. The latter works particularly well if one voice is singing and another one's rapping, as with, say, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys' "Empire State of Mind"; that's why hip-hop and R&B hits tend to have a "feat." somewhere in their titles these days.

Three people? Making that kind of conversation work in the space of a pop song is tougher, although even spotlight-lover Kanye has been part of a great one-off trio: on Twista's "Slow Jamz," he and Twista and Jamie Foxx all managed to carve out space of their own. Four? That's even trickier: most groups with more than a few vocalists tend to only have a couple of them take a spotlight turn within a single song. (The Bangles had four lead singers, but they usually alternated songs, and only three of them got solo verses on "Walk Like an Egyptian"; the Traveling Wilburys had five singers, but only a few of them sang lead on any given song, even "Handle With Care.")

Beyond that, you're getting into "Do They Know It's Christmas?" territory, or something like the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band's "The Intro and the Outro," from 1967: the joke is that it spends so much time introducing all its guest musicians ("Adolf Hitler on vibes. Nice!... Over there, Eric Clapton, ukulele... Count Basie Orchestra on triangle") that it never actually gets around to being a song.

In fact, the only real attempt at a group that gave more than three singers a chance to elbow each other off the microphone within each song didn't last long at all. Assembled in 1968, the Soul Clan consisted of five killer R&B vocalists—organizer Don Covay, Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, Joe Tex and Arthur Conley—who'd all been pretty successful on their own. When it came time to make their first collective single, though, the Clan members never even managed to be in the same place at the same time. Don Covay assembled the backing track; the others recorded their parts individually. The A-side, "Soul Meeting," cracked the charts, scraping its way up to #34 R&B; the B-side, "That's How It Feels," is something of a cult item. There was an album credited to the group, but it was really just those two songs plus a couple of solo tracks by each of the members. In fact, that first single was all they ever managed to record collectively.

The lineup on "All of the Lights" is hardly a "group," just a one-off assemblage—and, under the circumstances, it's not surprising that the track ends up being dominated by Kanye's presence. Every time Rihanna's singing, or Kid CuDi's crooning, or somebody else is chiming in, it's just marking time until 'Ye gets back out in front. The point of its arrangement—bringing in a whole credit sequence's worth of stars to glimmer for a few moments and be gone—may simply be that he's the light who gets to shine brightest.