In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
At least where rap music was concerned, Chicago was a backwater. That seems insane, but it’s true. Chicago is one of the biggest and greatest cities in America, and it’s got musical traditions in virtually every genre that stretch back for decades. But during the decades when rap was divided between the two coasts, Chicago developed its rap style in relative isolation. The city found its own sound, built around stuttery melodies and dazzlingly fast cadences, but that style didn’t often intersect with the mainstream. So it feels fitting that the first Chicago rapper to reach #1 is one of the great regional heroes of that once-ignored Chicago rap universe.
For many of us, Twista is Chicago rap. He’s the most gifted exemplar of a maddeningly difficult style. In 1992, before he or his Chicago hometown had any real national profile on the rap mainstream, Twista appeared in the Guinness Book Of World Records as the fastest rapper on the planet — the phenom who could spit 598 syllables in 58 seconds. For years, even as Twista failed to leave much of an impact on the pop charts, he built a reputation as a monster technician, a rapper with a style that nobody else could even approach. Then, more than a decade after that Guinness Book appearance, Twista did something even more difficult. He made a #1 hit. (Technically, Ludacris, who was largely raised in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, beat Twista to #1 by a couple of months. But Luda has always loudly repped Atlanta. We can give this one to Twista.)
But “Slow Jamz” isn’t really Twista’s song. “Slow Jamz” goes down in history as Twista’s song. He’s the lead artist, the one whose face appears on the single’s cover art. But “Slow Jamz” really marks the arrival of Kanye West, the true architect of the track. Kanye came up with the idea for “Slow Jamz.” He produced the track, rapped the first verse, wrote the hook. Twista shows up on the track almost as a scene-stealing role player, the same thing that he’d already done on countless other rappers’ songs. When Kanye released his debut album The College Dropout, “Slow Jamz” was on it. “Slow Jamz” really only stands as a Twista song because Kanye’s managers wanted to get Twista’s label to pay for the video.
As the first real Kanye West song to reach #1, “Slow Jamz” marks a turning point, a big arrival. Kanye has already appeared in this column because he produced Ludacris’ “Stand Up,” but “Slow Jamz” was the beginning of the Kanye era. Today, that’s a complicated thing to consider. You might’ve noticed that Kanye has been in the news a bit lately. He’s always been in the news over the past 20 years, but he’s really been in the news lately — for going full mask-off antisemitic and then for doubling and tripling down on that antisemitism. Kanye’s been going off on egotistical, fucked-up tirades for many years, and those of us in the press have made excuses for him, citing mental illness and his history of making great music. We’re not doing that shit anymore, and Kanye has utterly destroyed a career that once seemed indestructible.
I have probably written more words about Kanye West than I’ve written about any other artist. Our careers started around the same time; my first track reviews ran on Pitchfork a few months after The College Dropout came out. I’ve written about every Kanye album — if not a full review, than at least a few blog posts or whatever. The entire time I’ve been working, Kanye has been a towering figure — one who’s maintained his relevance even when his music hasn’t really merited that kind of consideration. For most of the time that I’ve been writing, Kanye has been doing tons of shit that undermines my enjoyment of his music, but he’s never been as absurd or indefensible as he’s been in recent months. I can’t say I’m looking forward to reliving the whole Kanye saga in this column.
Here’s the thing, though: This column has covered murderers, rapists, serial sex abusers. Pop music is a fucked-up world, and plenty of the people who have succeeded in pop are fucked-up people. In some cases, I’ve given glowing reviews to songs made by those fucked-up artists. Kanye West’s recent statements have done a lot of harm, but he’s not R. Kelly. He hasn’t destroyed lives in the same way. Personally, I can’t listen to R. Kelly anymore without thinking of his crimes. Kanye West is not in that league. When I hear Kanye’s voice, I often get a twinge of irritation, but my stomach doesn’t turn.
I don’t seek out Kanye West’s music the way I once did, but I haven’t gotten to the point where I feel like I need to scrub his presence out of my brain, either. Last week, I was at a hardcore show, and someone played the College Dropout deep cut “Get Em High” between bands. I was at this show by myself, and the crowd was full of literal professional wrestlers. I was not trying to draw attention to myself, and yet I couldn’t keep from rapping along. It was an irresistible physical urge. The truth is that I love a whole lot of Kanye West’s music, and much of that music is so deeply imprinted on me that I’ll probably always love it, at least on some level. That’s a personal thing. If you feel differently, I respect it, and I understand. But I’m not going to tear down Kanye West songs in this space just because they’re Kanye West songs. And “Slow Jamz”? That’s a good song.
“Slow Jamz” is effectively Kanye West’s second single. When Kanye rose up through the Roc-A-Fella ranks and became a star producer in the early ’00s, he really wanted to rap. I’ve heard story after story of Kanye in magazine offices, jumping up on chairs and rapping for whoever happened to be in the vicinity. His general thirst for fame and respect might’ve been a career detriment for a little while. Earlier this year, the multi-part Netflix documentary Jeen-Yuhs showed this version of Kanye West repeatedly trying and failing to get any traction as a rapper. There’s a moment where Kanye almost signs with Rawkus Records, the indie label that was home to pioneering alterna-rap groups like Black Star and Company Flow, and that’s a truly fascinating sliding-doors moment. But the Rawkus deal fell through, and Kanye finally convinced the Roc-A-Fella bosses that he should join their label — that he could hang with Memphis Bleek and the Young Gunz and the rest of the Roc.
The first single that Kanye finally got to release on Roc-A-Fella was “Through The Wire.” Kanye had gotten into a bad car wreck in Los Angeles in 2002. While his broken jaw was still wired shut, he’d rapped about the experience over a Chaka Khan sample, mythologizing his own struggle from the very beginning. Kanye released “Through The Wire” on his 2002 debut mixtape Get Well Soon, and he paid for his own “Through The Wire” video. Eventually, the song became a hit, peaking at #15. At this point, Kanye was a great media story — a fired-up young beatmaker who was convinced of his own greatness and who’d somehow talked himself into a spot on the roster of the greatest street-rap label in existence. Once upon a time, Kanye was a lovable underdog. That period didn’t last long, but it happened. It was real.
The concept for “Slow Jamz” came from the sample. In 1964, just after she scored her first top-10 hits with “Anyone Who Had A Heart” and “Walk On By,” former Number Ones artist Dionne Warwick released a single called “You’ll Never Get To Heaven (If You Break My Heart).” That song, like most of what Warwick was recording around that time, was written by the team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. It was a moderate hit, peaking at #34. Later on, Warwick also released that song’s B-side as a single. That particular Bacharach/David song was called “A House Is Not A Home,” and it peaked at #71.
In 1981, Luther Vandross recorded his own version of “A House Is Not A Home.” Vandross was just starting off as a solo artist after years of backup vocals and singing on things like the early hits from the disco project Change. Vandross’ take on “A House Is Not A Home,” recorded for his 1981 debut album Never Too Much, is a lush and expansive quiet-storm treatment. He sings the song with a pillowy softness, stretching it out to seven minutes. The term “slow jam” didn’t exist yet — Midnight Star would release their genre-defining song “Slow Jam” two years later — but Luther’s “A House Is Not A Home” is an archetypal slow jam. Vandross never released his cover as a single, but his version became one of his signature songs. (Luther’s highest-charting single, the version of “Endless Love” that he and Mariah Carey released in 1994, peaked at #2. It’s a 5.)
At the end of his version of “A House Is Not A Home,” Luther Vandross spends a while riffing on the question of whether you’re still going to be in love with him. The “Slow Jamz” samples come from that section. First, Luther stretches out one syllable into an elaborate study in baritone melisma: “Are you gooo-hooooona be?” Then, he takes some fast, darting runs, compressing words into tenor flourishes: “Areyougonnabe sayyou’regonnabe areyougonnabe?” Those two improvisations were Luther’s own; they weren’t part of the Dionne Warwick original. But because Kanye sampled those two bits, Burt Bacharach and Hal David both got songwriting credit on “Slow Jamz.”
The concept of “Slow Jamz” is simple but complicated. It’s music as self-aware music criticism. Kanye directs “Slow Jamz” to a woman who’s been dancing to faster, harder songs but who really wants to hear the lush, ornate slow-jam fantasias that R&B no longer offers her. Kanye offers to play these songs for this girl, but he twists those songs up into unrecognizable shapes. Kanye’s whole chipmunk-soul production style involved speeding and pitch-shifting old samples until they became sound effects, and that’s what he does on “Slow Jamz.” He turns Luther Vandross’ buttery runs into helium-charged squeaks, and then he uses his own playful ineptness to sing-rap over those samples.
Kanye’s introductory verse sets the scene. He’s trying to get laid, and he’s also playing around with this girl, working in references to old-school R&B singers any way she can: “She got a light-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson/ Got a dark-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson.” And then, when the girl tells him that she appreciates him going slow and she wants him to go faster, Kanye introduces a fried who can go really fast. That friend is Twista.
Carl “Twista” Mitchell grew up on the West Side of Chicago, and he started rapping when he was young. (When Twista was born, Ringo Starr’s “Photograph” was the #1 song in America.) Twista started out under the name Tung Twista, and that moniker really underlined how the man could do things with his mouth that nobody else could even approach — a mile-a-minute flow, like the rap version of the guy from the old Micro Machines commercials. Twista released his 1992 debut album Runnin’ Off At Da Mouth when he was 18. The album didn’t make a ton of noise, and Twista mostly became known as the guy from the Guinness Book. His whole style seemed to have a commercial ceiling. He rapped so fast, but most of us simply listened too slow.
Twista’s first two albums came and went, but he finally got a real shot in the mid-’90s. Around the time that former Number Ones artists Bone Thugs-N-Harmony were blowing up with their melodic quick-tongue style, Chicago groups Do Or Die and Crucial Conflict started to get some traction with tracks that hit a similar balance between verbal calisthenics and laid-back G-funk menace. Do Or Die’s breakout hit, 1996’s “Po Pimp,” ended with a scene-stealing Twista verse. Twista was still rapping fast, but he was more playful with it, more singsong. “Po Pimp” crossed over to become a #22 hit.
In 1997, Twista capitalized on his “Po Pimp” success by releasing Adrenaline Rush, a Midwest word-of-mouth classic that went platinum 12 years after its release. Adrenaline Rush included “Get It Wet,” a song about getting it wet, and that single peaked at #96. Until “Slow Jamz,” it was Twista’s only Hot 100 hit as lead artist. Twista formed a group called the Speedknot Mobstaz, and he spent the late ’90s dropping head-spinning guest verses album tracks from other rappers: Puff Daddy, Ruff Ryders, Trick Daddy, Trina, Ludacris, Jay-Z. Twista would do incredible things on those guest-verses, but his style seemed a bit like a party trick. He was a specialist, not a star.
In a Complex feature years later, Twista told the uneventful story of how he ended up on “Slow Jamz”: “Kanye was like, ‘I want to hear you on this song right here.’ He explained the concept, and I remember pacing in the studio, thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to name a bunch of different classic singers in this song right here.’” That’s what he does. In his “Slow Jamz” verse, Twista rattles off the names of R&B legends with his trademark dizzying speed. He rhymes “Keith Sweat” with “sheets wet” and “deep sex.” He rhymes “Pendergrass” with “bend ya ass.” He also sings along and does a little back-and-forth with the sample. Twista does his job on that song.
But “Slow Jamz” wasn’t done yet. It still needed a singer on the hook. At the time, Jamie Foxx wasn’t a singer. Foxx has made a brief and unsuccessful attempt to get into music years earlier. He was excelling in virtually every other arena, but music hadn’t worked for him yet. Jamie Foxx was born Eric Marlon Bishop in Terrell, Texas. (The Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” was the #1 song in America when Bishop was born.) Bishop was raised by his deeply religious working class grandparents. He sang in church, played quarterback on his high-school football team, and sang in a local band. After high school, he studied performing arts at United States International University.
Eric Bishop got into comedy almost accidentally; a girlfriend dared him to take the stage at an open-mic night. Bishop had told jokes in class ever since he was a kid, and he took to stand-up instantly. Bishop renamed himself Jamie Foxx in honor of comedy legend Redd Foxx. Two years after that first open-mic night, Foxx joined the cast of the hugely important sketch show In Living Color; Keenan Ivory Wayans introduced him on the same season premiere that he introduced Fly Girl Jennifer Lopez, an artist who’s been in this column a bunch of times. On In Living Color, Foxx became famous for playing the character of Wanda, an unattractive woman who thinks that she’s the flyest girl in existence.
Jamie Foxx spent three years on In Living Color before the show was canceled in 1994. A few months after it ended, Foxx released his debut album Peep This, which he mostly wrote and produced himself. Lead single “Infatuation” peaked at #92, and the album promptly disappeared. But Foxx had other things going on. Starting in 1996, he spent five years as the lead of The Jamie Foxx Show, a WB sitcom that Foxx co-created. Foxx got movie roles, too: The Great White Hype, Booty Call, The Players Club.
In 1999, Oliver Stone cast Jamie Foxx in his great football movie Any Given Sunday. Foxx played Willie Beamen, a third-string quarterback who rises suddenly to stardom, and he was great. That led to more dramatic roles, like the part of Drew Bundini Brown in Michael Mann’s 2001 biopic Ali. Jamie Foxx’s acting career was thriving, but he really wanted another shot at music. So he’d host parties, inviting big music stars and hoping to get a foot in the door that way. One night, someone introduced him to Kanye West. Foxx got Kanye to freestyle, and he was impressed.
Jamie Foxx has told the story a great many times since. Kanye said that he had a song that would sound good with Foxx’s voice. Foxx said that he had a studio in his basement, and they could go and record it right then and there. When Foxx first attempted the hook, he tried to sing it like an old-school R&B singer. Kanye told him that he should just sing the song “regular.” Foxx was affronted, but he did what Kanye wanted, and then he figured that the song would disappear forever. Then Foxx went off to do what he calls “a bad movie,” and when he came back home, he learned that his song with Kanye was the #1 song in America. (If I’m getting the timeline right, the bad movie was Breakin’ All The Rules. I haven’t seen that one, but it truly does look pretty bad.)
“Slow Jamz” has an elaborate backstory, especially for such a simple goof of a song. But the song doesn’t sound like something that took months to assemble. It holds together. Kanye spent years recording The College Dropout. He went way over budget, and not just because of the samples and the guest appearances. Kanye’s beats were built on samples, but he fleshed them out with live instrumentation. Along with Luther Vandross’ chopped-up and pitch-shifted voice, “Slow Jamz” has bass and guitar and keyboards and a nattering bongo. The actress Aisha Tyler, who’d just finished up a run on Friends, plays the woman who tells Kanye to do it faster. It’s quite a production.
“Slow Jamz” seems to gleam and stutter at the same time — perfect for a sped-up mutation of the old quiet storm sound. Kanye himself sounds flirty and conversational: “My dawg said you ain’t no freak, so you got to prove my man wrong.” Jamie Foxx sounds like he’s having fun, too, even if he doesn’t bust out all the R&B runs that he really wanted to show off. Twista is a human special effect. It’s a silly song, but it’s also a top-shelf rap production.
Kanye’s managers and label bosses didn’t have high hopes for “Slow Jamz” even though they knew it was a good song. Twista’s profile wasn’t high; he hadn’t released an album in six years. Kanye West was still gaining steam, but he hadn’t taken off yet. Jamie Foxx was an actor, not a singer. But “Slow Jamz” arrived at the perfect time. Kanye has emerged as a compelling new figure, a loudmouthed middle-class kid who seemed like the opposite of 50 Cent, the breakout star of the previous year. And Luther Vandross, the man sampled on the beat and namechecked on the chorus, was ailing. He’d suffered a stroke in 2003. In 2004, Vandross won a pile of Grammys, including Song Of The Year, but he wasn’t well enough to attend the ceremony. People seemed to know that this Grammy night was a goodbye, and Luther died a year later. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that “Slow Jamz” reached #1 two weeks after those Grammys.
“Slow Jamz” came out as a Twista song rather than a Kanye song because Kanye’s managers Gee Roberson and Kyambo “Hip-Hop” Joshua got day jobs doing A&R work at Atlantic Records, Twista’s label. They worked out a plan for “Slow Jamz” to come out as a single for both Twista and Kanye — appearing on Twista’s album first and then on The College Dropout. Twista says that Jay-Z had the idea to release “Slow Jamz” as a single for both of them. Everyone worked out a deal for Atlantic to play for the “Slow Jamz” video and for the song to appear on Twista’s Kamikaze LP, which was set to come out two weeks before The College Dropout. The video isn’t a huge-budget affair, but it definitely looks slicker than Kanye’s self-financed “Through The Wire” clip. It also shows Kanye’s aesthetic and gives cameos to the people who were in his circle at the time: Common, Consequence, Mike Epps, John Legend. (Legend will eventually appear in this column.) Aisha Tyler plays herself. She was on the celebrity poker circuit at the time, so she beats everyone in the party at cards.
“Slow Jamz” took off faster than anyone thought possible. In that Complex feature, Gee Robinson, one of Kanye’s managers, says that he was “shitting bricks” when Twista’s Kamikaze album came out and sold more than 300,000 copies in its first week. He thought he’d given away Kanye’s breakout hit. Kamikaze ultimately went platinum, thanks in part to its three Kanye West productions. Twista followed “Slow Jamz” with “Overnight Celebrity.” Kanye produced that song’s string-soaked beat and also delivered the uncredited vocals on the hook. “Overnight Celebrity” was another hit, peaking at #6. (It’s a 7.)
But Kanye’s managers didn’t have to worry. The College Dropout rode a tremendous wave of hype and sold more than 400,000 copies in its first week. Kanye’s follow-up single “All Falls Down” peaked at #7. (It’s an 8.) His next track, the blustery and pious “Jesus Walks,” got as high as #11. The College Dropout ultimately went quadruple platinum, and it got the best reviews of any album that year. Kanye spent much of the year opening for Usher on tour. A star was born. We’ll see Kanye in this column again.
Jamie Foxx and Twista also got big boosts from “Slow Jamz.” Foxx didn’t restart his music career in earnest until a few years later, but when he did, he made hits. Foxx will eventually appear in this column again as a guest on a Kanye track. (As lead artist, Foxx’s biggest hit is the 2009 T-Pain collab “Blame It,” which peaked at #2. It’s an 8.) Later in 2004, Twista made his final top-10 appearance, rapping at light-speed over a sample of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” on the Trick Daddy single “Let’s Go,” which peaked at #7. (It’s another 8.)
Twista’s hitmaking run was a blip. His 2005 follow-up album The Day After went gold, and its lead single, the Trey Songz collab “Girl Tonight,” peaked at #14. Twista hasn’t been on the Hot 100 since 2010, when his Chris Brown collab “Make A Movie” peaked at #71. (Chris Brown will eventually appear in this column.) But Twista still regularly shows up on other people’s songs and does astonishing things. Regional legends like Twista are hugely important to rap history. Most of them don’t have #1 hits. Twista was in the right place at the right time to score one. It seems poetically appropriate. Anyone who can rap that fast must have pretty good timing.