This strutting Discovery highlight was a collaboration with dance legend (and Daft Punk idol) Todd Edwards, who co-wrote and co-produced the house-funk heater. In a less-expected move, Edwards also was tasked with singing on the track, delivering a soulful, urgent and nonetheless extremely cool vocal performance that oozed human warmth (and '70s radio rock vibes) on an album otherwise largely defined by robotics. ("Can you sing a little raspier," Edwards recalled the duo asking him during recording sessions, "like Foreigner?") "Face to Face" may have been a deeper cut as the penultimate track on Discovery, but it didn't go totally under the radar, hitting No. 1 on Dance Club Songs in a remixed version for the Daft Club set in 2004. -- K.B.
1. Jay-Z, "Never Change" (The Blueprint)
"With 'The Blueprint,' there was one specific theme -- soul music," Jay Z told Billboard in 2002. And it’s fitting that on his fifth album, which debuted on Sept. 11th to universal acclaim and became his fourth straight Billboard 200 chart-topper, the two most soulful songs of his career appear back to back, anchoring the second half of what is probably, still, the best work of his career.
But whereas "Song Cry," the album's popular fourth single, is an emotional ode to past loves, "Never Change" is a different undertaking entirely. It's a song that, perhaps more than any other in his catalog, encompasses the entirety of Shawn Carter as a rapper, a hustler and as a human being. It's also a thesis statement of sorts -- "This is crew love, move music or move drugs" — and one that provides an explanation for how Jay-Z moves, and why, using some examples so specific that it made some of his inner circle a little anxious.
Indeed, it is that comfort with the uncomfortable that gives the song so much of its emotional resonance. The one section in particular that made Tyran "Ty Ty" Smith (then vp of A&R at Def Jam and now a co-founder and president of A&R at Roc Nation) balk is built around one of the enduring myths of Jay’s drug dealing past -- one which he'd repeatedly referenced on previous albums, without ever totally digging into the reality of the rollercoaster that it was: "Lost 92 bricks, had to fall back/ Knocked a n---a off his feet, but I crawled back/ Had A-1 credit, got more crack / From the first to the fifth, gave it all back/ If I'm not a hustler, what you call that?/ This is before rap/ This is all fact / I never change." Referencing losses like that, when the prevailing fashion of hip-hop at the time was flaunting kingpin status at every turn, was revelatory for its humility; years later, Pusha T would point to that line as "something Jay taught me: You can’t always be the superhero."
The production on the song is helmed by Kanye West, one of four tracks he produced on the album, a look often credited as helping launch his career. And while the other three ("Izzo (H.O.V.A.)," "Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)" and "Takeover") are more celebrated, it's "Never Change" -- with West, uncredited, handling the hook (whether he lifted it from someone else or not) and sampling David Ruffin’s "Common Man" -- that feels the most heartfelt. And as their careers, and lives, became more intertwined as the years went on, it’s appropriate that they would have been together for the genesis of one of Jay’s best and most introspective songs, with real relationships bringing out real emotions, real situations and real admissions.
The song is chock full of references that most casual listeners were never meant to understand, hustlers and friends from the street life who helped shape and mold the person before he became the artist, the businessman, the icon. But there’s a loyalty to those people and their shared tribulations -- "What up to my Miami and St. Thomas connects/ I'll never mention your name, I promise respect/ Death before dishonor, correct, yep/ That's what you promised me, since the Bomber League," or, "Plead the fifth when it comes to the fam/ I’m like a dog, I never speak but I understand" -- that feels universal, that allows those same listeners to connect to those specific references, and that once again lends emotional resonance.