“Just finished my piano lesson in time to watch the Oscar’s red carpet!!!” Kim Kardashian West posted to Twitter on Sunday (Feb. 22). “I’m going to surprise Kanye by learning one of his songs! He’s hardly on social media so he won’t know I’m tweeting this lol.”
Aside from Kardashian’s not-so-secret method of sneaking up on her husband, Kanye West, with a surprise performance (after all, West does only follow one person on Twitter, and it is his wife), the piano-lessons revelation was momentous for another reason: it means that Kim Kardashian is returning to music! That’s right, returning to music. Have you already forgotten her solo single, 2011’s “Jam (Turn It Up)”? I have not. If anything, “Jam (Turn It Up)” might be one of the more interesting pop singles in recent memory, if only to consider what it could have been.
Bear with me for a second. Let’s go back to the end of 2010. At that time, Kim Kardashian was not the massive star that she is now, but she was rapidly becoming a household name. Keeping Up with the Kardashians had already become a massive hit for E!, and the first spin-off co-starring Kim, Kourtney and Kim Take New York, was about to premiere. Kim had been transitioning from blink-and-you-miss-it media opportunities — a part in Disaster Movie, a spot on Dancing With The Stars — to sizable endorsement deals, from athletic apparel to perfumes to footwear sites to weight-loss products to branded clothes, the latter which debuted at New York Fashion Week in February 2010. While the Kim Kardashian Brand was expanding, fame-affirming institutions, from Madame Tussauds to the New York Times Best Seller List, were acknowledging that Kim and her sisters had separated themselves from the reality-show legions of stardom-seekers. And so, when Kim decided to follow in the footsteps of DJ Pauly D, Countess LuAnn de Lesseps and Heidi Montag and drop a solo single, she acquired the type of collaborative talent that would potentially allow her musical bid to rise above those personalities’ dreadful tracks.
In December 2010, Kim was spotted in a Culver City, California studio with future husband Kanye West (a few weeks earlier, Kardashian had denied being pregnant with Kanye’s baby… and this was all before the Kris Humphries marriage!). West, fresh off of a critical smash with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, was rumored to be co-starring in a music video for Kardashian’s debut single, with the clip to be directed by medium visionary Hype Williams. And The-Dream, at that point basking in the glow of hits like Rihanna‘s “Umbrella” and Beyonce‘s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It),” was attached to produce.
Before it was released, it seemed like the stars were aligning for Kim Kardashian to continue her quest to systematically overtake all of pop culture. The-Dream (real name: Terius Nash) told Billboard earlier this month that the decision to work with Kardashian was a no-brainer. “When Kim asked me to do something with her, it was like, ‘Of course! You’re one of the biggest people on earth right now! Why wouldn’t I?'” he says.
Kardashian showcased “Jam (Turn It Up)” at a 2011 New Year’s party at Las Vegas’ TAO nightclub, and was released commercially on March 2, 2011, with proceeds from the single reportedly going to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital (St. Jude did not respond to multiple inquiries regarding specific donations from the song). “Jam (Turn It Up)” was widely derided by critics; the New York Daily News called Kardashian “the worst singer in the reality TV universe” in a headline, while Vulture described her vocals as “sounding as if they are emanating from a baby that is either very bored or very drugged.” Perhaps more damaging for Kardashian is that the song didn’t do anything commercially, even with the Kardashian Brand muscle behind it. “Jam (Turn It Up)” never appeared on any Billboard radio charts, including the dance charts, and the song has only sold 63,000 download to date, according to Nielsen Music. From the moment the single was released, Kardashian’s dance-pop turn appeared to be wholly misbegotten.
So, is “Jam (Turn It Up)” really that bad? Maybe. I’ve listened to the song about 20 times in the past week, and still can’t decide whether Kardashian’s vocals are overly processed, or not processed enough. There’s a sort of breathless quality to her delivery — she sounds like she was jogging when she recorded this, and was unable to catch up to the beat — that obviously wasn’t intentional, and it’s difficult to distinguish if that affectation is correctable in a different style. The way Kim asserts that “They playing my jam/They playing my jam” with dead-eyed solemnity makes one wonder if she is in fact disappointed that they are playing her jam. The manner in which her voice melts into The-Dream’s backing vocals on the hook is oddly disconcerting, as if the two artists are not harmonizing but instead forming a sad puddle in the middle of the dance floor.
Kim may have been saved by a less driving tempo — think reality survivor Paris Hilton’s cult classic “Stars Are Blind” — and more intelligible lyrics (she actually sing-commands, “Five more shots of tequila, I’m thirsty!” at one point). The dirty secret of “Jam (Turn It Up),” though: it’s actually a pretty great The-Dream song, one that could have wormed its way onto any of his excellent first three solo albums. The opening 15 seconds plays out like a more jittery version of the R&B virtuoso’s 2010 song “F.I.L.A.,” and the chorus could have popped with a more dynamic vocal presence carrying the generic club slogans. Aspects of “Jam (Turn It Up)” really work, but Kardashian doesn’t fit with any of them.
Following the unsuccessful song release, Kardashian ostensibly shrugged off “Jam (Turn It Up)” as nothing more than an experiment, and killed any chatter of a full-length album. That was the beauty of having the single tied to St. Jude — even if everyone hated it, at least the track benefited a good cause. Two months after its release, Khloe Kardashian said of the song, “The song was for charity; it wasn’t for her to have a recording deal.” In 2012, The-Dream echoed that sentiment, telling MTV, “It wasn’t about kicking off a singing career; it was us really having the power of TV and goofing off.” One wonders if their tunes would have changed had “Jam (Turn It Up)” become a semblance of a hit instead of been swept under the rug.
More absurdly, the Hype Williams-directed music video for the track was never officially released, and Kim’s sisters professed that the clip was never supposed to be released. “I think it’s for [Kim’s] eyes only,” Kourtney said, with Khloe adding, “[It was] something she just wanted to be for herself and for fun, so the video she made just for herself.” Commissioning Hype Williams to direct a music video you never intend to release? That’s either a huge crock, or the best indicator of baller life ever.
But really, who knows — maybe Kim legitimately did not want to pursue pop stardom, and “Jam (Turn It Up)” was a make-a-wish one-off for the mega-star (Kardashian was not available to comment for this story). Not everyone who spends a night warbling away in a karaoke bar wants to start a full-fledged singing career, after all. Looking back on the song, The-Dream suggests that, in the world of 140-character snap judgments and hyper-scrutiny, it’s increasingly difficult for artists to dabble in a medium outside of his or her own, even if it’s just for kicks.
“I understand the Rat Pack [style of entertainment] … how everybody is like, ‘Hey! Come up to the mic and sing a song!'” he says. “Unfortunately, today those things don’t mingle anymore. It’s all separation, separation, separation. As far as we came, we’ve only come to a place where we still put each other into whatever the boxes are.”
And that’s why, no matter what you think of Kim Kardashian or how much you loathe the song, “Jam (Turn It Up)” is admirable, at the very least. Kim has spent her entire career trying to stuff her brand into new boxes, often successfully; Kanye West is currently doing the same thing in the fashion world. Kim did so rather clumsily in her first (and so far, only) foray into the music world, but has never expressed regret over the song, and doesn’t need to. We all take missteps; Kim owns hers, and so does The-Dream.
“Everybody actually wishes they could do a song with Kim Kardashian, and I did it,” The-Dream says proudly. “And whether you like it or not, I still did it. Thirty years from now, I can be like, ‘Yeah, I did it for the Marilyn Monroe of that time.'”
Four years after its release, “Jam (Turn It Up)” has become one of modern pop’s crazier what-ifs — as in, what if Kim Kardashian’s debut single had been really good? How different would pop culture be if the song had grown into a Top 10 hit? “Jam (Turn It Up)” certainly possessed the pedigree of a hit, and if Kim had followed through on her many hyperbolic teases of the track, how far could her singing career have gone? “Jam (Turn It Up)” is not a good song, but for singlehandedly halting the potential music career of someone who would eventually become one of the most famous people on the planet, it’s a pretty darn fascinating one.