Song 1: Aloe Blacc – I Need A Dollar
2010 will be remembered for many things: the forming of the first peacetime coalition government in living memory, a dismal football World Cup and the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti. But the one constant background hum – and the thing that may well define 2010 for future generations – was the recession. Depending on who tells you, the current financial state of the western world is anything from uncomfortable to cataclysmic, but regardless of the true severity, the general gist is that you’ve never had it so bad.
Yet despite the rising unemployment, nervousness and severe government policies, the cultural response to the current downturn has been muted at best. In previous generations, songwriters and artists reacted instantly – the Winter of Discontent and 1968’s civil unrest in the US allowed musicians to galvanise whole swathes of nations with either protest songs or street-level observation.
By contrast, 2010’s cultural signifiers, amidst the population’s rising anxiety, have been the resurrection of power-ballad cack Don’t Stop Believin’ and Take That. Even supposedly “serious” artistes with form in addressing social strife, like Arcade Fire and Kanye West (both with new albums in 2010) have shied away from the subject.
That void is partially what makes I Need a Dollar so good: Blacc has broken a silence, sounding relevant and heartfelt without being po-faced. “I don’t know if I’m walking on solid ground ’cause everything around me is crumbling down,” he sings with conviction and soul, articulating the worries of many. And the final two words of the following line – “help me” – are a masterclass in passionate delivery.
Of course, “message” songs are unbearable if they’re not actually good music too, and I Need a Dollar, with its woe-is-me story of redundancy and alcoholism, would’ve run the risk of being incredibly trite were it not so well composed. Thankfully, however, this is great pop that can exist proudly alongside the best socially-aware soul from the 70s; it is a worthy companion to Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield’s best work. Indeed, it’s worth noting that I Need a Dollar can be enjoyed just as much on a lyric-free level: its arrangement is punchy and pithy, expressive and poignant, with a well-measured helping of melancholy to soften the parping brass, and Blacc’s honeyed voice is a subtle combination of the silky-smooth with the downtrodden.
Of course, there are contradictions here: Yes, Blacc may be a successful entertainer signed to a major record label. Yes, he may be co-opting others’ grief, passing it off as his own and then asking the listener to employ him for telling his (false) story about being unemployed. And so, yes, the sentiment on I Need a Dollar could be deemed slightly disingenuous.
But what negates those qualms here is Blacc’s believability – the mirror he is holding up is flawless, and has the considerable added bonus of sounding absolutely delicious. Amid the general head-in-the-sand response to such a severe financial and political era, I Need a Dollar is a revelation. There hasn’t been a more illustrative record in the year just gone.