As ubiquitous as Will.i.am may seem, he hasn't been a part of the central pop conversation in the past year or two the way a Ke$ha or a Drake has been — it's been four years since "Boom Boom Pow" and "I Gotta Feeling" were the aural wallpaper du jour. But then again, neither has Britney Spears. In terms of sales and longevity, both are legitimate pop icons, but in 2013 both are probably more well known for their participation in reality singing competitions; they have now achieved "mentor" status, somehow. Fitting that that was where "Scream and Shout" made its debut last month, despite the general lack of what can actually be called singing. I wrote about it briefly in the recap for the X Factor episode it premiered on; I believe my overall first impression was that it made me deeply depressed about the direction our society is headed. I would like to amend that statement right now: This song sounds like at least one of the directions our society is headed in, and it is both depressing and kind of cool. Which qualifies it as cyberpunk, I think?
"Scream and Shout" is a song by two ancient (in pop years) giants stuck on a gradually drifting island of irrelevance; this is them trying so hard to jump back to the mainland that they accidentally overshoot and wind up on the other side, on a whole new Weirdo Island. If there's any song it bears a resemblance to sonically, it's the hook of The Black Eyed Peas' "The Time (Dirty Bit)," but I'll take Britney's slithery, Auto-Tuned, thoroughly unconventional harmonizing over Stacey Ferguson's off-key wails any day. The no. 1 thing you notice about this song, the "cool" thing, if you will (it's OK if you won't), is how relatively reserved it is, despite the opening request to "bring the action" and the volley of oscillating beats. It's bouncy but cold, very dumb but very ambitious. I'm no Will.i.am fan, but if there's one thing he's good at as a producer, it's giving a song a sense of forward motion. Listen to something like "Fergalicious" again and you can sense him buckling you into that tricked-out Stretch Hummer of a song, and even if the destination is the city dump, the ride can be a little fun in and of itself. In "Scream and Shout," the destination is at least a little more promising.
Lyrical notes: Let's be perfectly clear up front: These are garbage lyrics, like most anything Will.i.am has a hand in (in fact, gonna go ahead and declare him the worst pop lyricist of our time, that seems safe enough), but that doesn't mean Ms. Spears can't class them up with a bizarre, Right Said Fred–esque Euro-accent! In fact, on first listen, that voice is so mesmerizingly weird, you don't even notice that she's merely regurgitating some lobotomized remedial circa-2005 "In Da Club" lyrics. Remember when almost every pop song took place "in the club"? The lyrical setting has waned in popularity as club music has become less physically tethered to the actual club, so the fact that those three little words figure so prominently in this song feels a tad vintage, but kind of endearingly so.
If there's one part that really works for me, though, it's Will.i.am's wistful "sung" bridge:
It goes on and on and on and on
When me and you party together
I wish this night would last forever
Cause I was feeling down and now feel better
I've always loved a simple lyric; I was more of a Modest Mouse than a Death Cab kid in high school; a well-timed "GOD DAMN" does more for me than a diary full of SAT words. That stance gets harder and harder to defend the more you try to apply it to present-day committee-built pop jams, but sometimes, when I come up against a stanza as true and stupid as the one above, I feel like it still holds. There are a lot of lazy verbalizations of simple feelings on the radio, but every once in a while one is so basic that it seems practically avant-garde. Everything you need is in those four lines: a state of before and after, and a projection for eternity, all in words a 6-year-old could have written.
Production highlight: It helps that that part is "sung" and not spoken in Will.i.am's absolutely un-noteworthy rap delivery, and that at that moment he brings in the two dueling time signatures, a little zag in a song that would have been perfectly fine zigging for four minutes. Those soft plucks rising and falling under the melody are ear-grabbing but not showy, and are a great final trick to pull out before the song goes out for one last round of "oh we oh we oh"s. That moment resembles nothing else on mainstream radio right now, and it's enough to make even the most stringent hater wonder if Will.i.am actually, finally, kind of made a mature song.