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by Jon Batiste

After musing briefly to myself about how few chart songs use a 12-bar blues progression like this nowadays, what struck me most about this Grammy Record Of The Year nominee (from Batiste’s fabulous Album Of The Year winner We Are) is the extraordinary range of vocal expression on display. Let’s just focus on the lead vocal to start with:

  • The choruses give us forceful high-register chest voice (first heard at 0:08) extending upwards to the extreme high-end (all the way to high C on “live” at 0:25) and down into the mid-register (for “freedom” at 0:31).
  • The first verse (0:32) switches to a smooth falsetto, completely changing the vocal tone despite using pretty much the same pitch range as the chorus – only the soprano Fs on “shoes”, “kangaroo”, and “overdue” are any higher.
  • Verse two introduces a more intense and grainy falsetto timbre.
  • For the middle section, he reveals another new tone colour, delivering a breathier, more laid-back chest voice, which transitions back towards the chorus sound on “you’re shining, oh” at 1:59.
  • For the chant-like rhythmic line on “I’m stuck to the dancefloor…” at 2:04 he then chooses a more full-bodied low-midrange chest voice, although still at a fairly conservative energy level.

And there’s plenty of backing-vocal action besides:

  • The slightly ragged-sounding lower-register mixed-voice “oo-hoo” textures during the song’s introduction and choruses. Listening to the Sides signal there, I reckon there are some hummed layers in there too.
  • The disciplined stereo female ensemble harmonies on “freedom” refrain (0:12) and their rowdier counterparts later in the song on “yeah” (2:22) and “oh yeah” (2:24).
  • A variety of solo background ad libs, such as the shouted “yeah” and “I know” at 0:15 and 0:18 respectively, or the sung “yeah” at 1:05 and semi-sung “oo-ee” and “wa-oo” moments at 1:13.
  • The whispery growls of “I wanna live” (0:25) and “what I’m gonna get” (0:27).
  • Some smoothly layered stereo unison male voices in the mid-register for “it’s your right” at 0:50.
  • During the second verse, the single-voice lead harmony sets its easy chest voice against the lead melody’s grainy falsetto.
  • We get octave-tripling for the male mob-vocals on “feels like money, money…” at 1:36.
  • The richly layered spoken-baritone “everybody” chant starting at 2:00.
  • There’s a lovely syrupy portamento to the stereo male-vocal harmonies on “stars” (1:52) and “oh” (1:56).
  • The messier semi-sung unison-male declamation “let me see you waddle” riffing at 2:08.
  • The distorted tenor- F scream (2:28) leading into the final chorus section.
  • And let’s not forget the first eight bars of verse one, where the absence of any backing vocals at all provides another arrangement contrast in itself!

As with a lot of modern productions these days, the impact of these vocals is as much about the arrangement as the performance. And, to underline this, it turns out that quite a few of the vocals have just been copied between song sections rather than performed afresh to suit their specific arrangement context. If you try phase-cancelling the first chorus against the second and third, for example, you’ll discover that the lead vocals, harmony BVs, and spoken interjections all cancel – it’s only the background ad libs that really seem to differ between iterations there. And the lead vocal also appears to be identical for the final four bars of each of the verses.