Just One Song: '1 Thing'

Behind the scenes of a ’00s classic…
Amerie

I DJ from time to time, and not always at the same place. Bars, clubs, gigs, festivals, weddings – I’ve stood behind several decks and done my best to keep people dancing. A lot of the time, I’ve failed. But I’ve a few bankers, a clutch of proven winners. ‘Hey Ya!’, obviously. ‘Regulate’, naturally. ‘1 Thing’… tends to get the job done, whatever the venue or vibe.

Ask someone who the track’s by, though, and answers don’t always come easy. I first noted this disconnect between my appreciation of the 2005 hit – number four in the UK, eight stateside, top 10 in multiple territories across Europe – and its public profile in 2013, around the release of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V. Being part of the always sonically satisfying GTA series, V featured no fewer than 17 in-game radio stations. Between cuts from Stardust (the sublime ‘Music Sounds Better With You’) and Rihanna, on the Non Stop Pop network, came ‘1 Thing’.

It quickly became a song you hoped for during any session – much like Robyn and Kleerup’s ‘With Every Heartbeat’ and the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘West End Girls’, which soundtracked one of my own memorable drives from Blaine County in the north to the city hub of Los Santos, into the setting sun. And yet, while watching a handful of Let’s Play-style videos in anticipation of receiving my own (delayed) copy of the game, I noticed how the track was repeatedly credited to Beyoncé. It’s not just these commentators who were getting it wrong – when I asked my wife who the song was by, she replied: “I dunno… Rihanna?”

The correct answer is, of course, Amerie – or, to give the Washington, D.C. singer her full name, Amerie Mi Marie Rogers. ‘1 Thing’ might sound, today just as it did nine years ago, like solid-gold pop class, but its release wasn’t an entirely smooth experience. Indeed, if certain people had gotten their way, it would never have been released at all.

Amerie had tasted chart success prior to ‘1 Thing’, and was a rising star on the Columbia roster after her debut single, ‘Why Don’t We Fall In Love’, broke the Billboard top 30 and peaked at 40 in the UK. That was 2002, a time when artists were given more than a single crack at achieving the level of success their labels expected.

‘All I Have’, Amerie’s debut album, charted at nine in the US in the summer of 2002, but lacked staying power. Nevertheless, critics were charmed: the album won a Soul Train award, and reached gold status for stateside sales. It was hoped, though, that what came next would elevate her from R&B artist of substantial promise to an outright pop star, someone to compete with the likes of Beyoncé, then hitting all-new highs with her ‘Dangerously In Love’ LP, and Jennifer Lopez, riding the swell of ‘Jenny From The Block’ following so soon after the triumph of ‘J.Lo’, packed as that album was with hit singles.

Work on Amerie’s second album, to be titled ‘Touch’, began in early 2004 – it came out in the spring of 2005, preceded by ‘1 Thing’. She collaborated closely with Rich Harrison, her “musical soulmate”, a producer and songwriter who’d served on ‘All I Have’ as well as contributing to tracks by Kelly Rowland, Usher and Tha’ Rayne. It’s another of his productions that almost certainly explains the confusion between ‘1 Thing’ and a Beyoncé number, as Harrison is the primary architect behind the Destiny’s Child singer’s ‘Crazy In Love’ single of 2003 – a six-million-seller bearing more than base similarities to what would be Amerie’s biggest hit.

Both tracks look to funk from 1970 for inspiration. ‘Crazy In Love’ samples The Chi-Lites’ ‘Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)’ while ‘1 Thing’ lifts The Meters’ version of ‘Oh, Calcutta!’ from the very same year. Each rides on rhythms synonymous with go-go funk of the early 1970s, music where a call-and-response dynamic was often employed – as was percussion that played light and fast, allowing bursts of brass and bass to punctuate proceedings. Listen to both songs and these elements are evident – and the BPMs are near identical too, ‘Crazy In Love’ at 99 and ‘1 Thing’ just a beat more per minute.

Despite the precedent of ‘Crazy In Love’, executives at Columbia were initially unmoved by ‘1 Thing’ – at least in the form they were receiving it in. They asked for several revisions, to the great frustration of artist, producer and management alike. Behind the scenes, Columbia was plotting to remove the song from Amerie and place it with another of their artists, namely Jennifer Lopez.

They never anticipated having their plans torn apart by an increasingly annoyed Amerie, who – with Harrison’s support – leaked the song in late 2004. Radio stations took to it immediately and continued to air the track even after Columbia pressured them to remove it from their playlists. This put the label in an unexpected position: they were forced into action against their will, moving quickly to issue ‘1 Thing’ as an official single in the first week of 2005.

Their decision – or, rather, Amerie’s decision to stick to her guns and get the track out there, whatever the cost – was totally vindicated. Not only did ‘1 Thing’ become a hit, its maker’s biggest to date, but it was also a massive critical success. Rolling Stone named ‘1 Thing’ their top single of 2005, and Pitchfork ranked it second. Robert Christgau rated it the 25th best song of the ’00s. The accolades continue to this day: Australian site Fasterlouder, commenting on the artist’s return as Ameriie, called the song a “pure popsplosion”. And, of course, its inclusion in GTAV is no small matter: publishers fall over themselves to get songs in those games.

But Amerie’s momentum faltered somewhat after ‘1 Thing’. Her next single, ‘Touch’, wasn’t a Harrison production, with Lil Jon filling the role. Like ‘1 Thing’, which came backed by a remix featuring Eve, ‘Touch’ also got a rap version, with T.I. on board for greater impact in that market. But the song completely failed to emulate the success of ‘1 Thing’, missing the Billboard top 200 and reaching only 95 on its Hot R&B chart – just the 94 places behind its predecessor. ‘Touch’, the album, improved on the performance of ‘All I Have’, peaking at five on the Billboard 200 – but after that the only way was down, her latest LP, 2009’s ‘In Love & War’, managing only 46 on the same chart.

The press has remained on Amerie’s side, though – and after such a gloriously infectious breakout track like ‘1 Thing’, who can blame them, as who knows when another slice of the same magic might appear. She’s just recently released the single ‘What I Want’, which samples The Sugarhill Gang’s take on ‘Apache’, now trading as the extra-i Ameriie. Why? Said the singer: “I operate on vibes and intuition… the vibration of the double I is right for me.” Okay. Anyway, there’s no denying the girl’s tremendous vocal power hasn’t dipped an inch between ‘1 Thing’ and ‘What I Want’ – check it out below.

Would anyone mistake that for Beyoncé? I don’t know, maybe they would. But to GTA players, wives and friends, recently wedded couples and complete strangers in bars I have DJed in, I say this: it’s Amerie, A-M-E-R-I-E. Although, with an extra vowel, apparently. Now, stop pestering me while I try to mix out of this, and get back to dancing on that table.

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Words: Mike Diver

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