Monday, January 20, 2014

Song #476 of 9999 - I Try by Macy Gray

Song #476 of 9999

Title: I Try
Artist: Macy Gray
Year: 1999
Album: On How Life Is

I really don't know anything about Macy Gray and I don't know any other songs by her. I also don't know whether "I Try" was overplayed to the point of making people sick or barely made it to the surface but I'm going to surmise the former based on all the awards it won and the fact that someone as out of touch with mainstream pop in 1999 as I heard it at least a few times. And so I begin by apologizing if you all hate this song. I'm sorry.

But I love it and I can pinpoint the very moment that makes me feel this way. Last week, I was talking about how difficult rhythm is to quantify. This song has a rhythm pattern toward the end of the chorus that commands my attention every time I hear it. For a while, I couldn't even figure out what was going on as I fruitlessly tried counting a bunch of irregular rhythm patterns to match what she is doing on the words "crumbles when you are not near." In the end, I concluded the lyric was simply set to quarter note triplets (EDIT: sort of) and that made me feel stupid and incompetent (EDIT: but less so now).

So I thought about it more. And more. And more and more. Why does this rhythm sound so exotic to me? I considered just writing it off as quarter note triplets just don't show up in pop songs very often. But I don't think it's that simple. From my perspective, the song sits on the edge between straight time and a shuffle. Listen to the drums and you'll hear straight eighth notes played on the hi-hat and bass drum. These straight patterns contrast with the gospel swing time that informs the piano, bass and occasional drum fills. This isn't anything new—this is pretty much the definition of the style. But when you add the quarter note triplets I talked about earlier, you get some unusual polyrhythms that go beyond the norm. In fact, when I sat down to notate it, I found that the only way to align everything I was hearing was to put it in cut time, like this:

(EDIT: I knew the note on the word "here" came just after the beat but I thought I could sneak it by y'all. My friend Sam spotted it right away—that's quality control!—so I went back to the drawing board and I think I have the rhythm notated exactly now. Sam?)

Now I realize the "underlying shuffle" I included in the middle line is intermittent, showing up only in fills and phrasing, but I don't think you can deny its existence. And when you contrast it against those quarter note triplets, you really do get something rather unusual for this genre. When you consider how the melody and rhythm depict the lyric ("my world crumbles when you are not near")—i.e. descending by leap somewhat erratically—it's really quite clever.

I hope that made sense. This was a tough one. :-/


  1. Love this song. Doesn't matter how much it was played. What is good is good.

    Great analysis (both pre and post edit). That rhythm in the hook is the key.