Ben Lomax on the singer’s not so sick ‘HUMBLE.’ bumble
Back in 2012 Andrew Shannon made headlines for punching a hole in a 140 year old Monet, valued at £7.8 million. Claiming it as a way to “get back at the state”, he received a five-year prison sentence for the offence.
This leads to the questions: “What’s Ne-Yo’s excuse and how will he make up for his attempts at ruining Kendrick Lamar’s modern masterpiece, ‘HUMBLE.’?”
Covering another artist’s work is an opportunity to reinterpret, to pay tribute and to explore and expand a piece. Ne-Yo’s ‘HUMBLE. (remix) (remix here meaning attempting his own rap over the instrumental) does only one of those things and not well. It’s quickly apparent that unlike an extensive and often questionable hat collection, a talent for rapping is not something Ne-Yo posses.
With a headline Coachella set and a number one album receiving widespread critical acclaim, Kendrick Lamar is one of the most influential and relevant artists of 2017. That being the case, Ne-Yo (influential and relevant in 2007) has bitten off a lot more than he can chew.
Covering one of the most respected and celebrated wordsmiths of our generation Ne-Yo opted to go with his own lyrics, leading to atrocities like “suddenly they’re handing me vagina like, ‘have some’.” While pretending to be Michael Jackson seems to have served Ne-Yo well enough in his heyday, Kendrick proves too tall an order to imitate.
Being a heavily rap-oriented track from such a well-respected artist, ‘HUMBLE.’ is a particularly difficult song to cover, let alone right after its release. What makes it worse is this wasn’t just a poorly judged Live Lounge performance: it was something Ne-Yo spontaneously decided we all needed, and as a result it smacks of an attempt to latch onto something popular much more than to pay tribute out of admiration.
When Rihanna covered Tame Impala’s ‘New Person, Same Old Mistakes’ she failed to put her own stamp on it. Instead of her trademark sultry tones she even sang it like Kevin Parker. Fundamentally though, it still came out of a place of love for the original.
While its far from the first time anyone’s completely butchered a song with a cover version (look no further than any time ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’ has ever been played within the walls of a pub) it comes from someone who should know better.
Covers provide a rite of passage for almost every young band learning the ropes and the idea of nailing the intro to ‘Johnny B. Goode’ or the drum fill from ‘In The Air Tonight’ motivates so many musicians to pick up an instrument in the first place.
Special mention also has to go to dedicated cover bands who perform out of pure idolisation for a band or artist that inspires them, while providing top class opportunities for pun usage (see Amy Housewine, Fake That and Proxy Music).
Cover bands are one thing, but when an artist takes time to rework another song that means something to them it’s something special. Take Childish Gambino’s cover of ‘So Into You’ by Tamika for Like a Version: stripped back without being sparse or lazy, it’s a fresh, falsetto-heavy rework with all the soul of the original.
It’s far from alone too, from Peter Gabriel’s dramatic, orchestral rendition of ‘My Body Is a Cage’ by Arcade Fire to Todd Terje’s sombre, spacious take on Robert Palmer’s ‘Johnny and Mary’, covers can be so much more than a sea of X-Factor wannabes wallpapering the pages of Youtube or desperate bids for relevancy.
They’re are a chance for expression and to elevate an existing piece of work, not to reduce it to clicks or say “Hey, remember me?” with.