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Feb 20

BLU CANTRELL ft SEAN PAUL – “Breathe”

FT + Popular10 comments • 1,367 views

#958, 9th August 2003

Dancehall stars have found many routes into the UK mainstream – cover versions and ads; tie-ups with hot producers; hardcore or controversial lyrics; or just basic novelty. Sean Paul found yet another way to make it. His thing was to strip down modern Jamaican music to its hookiest elements and present himself as a readymade star, his bearish baritone presence dominating this and most other tracks he turned up on.


Sean Paul’s sudden stardom came as dancehall itself was having a critical and pop-cultural moment. One of many – UK and US interest in Jamaican music has always gone in waves. In this case, R&B’s promotion of superstar producers – some of whom, like the Neptunes, were open about their debt to Jamaica – meant a new focus on riddims, the island’s own contribution to producer culture, and the way different acts would jostle to land the best voicings of the latest popular beat. “Get Busy”, Paul’s breakthrough hit, rode the perpetual-motion shudder of the ubiquitous Diwali Riddim.

There’s talk of Bob Marley whenever a Jamaican star breaks really big – but Sean Paul’s music fit the comparison better than most. Not, of course, because of any political or spiritual side – Paul, like most 00s pop stars, presented himself as someone for whom entertainment was mission enough. But like Marley he specialised in taking his homeland’s innovations and projecting them into music that was big and powerful and clear in its appeal. Sean Paul was a very easy star to ‘get’.

Also like Marley, he wasn’t averse to downplaying the reggae side when it suited him. “Breathe” is a Blu Cantrell single, but Sean Paul barges his way into the spotlight from the first bars and the song’s more duel than duet. Aptly – it’s about a relationship in meltdown – but Cantrell has to belt and bellow to hold her own against Paul’s gruffalo toasting. It doesn’t help her that the music’s on his side – it’s more beer hall than dancehall, a squelchy oompah-led stomp which turns out to suit him fine.

For Cantrell, that was a mixed blessing. The record’s no-nonsense heft went down very well in Europe, but Americans weren’t so receptive, and it stifled Cantrell’s nascent US career after her success with the sly and vampish “Hit ‘Em Up Style”. It’s a shame – even against this brash backdrop there’s a pleasing swagger to her performance.

And, in the end, you can say the same thing about this song, with all its boisterous honking. There are lots of 00s R&B jams I like more than “Breathe” – but it’s a sign of a genre in ruddy health when its second-division hits are this plainly enjoyable.

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Comments

  1. 1
    Implodingme on 10 Feb 2020 #

    This is an era of pop that I’m intensely nostalgic for, the summer of 2003 in which I moved out of the parental home and started to make my own way in the world. Any club night would play this and Crazy In Love, along with several others that will be cropping up soon I’m sure.

    So while I recognise that my glasses are very much rose-tinted regarding this song, it’s an easy 8 for me.

  2. 2
    James BC on 10 Feb 2020 #

    A nice example of a songwriter credits labyrinth here. According to Wikipedia, this samples an Xzibit and Eminem track so they get writer credits, even though their contribution to the sampled track was presumably the lyrics, which don’t appear here. The beat for the sampled track (ie the bit that is actually used for Breathe) was created by Dr Dre, but he was credited as a producer and not a songwriter, so no credit for him on Breathe. But in creating the beat, Dre sampled a Charles Aznavour song, so M. Aznavour does get credited.

  3. 3
    AMZ1981 on 10 Feb 2020 #

    I’ve got nothing against Breathe, it’s not really my genre but it grew on me during its four week reign at the top. I don’t think anybody has mentioned yet that Sean Paul came desperately close to the twin chart Holy Grails of self replacement at number one and the top two singles; his next solo single Like Glue entered at three the week Breathe dropped to two.

    That said I’d have been happier if Ultrabeat’s glorious Pretty Green Eyes had got to number one instead and even that outsold an even better record in Breathe’s second week – Mark Owen’s comeback single Four Minute Warning which demonstrated why he should have been Take That’s solo superstar. Unfortunately he couldn’t sustain it and vanished into post boy band obscurity for a second time. I still think Kill With Your Smile should have been the follow up single (but then again I’m just about the only person who bought the album).

  4. 4
    ThePensmith on 10 Feb 2020 #

    #3 – aah I loved ‘Four Minute Warning’. Although actually Mark was the most productive he ever was as a solo artist prior to the (bunnied) Take That reunion, despite him losing his major label deal with Mercury after ‘In Your Own Time’ bombed. He set up his own label, toured very extensively and self released an album and a handful of singles, one of which (I think was called ‘Believe In The Boogie’) was a stormer.

    Back to ‘Breathe’, and it is an interesting record with hindsight. The fact much of the discussion around it even now is centred around Sean Paul, for whom 2003 was his most successful year is I would argue an introduction to something we’ll encounter a lot the further into the 00s and the decade just passed we’ll go: namely, the appeal of a big name guest star or to use the colloquial term, ‘rent-a-rapper’, on a single that might otherwise have been an average charter.

    The sad truth is that with Sean arguably being the bigger star (‘Get Busy’ and the aforementioned ‘Like Glue’ remain stellar records, and would’ve been easy 9s had we met them), Blu kind of ends up a visitor on her own record. ‘Hit ‘Em Up Style’, her only other hit before this, had only been a modest charting top 20 here, interchangeable with any number of one hit wonder R&B singles from the previous two years by Sunshine Anderson, Tweet, Truth Hurts, Chante Moore etc.

    As with Tomcraft, literally no indication of this being a potential number one hit came from anywhere prior to its release – save for the tabloids getting in a bit of a fluster about her pre-music career antics in X-rated modelling – making this a shock chart topper. As I recall I don’t think Radio 1 even playlisted it until well into its time at the top. ‘Breathe’ would otherwise be a second division R&B single, but it’s Sean’s performance that elevates it and makes it memorable, lifting what would have been a 4 to a 6 overall for me. And just like Tomcraft and Room 5, a flop follow up awaited Blu that December: ‘Make Me Wanna Scream’ tanked out at #23 and that was that.

    #2 watch – the third and probably lesser of the trio of Diwali Riddim records that defined summer 2003, Lumidee’s ‘Never Leave You’. Namely because the sample of it is slightly faster than ‘Get Busy’ and ‘No Letting Go’, and also because I have never heard a vocalist sound so terminally bored on their own single, like Ashanti after a really long nap.

    Week two and three (thus meaning Busted were barred out from topping the chart for the second time on the dot with the excellent ‘Sleeping With The Light On’, which entered and peaked at #3) was another Northern house record of notoriety – ‘Pretty Green Eyes’ by Ultrabeat. It had been so popular up north that apparently a branch of HMV in Liverpool had had to bar one or two aggressive customers for several months before it came out after getting irate that they weren’t yet stocking it. Quite frankly I’m failing to see why.

    Week four: Lemar’s debut hit ‘Dance (With U)’ which I discussed at the ‘Stop Living the Lie’ entry, and Girls Aloud entering at #3 with their wistful lost gem ballad, ‘Life Got Cold’. It was chosen by their fans on a poll on their website to be the third single as the plan had initially been to go with a track called ‘Some Kind of Miracle’, a 60s inspired track co-written by B*Witched’s Edele Lynch no less. Commissioned remixes of the single didn’t appear until the release of it on a rarities disc for a boxset of their singles up to the unbunnied ‘Untouchable’ in 2009.

  5. 5
    Lee Saunders on 10 Feb 2020 #

    Four Minute Warning is one of my favourite pop records of the decade. Melodramatic (set in the last four minutes before we all die) and yet weirdly his motionless internal monologue these days reminds me of West End Girls (which is ofc Something Else Entirely but Mark’s slightly wordy, slightly nervous delivery really do the trick – I love it now just as much as then. It’s also one of a few great pop songs that count downwards). Pretty Green Eyes I’ve never liked as much and always sounded best for me “at home” in the middle of club anthems compilations.

    Breathe, then, well it strikes me as the most minimal number one since Flat Beat, musically speaking. It is largely just the same thing repeated over and over again, with a few G-funk whirs here and there (thanks Dre), and at the time I saw it as intimidating for just sounding so moody in such sunny days. Nowadays I really like it for all its barmy oom-pah-pah-ness. Sounds more like a twisted circus than anything Big Brovaz did anyway.

    Sean Paul… Get Busy is among the great 2000s no. 1s that never were. For a featured artist he seems just as prominent on this record as Blu and they bounce off each other well, better than Evanescence. I can’t say I’ve ever stopped to think what the song is actually about but then like Shaggy I think part of the appeal is that I like getting tripped up in Sean’s scansion.

    7

  6. 6
    Chelovek na lune on 11 Feb 2020 #

    A superior number one. The male and female vocal parts, in both form and content, play off against one another, and complement each other well – there’s also no messing about lyrically, she lays out the collapsing nature of the relationship from the very start. And the combination of a constant, gripping rhythm, her vocal melody, and his ragga thrust gets hypnotic if you allow it to. A taut mosiac, in all. The tension of the circling repeating rhythm makes it abundantly clear that the time to let it breathe that she demands is only going to come when everything has fallen silent, and it’s over.

    A very strong 7.

  7. 7
    Shiny Dave on 11 Feb 2020 #

    This is the first “featuring Sean Paul” bunny. We’re somehow a decade away from the second. Genuinely amazing this is the only time we meet him in the physical sales era, but that long gap brings Shaggy to mind as another comparison for his career – both had long careers filled with intermittent crossover contributions bringing their unmistakable voices to any of the latest hot pop sounds. (The two 2010s bunnies he’s on are both with British lead artists and firmly in the sound of their respective moments.)

    A thought: we mentioned the historic 2003 heatwave in the last entry, but the peak of that was week two of this song’s four-week run (the all-time temperature record from the weirdly-forgotten 1990 heatwave fell on the Sunday), and it honestly sounds like a heatwave hit to me. Was that second week a particularly slow one for sales?

    Going with Tom’s 6 meeting it in February. Suspect I’d mark it up one if we’d met it last July, in the heatwave that ultimately broke that temperature record from when it was a hit initially.

  8. 8
    PapaT on 12 Feb 2020 #

    I’m having a real “wait this is *that* old?” moments with a few of the # 2s mentioned recently, chiefly the Lumidee and Wayne Wonder tracks. They weren’t songs I knew by name or artist, but they are songs I’ve heard many times, and it feels like I still hear them occasionally and they don’t sound massively dated. Maybe that says more about me.

    Couldn’t and can’t stand Sean Paul I’m afraid. To me he’s the 00s equivalent of a widely mocked cheeseball artist we’ll meet in about 9 years, but at least that guy is/was funny! I’ll admit none of the genres he works in are my thing though, so I admit I may be missing something.

  9. 9
    Mark M on 12 Feb 2020 #

    Breathe is a likeable second-tier song, as Tom says. I think Sean Paul’s contribution is what makes it stick in my mind.

    Like Glue, out around this time as mentioned above, is firmly my favourite Sean Paul* song – musically, it doesn’t feel to me like it has a lot to do with Jamaican music past or future, but maybe that’s my lack of close engagement with what’s actually been happening over there.

    I suspect people assume Sean Paul must be ‘street’ just because he comes from Jamaica, whereas he comes from a family that apparently has a grand water polo- playing tradition and went to an elite (state) school.

    *Always a bit unsure about how – if at all – you shorten the names of people who use two-part first names and no surname. My instinct is that you should aim to use both, but if – as can be the case with Cristiano Ronaldo – saying the whole thing is a mouthful, then use the first first name only, because the second one is not – despite a appearances – a surname.

  10. 10
    lonepilgrim on 14 Feb 2020 #

    This reminds me of ‘Dub be good to me’ only more insistent – it’s relentless rhythm and flow would benefit from a little space to …er… breathe

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