Song: "Just A Friend"
Album: The Biz Never Sleeps
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There are certain moments throughout the history of music that simply cannot be forgotten, and even as the generations and musical trends come and go, these few songs remain relevant and present within the mainstream music scene. This rather unique group of songs come from all across the musical spectrum as well as that of time, and it is almost impossible to "know" that a song will achieve such success upon its first release. Furthermore, when such a song seems to defy so many musical norms, the idea of it becoming such an iconic moment may be even more difficult to foresee. However, if there was one performer in music history that seemed destined for success in one way or another, it was the man who has earned the title of "Clown Prince of Hip-Hop," the one and only Biz Markie. Though his persona and image are impossible to forget, one cannot overlook the fact that at his core, Biz Markie stands as one of the most creative and outright talented emcees in history, and one can easily make the case that had it not been for his efforts, hip-hop itself would have never achieved the mainstream success that it enjoys to this day. Having already made his name as both a beat-boxer and an emcee, as well as releasing a fantastic debut album, Biz Markie completely shifted his approach, and it was due to this change that he created what is without question one of the most enduring and endearing songs in all of music history, 1989's, "Just A Friend."
On many levels, the opening moments of "Just A Friend" are as legendary as any musical work from the 1980's, as the almost toy-toned piano springs out, instantly grabbing the listeners' attention. Though it is slightly altered in terms of speed and rhythm, the iconic core riff upon which the song is built is lifted in its entirely from Freddie Scott's 1968 song, "You Got What I Need," and yet the way that Biz Markie re-works the sound gives it a wonderfully modern feel. Furthermore, the heavier bass beat that he lays underneath the song make it hit hard time after time, and it is easy to understand how this sound became one of the true standards of the "golden age" of hip-hop music. Yet even within this sampling, Biz Markie separates himself quite far from his peers, as there is a clear understanding of music itself that goes far beyond scratching and altering the sample itself. There are a number of "open" spaces throughout "Just A Friend" that suggest a knowledge of blues music, and this leaning is further enforced by the lyrical content. When Biz Markie lets the drums drop, there is a rather tongue-in-cheek, soulful feel to the song, and though one cannot overlook the humorous nature of the song itself, it is often this lighter mood that makes listeners miss the fact that the composition itself is exceptionally deployed, moving far beyond the "standard" approach within the musical arrangements on hip-hop songs.
Yet while the re-worked riff is without question one of the most unforgettable to ever be recorded, one cannot deny that the true impact and timeless appeal of "Just A Friend" lives within the extraordinary vocals and lyrics that Biz Markie brings to the track. There has rarely been as perfect a balance between character and content as one can experience all across the song, and yet much like the tone of the music, the light-hearted, almost vulnerable nature of the vocal delivery tends to overshadow the fantastic lyrics that he brings to every line. Truth be told, during this era of hip-hop music, the idea of a sensitive or "down and out" male is almost impossible to imagine, as the genre was filled with overly-machismo'd rappers largely reminding the world just how amazing they themselves were. However, as Biz Markie unravels his tale of the girl who had his heart lying to him about her relationship with other men, there is something far more powerful than what his peers could deliver. It is the honest, unguarded, and absolutely brutal words he spins that enabled "Just A Friend" to rise so far above other hip-hop singles, and there are few lines from the song that are anything less than "classic." Though for many, the highlight of the song is the chorus, every line Biz Markie delivers is nothing short of perfect, and there are few tracks in history that can boast as potent a perfection in rhyming as one can experience on "Just A Friend."
Even as the decades have passed, the significance and appeal of "Just A Friend" has managed to remain just as strong, constantly reminding emcees that there is just as much success to be had within a lighter delivery style and completely honest lyrics. Furthermore, it is almost impossible to cite all of the times that "Just A Friend" has been sampled in some form, and this tribute runs all across the musical spectrum. Whether it was Pharrell Williams from The Neptunes or 50 Cent quoting the song or complete covers by the likes of Umphrey's McGee among many others, "Just A Friend" has achieved a status that one can argue is completely unmatched by any other song in the entire history of recorded music. Furthermore, one can hear the song played at nearly any large gathering, and it has even been used as "entrance music" by a number of professional athletes, as well as being featured in countless films and television shows. The fact that the song has managed to ingrain itself into so many different aspects of society pushes it into a category all its own, and yet many do not give the track all the credit it deserves due to the jovial nature of the vocal performance. Yet after listening to the song with "fresh ears," one cannot deny the sheer perfection that is at play in every aspect of the song, and it is this reality that makes Biz Markie's 1989 single, "Just A Friend," one of the most truly extraordinary moments in all of music history.