One Random Single a Day #98: “Breathe” (2003) by Blu Cantrell

I grow in and out of obsessions pretty quickly, but right now in my quest to listen to every one of the Now That’s What I Call Music numbered compilations, I’m going through a huge wave of nostalgia for major pop hits of the 2000’s, particularly those by rappers and pop divas. Additionally, one of my favorite types of music are those that I like to call Big Songs By Pop Divas – I even made an entire (incomplete) playlist of the ones I love the most! There are the obvious ones like Beyoncé, Britney, Rihanna, Mariah, Katy, Ariana, Gaga… you know the drill. However, there are also always a few that seem to have been thrown under the bus through the years. I was definitely glad to rediscover the charms of Stacie Orrico, Fefe Dobson, Amerie, and Ciara recently, and I can’t wait to see who else I’ll stumble upon that time seems to have acted unkind toward.

Of course, Blu Cantrell is but one example of a pop performer with a couple relatively big hits who seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth shortly thereafter. She found sudden success in 2001 when her debut album So Blu peaked at number eight on the Billboard 200, with its lead single “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops)” peaking at number two on the singles chart. “Hit ‘Em Up Style” is rather definitive of the style that Cantrell often employs in her recordings – contemporary R&B/hip-hop with more of a retro swing vibe to it. I’d almost be tempted to say that this contains flavors of electro-swing, although artists of that particular genre could only wish their recordings touched this level of smoothness and suavity.

In “Hit ‘Em Up Style”, Cantrell describes how she sabotages a lover after she catches him cheating, her lines of genuine heartbreak nonetheless punctuated by a far more nonchalent “oops!” amidst some truly sunshiney production. This is probably one of the very first pop singles I ever remember truly loving – I was nine when it was released – and I could safely say that it may in fact be one of the most important in laying the foundation for what qualities I look for in good pop music. Soon after this success, though, Cantrell released her second album Bittersweet, which really didn’t do as well as the smash phenomenon of So Blu. Still, her follow-up single “Breathe” found itself performing much better internationally; although it didn’t make the US top 40, it made the top ten on numerous other charts and is her best-known single in many countries.

Much like “Hit ‘Em Up Style”, “Breathe” follows along similar themes of a relationship gone awry and the complicated emotions that arise from such. Stylistically, this still has stray bits of the aforementioned electro-swing influence, although these are much less pronounced in order to make way for the much more prominent hip-hop stylings. In fact, the official single version of “Breathe” includes a guest verse (as well as additional filler lines) from Jamaican rapper Sean Paul, an international rising star at the time. Honestly, though, I don’t feel like his lines add much more necessary to the picture though. While Cantrell sings about the emotional strain of a failing relationship from her perspective, Paul’s purpose is to provide the other side of the story. Sometimes this he-said-she-said dynamic could work quite well, but it just gets distracting from the real point of the song, which is the emotional pull of the situation as a whole. This isn’t helped when Paul emits lines like “stop actin’ crazy” that demonstrate a unfair bias that is just unnecessary.

On top of all this, Cantrell is just a far more dominant force here. While this isn’t quite as breezy and fun as “Hit ‘Em Up Style”, it is an effective demonstration of the strong set of pipes by Cantrell herself. The hook – “All we do is make up, then break up” – is so simple, yet really sticks so powerfully; if you remember nothing else about the song, this chorus is guaranteed to adhere to the musical brain for some time after the song ends. At the same time, though, I think the song also falters because of this simplicity. I hate to compare it to Cantrell’s one and only other hit, but as much of a perfectly crafted pop song “Hit ‘Em Up Style” is, “Breathe” somewhat disappoints as a follow-up. I’ll gladly give this one a play from time to time with no complaints, and I’ll even sing along the best I can, but with the aching feeling that some potential has been missed nonetheless. Still, Blu Cantrell is one of those forgotten pop divas that is really due for a comeback. Even without the factor of “Hit ‘Em Up Style”, “Breathe” demonstrates a particular power in personality and vocal fervor that would be more than welcomed these days.

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