These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.
In the spring of 2007, few artists inspired more eager anticipation for new material than Kanye West. His first two full-length albums, The College Dropout and Late Registration, drew exalting reviews, and his reputation as a fearless, volatile truth-teller had only been boosted by his off-the-cuff remarks during a live telethon raising money for Hurricane Katrina relief. While fumbling and unpolished, his remarks accurately and empathetically recognized the ways in which a Republican presidential administration’s deeply embedded bigotry impacted their policy decisions to the detriment of those who were less well off than, say, a multi-millionaire recording artist.
West and his the stray members of his team had been teasing the imminent release of new music for some time when the snippet of a song, less than 30 seconds in the length, appeared on the internet and spread with the rapidity and relentlessness of a career-killing tweet. One week later, the full track “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” emerged, serving as both the title cut to a new mixtape and the lead single for West’s third album, Graduation, which would follow in the fall.
On the track, West collaborated with Atlanta producer and performer DJ Toomp, who brought a swampy heaviness to the track. It was somewhat atypical of West’s sound to that point, but the words that tangled boastfulness and anxiety into one fierce tangle made the author of the track unmistakable. While it earned fevered praise from most quarters, it struggled a bit on commercial radio, holding the single just outside the Billboard Top 40. Still, West long held it was the best track he’d done, and some portions of it certainly strike me today as deeply pertinent. “I feel depression, under more scrutiny/ And what I do? Act more stupidly,” West raps, and the masses collectively nod in assent.
Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.