Before we get into the song, I think it’s fair to suggest that most people might not be aware that Biz Markie permanently altered the landscape of the music industry.
That’s not hyperbole.
You see, in the 90s, he continued doing what he’d been doing during and after making “Just A Friend”: cribbing melodies from prior eras to bring his own songs to life. It’s just that, with his song “Alone Again” he did this to the wrong artist (Gilbert O’Sullivan.)
Which led to a landmark lawsuit to the tune of a quarter mil ruling that all samples used on new tracks must be cleared with the original artist before being used.
Sure, getting clearance for samples is table stakes in creative protection now, but it was Biz who helped usher in a new lucrative line of business for law firms. I somehow doubt the legal community thanked him as much as they should have for the growth opportunity.
Also, TIL that Biz Markie died at the age of 57 due to complications around Type 2 diabetes.
This is a crying shame, as nobody needs to die due to type 2 diabetes if they get the right advice and support to manage it (note: I’m pretty passionate about this topic and wrote an entire friggin’ manifesto about how broken the diabetes status quo is; ping me in the comments if you’re interested in learning more).
Yeesh! That was a heavy start to what I presumed was going to be the most whimsical song review ever to enter the zeitgeist! OK, time for a vibe shift:
The Friday Flash “Gut Take” Review
I mean, how can you not like a song that celebrates happy-go-lucky awkward loserdom to a groove that sounds like it was recorded on a portable cassette tape in the garage with spare instruments someone found in the basement?
I’m here to tell you that you simply can’t if you’re being honest with yourself.
That said, I think there’s a difference between having sympathy for a song and actually liking a song. But guess what? These sentiments are not mutually exclusive!
I both pity this song and quite enjoy it. It’s fun. It is whimsical. Heck, I even think it’s charming. And it does a really great job drawing me into a story about young loserdom and love.
Something that I just might have had some experience in as well.
So, yeah, I think I kind of bonded with “Just A Friend.” In fact, I think this song might just be more than just a friend (but who can really know for sure, amirite?). That said, I should level-set: It’s not one of my favorite songs by any stretch. While I’m always up for listening to it, it’s not a song that I will go out of my way to seek out.
Like some friends we all have: it’s simply fun to have around sometimes.
In-a-Flash score: 7/10
The Friday Flash “Deep Dive” Review
Before I knew anything about anything, I didn’t know Biz Markie “borrowed” the main theme and melody for “Just A Friend” from a prior artist:
Freddie Scott’s 1968 single:
“You Got What I Need”
Poor Freddie probably never got paid because “Just A Friend” was apparently in the pre-Biz-Markie-transformed-creative-protection-laws epoch, but “Just A Friend” really benefits from everything leveraged from “You Got What I Need” – including the toy piano sound that plays the main theme. That’s a lot of leveraging. But credit still goes to the production team for identifying the right licks to stick the melodic landing in new songs.
Not only is the instrumentation of said melody oddly appealing from an amateurs-gone-wild home production-vibe perspective, but the drum loop is the garage-rap cherry on top.
The drum loops boom and echo in intentional low fidelity, which was a good choice because Biz Markie’s vocals also sound low-fi.
I don’t know if that’s utterly a limitation of his voice or a production choice, but everything sounds hand-stitched together like it’s a musical craft show.
And here’s the thing: it all works together in this one, big glorious lo-fi gloop of blips, bops, and achy yearning-to-find-the-notes chants. Due to this, it not only stands out from a crowded field of songs, but it makes the song sound indelibly approachable, which matches the lyrical strategy to a tee.
Here’s the way I see rating this category with a song that 99% leverages the songwriting of another song: you get full credit for picking the right melody out of the archives, but that credit is mostly accrued to production decisions. Any points here need to come from what was built on/modified/enhanced from the leveraged property.
Yes, thanks to Biz himself, melodies are literally property in the post-Biz-Markie-transformed-creative-protection-laws epoch.
There are some modifications here, but honestly not a ton. The “missed key” strategy at the end of the piano riff does seem like a “Just A Friend” innovation which I think adds to the garage-rap ethos, and the way the melody is used in “Just A Friend” does hit me quite differently than the original.
So, some points will be granted. But not a whole lot.
I talked myself off the ledge here, because I was actually wondering if Biz deserved a 10/10 for this performance. The acting is just over-the-top here: Biz gets me every time with his “Teh…c’mon!” lick after the first verse (and then again, with the “Teh!…don’t give me that!” after he learns about his girlfriend’s “friend” at college). Then, of course, there’s the chorus. This magnificent attempt at singing that is so distinctive and interesting and bizarre and so-wrong-that-it-ends-up-right that Wikipedia refers to it as caterwauling.
It’s pretty amazing that the English language even has a word like that in its back pocket, but I’m pretty sure that even if it didn’t, we would have needed to create that very word as a result of Biz’s vocals in “Just A Friend.”
I’m just going to lay it out straight-up so everyone can wrap their heads around it: When you need advanced-level vocabulary to describe a vocal performance…you’re getting some points.
So, then, why not a 10/10? Teh….c’mon!
There’s So. Much. Gold. in this stupid song. Shall I enumerate?
“Let me tell ya a story of my situation / I was talkin’ to this girl from the U.S. nation” – Why is this so funny? Oh, I know why: because it’s bald-face “anything for a rhyme” that just works perfectly with his loser persona.
“I asked her her name, she said blah-blah-blah” – I mean, this is just classic. It’s misogynistic AF, but classic. It’s like the show “Mad Men” – you can appreciate the misogyny because it’s classic. Honestly, though, we all know he’s just blotting out the names for privacy’s sake because he’s a gentleman and a scholar.
“I started throwin’ bass, she started throwin’ back mid-range” – this is kind of legit hip-hop music poetry right here.
“So I took blah-blah’s word for it at this time / I thought just havin’ a friend couldn’t be no crime” – again, cracking up every time I hear this. He didn’t even use all three blahs!
“’Cause I have friends and that’s a fact / Like Agnes, Agatha, Germaine, and Jacq /Forget about that, let’s go into the story” – let’s get extemporaneous and then apologize!
And the storytelling gets so detailed for absolutely no reason except I guess for rhymes: “I went to a gate to ask where was her dorm / This guy made me fill out a visitor’s form … / I arrived in front of the dormitory / Yo, could you tell me where is door three? / They showed me where it was for the moment.” – these are such slight details but he really tries to bring you into the situ. It’s adorbs!
Ear Worminess: 9/10
Once again, I’m pulling myself away from the 10/10 here even though that’s where my brain wanted me to go. This is just a simply epic earworm: the melody, the caterwauling, the instrumentation… all collaborate to create something incredibly distinct, catchy, and virtually impossible to unhear once you hear it.
Now, look, I can absolutely see why you would not ever want to hear or remember hearing this hook. But that’s a slightly separate matter. I’m here to analyze and score the attributes, not tell you what you like and don’t like. It’s just that, as a matter of aural physics, this earworm will travel with you whether you like it or not.
So, why not a 10/10? Teh!…don’t give me that!
OFFICIAL FFR SCORE: 7/10!
Moment of honesty: I was not super excited to review this song when I saw it won the votes. From a distance, it just seemed like an annoying piece of junk that was probably better left alone in the annals of hip-hop goofiness.
But something happened on the way to that place.
It turns out that this silly, stupid, and potentially irritating song is actually a bit of hip-hop treasure to savor and appreciate.
It’s got the hook, the performance, the lo-fi attitude, and the straight-up fun storytelling that work in concert to create something far more special than it sonically appears on the surface.
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