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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Nikki Manaj "Super Bass" Song Analysis

Will W. requested a song analysis for Nicki Manaj's "Super Bass," the 5th single from her debut album Pink Friday. The song is interesting because it draws from R&B, hip hop, and electronic music, fusing them into the perfect pop tune. The song made it to #3 on the Billboard charts, but it turned out to be a much bigger online hit, with the video getting over 250 million views. Like all song analysis, we'll look at the song itself, the arrangement, the sound and the production.

The Song
"Super Bass" is a pretty straight-forward pop song with the standard 3 sections - verse, chorus and bridge. The form looks like this:

Intro, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus

No section is repeated and the song has a hard ending, which is unusual for a pop song. But the most unusual aspect of the song form is that there's a breakdown half-way during the chorus for 4 bars, then the hook is repeated for the last 4.

There won't be any awards won for the lyrics of this song, but pop songs are usually sold on their hooks, not their lyrics, and "Super Bass" has a good one.

The Arrangement
The arrangement of "Super Bass" is different than most pop songs. The song begins with a short intro where a chorused electric guitar with an autofilter (sort of an automatic wah that opens and closes with the dynamics of the playing) plays a line (which is never heard again in the song, by the way) over a low piano pad, a high arpeggiated string part and percussion. Halfway through Nicki enters with the vocals. The song then breaks down to an electric piano pad, tuned percussion, and halfway through, synth bass. Throughout the song, claps are used instead of a snare drum for the song's pulse.

For the chorus, Nicki's voice is doubled and spread to slightly to the left and right, the bass enters playing quarter notes, and the 1/8th note arpeggiated string line plays again. The claps are doubled while the kick plays a 4 on the floor pattern for the first 4 bars, then plays a "boom daboom" pattern for the rest of the section..

The second verse is identical with the first except for the arpeggiated strings that enter half-way through the verse. The second chorus is identical to the first.

Then the bridge starts with a breakdown that features a 1/16th note synth over a lower pad. The claps enter on the 3rd bar, and the kick and 1/4 note arpeggiated strings at bar 5 and remain in the song for the rest of the section.

The last chorus is identical to the first.

The arrangement elements look like this:

  * The Foundation: bass synth, kick, high hat and claps

  * The Rhythm:  the tuned percussion, arpeggiated synths

  * The Pad: synth pads, synth bass and electric piano

  *The Lead: lead vocals, guitar in the intro

  * The Fills: Background vocals in the 2nd verse

Another interesting point is that "Super Bass" is one of the few songs where the choruses remain identical throughout the song. Usually additional instruments enter over the course of the song, making the last one much bigger sounding than the first, but that's not the case here.

The Sound
"Super Bass" has a very modern layered mix, meaning that the mix elements are put into different environments with the help of effects like reverb and delay. The stereo electric piano (which plays throughout the song) is pretty dry as is the high hat, but most other mix elements have some sort of an effect, which pushes them further back in the mix depth-wise. The vocal has both a long reverb and a fairly long timed delay you can't hear during the verses and choruses, but which is very apparent during the bridge. The arpeggiated strings seem to have a different timed delay on them as well.

The song is very compressed, although most of it does sound pretty natural as you don't hear any pumping or breathing or compressor artifacts, especially in the vocal. Although most mixers and mastering engineers compress a pop song as standard operating procedure these days in order to make it as loud as possible, I bet "Super Bass" would sound a lot better with a little more natural dynamics, although there probably isn't much to begin with considering that all the musical elements except the vocals, intro guitar sound and maybe the electric piano sound programmed.

The Production
This is a song made for Top 40 radio. It's catchy, with a pretty good hook, but oddly, it never settles into a groove. At the beginning of every chorus when the kick begins with a 4 on the floor, it begins to groove, only to deviate from it after 4 bars. This is highly unusual for any Top 40 hit, especially one aimed at the dance community, yet here it is, still a hit.

Like with most hits, there's a lot more going on than meets the ear. Listen to the tuned percussion and how it pushes the song along. Listen to the electric piano and how it subtly ties the song together. Listen to the arpeggiated strings in the chorus. Listen to the cymbal swells at the beginning of the song and the end of the bridge. The way these elements work in the the song is how a rather simple tune becomes a hit.

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