Discounting the fact that it had the hippest backing beat known to 80s-kind, the reason that ‘Express Yourself’ is a classic is because it actually says something. In fact it says many things, and all of them witty, entertaining, memorable and worth the saying. Labrinth’s version doesn’t. Instead, it does the whole ‘hey, we’re all average but let’s feel special about it and boost our self-esteem because of the fact that we happen to exist’ thing that Bruno Mars (again) and legions of others have done in their detestably bland way that went into emotional and intellectual bankruptcy about 5 minutes after they first tried it. It’s trying too bloody hard to be relatable. “I don’t make the papers, I’m far from JLS/Ain’t got the X-Factor, I’m not what they expect”. And there’s a line somewhere in there about “shining”, the Take That definition of it. Really?
That, says cynical old me, is probably half the reason it was riffing off of N.W.A. in the first place – because it’s a track that has become vaguely recognisable in the vast and fleeting public consciousness as being vintage and, therefore, worth knowing in the same way that it’s ‘worth knowing’ what nearly-stranger #1036 had for dinner via Facebook: because it’s socially cute, or some other term that also de-values intrinsic worth completely. It’s just ticking the ‘cool’ boxes – yes, it does the tune bit very well, but everything else, from the maddeningly bland heard-it-all-before subject matter to the blatant bids to score extra crowd-pleaser points (he feels the need to instruct his audience to “Click your fingers now!”), is just aggravating. More importantly, it flies in the face of what the original is about: one purports the sugary and super-icky ‘now sit there and feel good about yourself because I’m a cool person and I’m telling you to’ non-philosophy, the other performed lyrical acrobatics that have become the stuff of hip-hop legend. It takes a watered down, vanilla-flavour version of the original sentiment and runs it through the 21st century music-o-matic mangle. It’s an affront is what it is.
Ok, maybe that’s a bit strong. I’m not saying that it’s a bad song, because it actually isn’t: but I am asking, how did they manage to miss Dre’s point so badly?
“(Express yourself!)/From the heart/Cos if you wanna start to move up the charts/Then expression is a big part of it”. The difference is that he followed this up with “You ain’t efficient when you flow/You ain’t swift, movin’ like a tortoise/Full of rigor mortis”. That’s self-expression. But ‘Shining’? Self-expression my bum.