Anatomy of the Hit: Mabel’s “Don’t Call Me Up”

Anatomy of the Hit: Mabel’s “Don’t Call Me Up”

Reggaetón trop-pop is everywhere at the moment. If 2017 was the summer of Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” and Maluma’s “Felices los 4,” by mid-2018 that distinctive lolloping early-snare groove (“boom, ka-boom ka”) had brought Anglophone and Hispanic pop closer than ever before. Dua Lipa’s “New Rules,” Brytiago and Darell’s “Asesina,” “Felices los 4” and Daddy Yankee’s “Dura” have all joined the billion-stream club, and it looks like Mabel has the right international credentials (she’s Spanish-British-Swedish) for this 2019 heartbreak-recovery anthem to be on track for future membership.

VERSE (8)

When I’m underneath the bright lights / When I’m tryna have a good time
‘Cause I’m good now you ain’t mine / Now, now, now, now (don’t call me up)
When you’re looking at my photos / Getting hot, losing control
You want me more now I let go / Now, now, now, now

No intro! Or more accurately, the intro and verse are the same thing. Steve Mac’s three-side-clave keyboard riff echoes the log drum part from Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” (Mac was a co-writer on that, too) and starts the song’s main chord loop of | Bm A  | E   | literally one second before Mabel’s vocal sets the scene with “when I’m underneath the bright lights.”

That E major chord establishes the Dorian mode (minor scale with a major 6th degree) and this relatively unusual choice is pushed into our ears with the confident G# note in the hook’s “now, now, now now.”

And while we’re on the subject of hooks, you have to admire the way the title “don’t call me up” is inserted into the verse as an aside less than 10 seconds in. This is a classic pop device; when the chorus arrives, we feel like we already know it, because it’s sitting right there in our short-term memory.

LINK (4) [0:19]

I’m over you and I don’t need your lies no more
‘Cause the truth is, without you, boy, I’m stronger

That timeless “I Will Survive” sentiment is guaranteed to empower many a recovering lover to own the dancefloor, and the high A “over you….” with the open-5ths lower harmony adds poignancy to a long build to the chorus. The only percussion is a backbeat finger-snap, suggesting that the bass and drums are patiently waiting at the bar.

PRE-CHORUS (4) [0:29]

(And I know) it’s sad that I changed, have a cold heart
But it was your game that left scars / Ooh, I’m over you

The temptation to go straight into the chorus must have been strong at this point, but Mabel and her co-writing team keep the tension going for another four measures, with bright “Vogue”-style high piano chords replacing the verse’s sparse log-drum keyboard riff, with a string section making a guest appearance for four measures (I guess every club has a guest list).

We have a key change of sorts here, with the chord loop changing to | Dmaj7 A | E |, implying E major. The vocal register rises yet again in this section, to C#, as the character lets us know she’s confidently moving on without taking any blame, until the band drops out and we hear the summative lyric message with a one-beat delay: “I’m over you… you… you…”

CHORUS (8) [0:38]

Don’t call me up / I’m going out tonight / Feeling good now you’re outta my life
Don’t wanna talk about us / Gotta leave it behind / One drink and you’re outta my mind
Now, now take it up / Baby, I’m on a high / You’re alone, going out of your mind
But I’m here up in the club

And I don’t wanna talk
So don’t call me up

The pop craft is strong here — the whole song’s sentiment of regret, loss, self-love and healing is summed up in a four-syllable title that takes exactly one beat and two notes. But you knew that, because Mabel already told you about it 29 seconds ago.

And then, with that word “up,” the reggaetón groove crashes in, with a long-reverb percussive hit for emphasis. The chorus vocal has a parallel lower octave part with extra Auto-Tune, which (IMO) highlights the character’s “talk to the hand” confidence.

At the halfway point, the intro keyboard riff reappears with a plucked strings sound and extra metallic percussion, which carries on through verse two. That long reverb percussive hit is there again, this time as a reverse sample, under “now now take it up” and then played forward on the beat.

The end of the chorus is also the only part of the song without a chord loop — at [0:53] you can hear the shift to a single D chord held for two whole measures. This is another tension-and-release device, getting ready for the last title hook, and it sets us up nicely for the next verse. The last “up” of the chorus title is the downbeat of the next verse, where the vocal picks up without a break. This woman is seriously over you, sir, and she has not a second to waste.

VERSE 2 (8) [0:58]

‘Cause I’m here looking fine, babe / And I got eyes looking my way
And everybody’s on my vibe, babe / Now, now, now, now (don’t call me up)
My friends said you were a bad man / I should have listened to them back then
And now you’re tryna hit me up again / Now, now, now, now

Really motoring now — the riff keeps the metallic/plucked keyboard sound from the chorus, and a high snare is playing a regular two and four backbeat. The lyric moves the storytelling along, introducing new characters: the envious/desiring eyes in the club, and the loyal friends, who always knew this guy was a bad idea.

Halfway through verse two, just before “my friends said,” do you get a feeling that the groove picks up even more power? That’s because you’ve secretly been denied a kick drum for the last four measures, and you get that feel-good surge when it comes back.

LINK (4) and PRE-CHORUS (4) [1:17]

I’m over you and I don’t need your lies no more
‘Cause the truth is, without you, boy, I’m stronger
And I know it’s sad that I changed, have a cold heart
But it was your game that left scars / Ooh, I’m over you

The kick drum powers through this section, playing every pulse of the “boom, ka-boom ka,” and a bunch of new percussion sounds join in: cabasa, hand claps, and shaker. But you can’t have builds without drops, so the “it’s sad…” pre-chorus again acts as the drum-free bottom of the ramp, taking us up to chorus two.

CHORUS 2 (8) and BREAKDOWN (8) [1:37]

Most of this chorus is copy-and-paste from the first one (Hey, if it ain’t broke…) apart from the re-entry of the keyboard riff, and the inspired inclusion of a super-reverbed military snare drum triplet fill in beat three of the final measure. I guess the club is getting pretty full by now.

The breakdown section is musically the same as the chorus, using a deep vocal with heavy pitch-shifting and other processing (there’s no male vocalist credited, so I’m guessing it’s backing vocalist/co-writer Camille Purcell, or Mabel herself). It’s doubled with an upper octave halfway through, with repeats of the title hook dropped in every two measures.

LINK (4) and PRE-CHORUS (4) [2:15]

How much percussion to use on this third link section? Leave it empty, like the first one? Or in-your-face kick drum like the second one? Let’s split the difference — the same drums as pre-chorus two, but with a high-pass filter to cut the bass frequencies, maintaining the energy while setting up the final pre-chorus drop…

CHORUS 3 (8) [2:35]

The final chorus brings everything to the figurative and literal party; the keyboard riffs use bigger, doubled sounds here, with a shaker (is that a tambourine?) adding more detail to the groove. And just in case that loser ex decides to show up for the fade out, the song stops dead — just a final, emphatic unaccompanied “don’t call me up.”

She means it.

Dr. Joe Bennett is a VP at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He blogs about song analysis and forensic musicology at www.joebennett.net

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