YouTube Hit Count: 48,069,296 at time of publication
The idea of how “overplayed” a song is (which, by the way, I have always meant as an statistical fact rather than a measure of quality; clearly there have been plenty of songs that I have still loved despite or because of how often I’ve heard them) can be a little subjective based on what kind of a life you’re living. It surprised me to see that “Stay” had only been on the Hot 100 for three weeks, when I feel like it’s been inescapable for a while now. So I did a little digging (by which I mean I looked it up on Wikipedia) and found out that “Stay” started getting play in Europe and Australia as far back as November, months before it was officially a single in the U.S, which makes sense because I first started to think of it as an “overplayed song” while I was on vacation in Iceland in January. My mom and I rented a car for a day to drive the Golden Circle and I spent much of the day on a two-lane highway in a Nissan hatchback driving through the barren half-lit icy tundra with the radio on, listening to Rihanna moan about the way Chris Brown moves over a sullen piano line. (This was after I failed to find Björk Radio on the dial, but know that I tried.) It seemed like a pretty depressing song to play every half-hour in a country where you’ve already got only six hours of daylight in the winter, but the end result is that “Stay” just reminds me of Iceland now, which I guess makes me more charitable to it.
Aside from my personal associations, I think of two performances as defining “Stay”s cultural reputation: Rihanna’s gut-wrenching, Fiona Apple–esque performance at the Grammys, and Vin Diesel’s puzzling, strangely moving karaoke rendition. It’s an even weirder single to release than “Diamonds” was, and always makes for a jarring transition sandwiched between Pitbull and Macklemore on the radio, even more of a buzzkill than Ed Sheeran’s maudlin “The A Team.” But “Stay” is (unfortunately?) undeniably gorgeous, even for someone like me who hesitates to even click on a gossip item about RiRi and Breezy, much less spend four minutes in a musical headspace inspired by their tiresome saga. It’s the rare kind of song you feel like you know by heart after one listen — both melodically and emotionally — and it’s vague and evocative enough to feel like it could be about anybody, which is no small task for an artist like Rihanna, whose personal life and music often seem like a package deal. It helps that relatively unknown singer-songwriter Mikky Ekko stars opposite her here, rather than, say, Brown, preventing it from becoming “Birthday Cake Pt. 2: The Sad Part.”
The lyrics to “Stay,” co-written by Ekko and Justin Parker (Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games,” Bat for Lashes’ “Laura” — nice track record, you sad bastard) are chock-full of elliptical, melancholy lines, but what sells the song for me is the first line of the chorus: “Not really sure how to feel about it.” How often do pop singers admit that they don’t know how they feel about something? It’s an instantly relatable moment, capturing the rarely documented (in mainstream pop) part of a relationship where things are neither awesome nor awful for once, and when one tries to take stock of what it all means. I dare you to not get goose bumps during the music video when those words are sung but Rihanna suddenly decides not to lip-synch them.
If I had to vote one part of the song off the island, it would be the second half of the pre-chorus, starting with “Tell me now”:
Round and around and around and around we go
Ohhh, now tell me now tell me now tell me now you know
It’s the only part of the song where the lack of specificity feels a bit lazy, just something to fill in the meter and rhyme. I “know” what that first line means, but the response feels empty. It’s also the only imperative sentence in the song other than the title line (“I want you to stay”), which diminishes its power a little bit.
Rihanna’s flat vocal affect has gotten plenty of criticism over the years, but I’ve always tended to like its unshowy, blank-slate quality, which works particularly well here. The song is so unlike any other single she’s put out in that it’s easy to forget it’s even her singing at points, until you get to that little signature “Eh-eh” during her last ad lib.
Ekko and Parker also produced the song, which probably explains why they decided to let the melody stand more or less on its own, filling it out with a simple piano part and the occasional soft cymbals. There is one nice moment after the bridge where a big looming bass hum hovers over the song, giving it a sense of scale that makes it suddenly seem like a tiny, fragile house in the shadow of the Sears Tower. In this case, if you really want to work out that metaphor, the Sears Tower is her following single, the mindlessly sinister “Bandz a Make Her Dance”
lifting sampling “Pour It Up,” which is about as far from “Stay” as a song can get, and is already starting to eclipse it on the charts. Musically and personally, it would appear that Rihanna is content to keep leaning on empty nihilism, but I appreciate that we got this more or less genuine detour in the middle of it all.