Keri Hilson feat. Lil Wayne — “Turnin’ Me On”

Released: 12.19.08

Peak: #15

As 2008 drew to a close, R&B was amid one of those periodic dalliances with pseudo-feminism that only demonstrate how paleolithic its gender roles (and ours) remain. At least Ne-Yo’s fetishism of career women on “Miss Independent” was as heartfelt as it was pandering. But “Trading Places,” Usher’s offer to exchange stereotypes for a night, exulted in its privileged descent into momentary powerlessness: tomorrow he’s back on top and you’re cooking eggs and ironing.

I know, men, right? But Beyoncé’s juggernaut twofer — one “serious” song, one “party” jam — was also problematic. Her own gender-swap anthem, “If I Were a Boy,” explored the darker undertones of the double standard that got Usher off, while on “Single Ladies,” she grinds against her new man to annoy the ex who’d failed to secure his property rights on her body. Bey’s such a unique presence that the ballad felt evasive, reducing real women’s problems to melodrama, while the male-identified dance hit expressed female solidarity so powerfully that it came to masquerade (per Jordan Sargent in Pitchfork) as “the biggest female empowerment anthem of the past decade.”

“Turnin’ Me On” was a less grand but more satisfying depiction of a woman declaring her prerogatives in the club than “Single Ladies.” Sure, Polow da Don’s production is downright skeletal up against Nash-Stewart’s luxuriance, and Keri Hilson is nowhere near as commanding a singer as Beyoncé. But the Baduesque edge to her “ah ah ah-ah”s brandishes a borrowed dignity, and Ms. Keri lets her suitors know what turns her on (earned swagger, looking fly) and off (grabbing her ass, promising to take her shopping). Dangling carrot and stick, she flaunts financial independence and a supple vocal flow as she demands that all comers “recognize a real woman.”

Like most second-tier divas, Hilson is usually less luminous. The T-Pain remix of “Turnin’ Me On” may or may not dis Beyoncé and Ciara, but it floats a promise to “shoot these bitches down” no one needs to hear regardless. All-star cameos (Ne-Yo as the nice guy, Kanye as the cad) weigh down her bigger hit, “Knock You Down,” on which Danja’s hyperactive hi-hats are an irritant besides. But because Hilson is second tier, she can impersonate a woman who has more realistic expectations than Beyoncé’s, and express a view of men more subtle than Britney’s “Womanizer.” “I dig your persona,” Weezy flatters Keri on “Turnin’ Me On,” while rhyming in full-on phone-in mode (“I hope your piranha bite”?). But that gets Hilson all wrong. Her strength is her anonymity.

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