June 28, 2016


Sean Paul's Top 10 Return: Inside 'Cheap Thrills' & His Illustrious Career

Manny Carabel/WireImage
Manny Carabel/WireImage

Forget “One Dance,” “Panda,” “Can’t Stop The Feeling” and “This is What You Came For.” The most interesting story in the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 right now is “Cheap Thrills,” the party-hard electro-pop single from Sia that moves to No. 6 this week and has become her biggest hit as a lead artist to date. 

It’s taken four months, but the latest single from the singer-songwriter’s overlooked This Is Acting album has overtaken the chart peak of 2014’s ubiquitous “Chandelier” and improbably become her fourth Top 10 to date. Actually, “improbably” is a bit of an understatement: Sia’s transformation from offbeat alt-popper to radio-dominating arena headliner has been stunning to witness over the past half-decade, especially since she’s rarely shown her face while conquering the world.

But really, Sia’s long-confirmed reinvigoration doesn’t make “Cheap Thrills” the most fascinating song at the top of the Hot 100. Its featured artist, the inimitable Sean Paul, helps it earn that distinction.

Consider the 43-year-old Jamaican artist as the dancehall Flo Rida: Just when you think he’s out of Top 40 radio’s orbit, he crashes back into our lives and dominates another summer… without ever really allowing us to consider Sean Paul as a personality or pop presence. Just when you believe you can write him off as a relic of another time period, he flaunts his vitality slightly outside the camera frame and laughs at those proclaiming him extinct. Sean Paul has been sporadically producing hits since 2002, when “Gimme the Light” became his first Top 10 in the U.S.; he debuted in the era of AshantiNelly and 50 Cent, and as a hitmaker, he has outlasted all of them. Now he is on his first Top 10 hit since 2010, pushing his overall tally up to nine—more than double Sia’s total.

How does this keep happening? Looking at his track record of success, the answer is simple: Sean Paul mutated into a utility player after arriving in America as a power hitter a decade and a half ago. With 2002’s Dutty Rock album and 2005’s The Trinity, Paul racked up a whopping seven Top 20 hits as a lead artist, including No. 1 smashes with “Get Busy” and “Temperature.” His flow was idiosyncratic and inviting, his knack for melody was precise and he presented his hooks like the world had been dying for vigorous reggae chants. Nothing was too complex; everything moved quickly and kinetically. He distilled dancehall in a way that was instantly accessible to casual pop fans, and for two albums, he was king.

Then, the solo hits stopped coming. Following three Top 10 hits from The Trinity, Paul never sniffed the upper reaches of the chart again as a lead artist, coming the closest with the forgettable “She Doesn’t Mind” in 2011 (No. 78 peak). Some of his songs popped overseas, including “Got 2 Luv U” with Alexis Jordan, but nothing dented U.S. pop radio.

So Sean Paul started grinding out featured appearances, and slowly but surely, he returned to Top 40. “Break It Off” with Rihanna became one of her earliest Top 10 hits; Jay Sean’s “Do You Remember,” also featuring Lil Jon, beguiled fans of “Down” in 2010. Most memorably, Paul appeared on Enrique Iglesias’ international smash “Bailando,” which peaked at No. 12 on the Hot 100 but set a record for the longest run atop Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart in 2014. The increased number of feature appearances have been by design: Paul was let go of longtime label home Atlantic Records in 2014 following a string of lackluster album sales, and without a major breathing down his neck for a new full-length, the singer-songwriter has been able to drop by different projects at will. "It is better that I feel what I want to release; if the public doesn't want it, at least I know I put my best into it," Paul said in a 2014 interview.

Paul refused to disappear, and had transitioned from leading the conversation at Top 40 to interjecting a catchphrase once in a while. This approach is on display fully in “Cheap Thrills,” which was originally released as a standalone Sia track in January but started heating up at radio when Paul slid in for a remix this spring. 

Ostensibly, Paul doesn’t really do much on the “Cheap Thrills” rework—on the intro he commands things like, “Bounce wit it girl!  / Dance wit it girl!,” and he barges into Sia’s chorus with the declaration “You worth more dan diamonds, more dan gold.” His verse, arriving late in the remix, does not add much more than that lyrically, but Paul adds a new flavor to the original “Cheap Thrills,” turning Sia’s exaltation of inexpensive pleasure into a blend of sterling pop and rhythmic fusion. Paul once again lends a nifty assist, and Sia has once again scored.

Paul will likely be remembered best for his early hits like “Get Busy” and “Temperature,” and not for what he’s done since his solo heyday. That’s a shame, because what he’s done over the past five years—hopscotching between genres, finding unlikely collaborators and helping them spin gold—is arguably a more impressive accomplishment. Over the past year, Sean Paul has been featured on songs by Little Mix, Magic! and Sak Noel; he is probably receiving a lot more requests now that “Cheap Thrills” is blowing up. There’s a good chance that Sean Paul will still be telling us to rock with it, bounce with it and dance with it for years to come, and that’s a thrill in itself.

Watch a throwback chat with Sean Paul below: