Very Specific Playlists is a weekly feature in which Jezebel staffers make very specific Spotify playlists based on their weird proclivities.
My taste in recurrent listening cycles like weather. Since my teens, I’ve been falling in love with certain musical artists and genres over and over again, generally one at a time. These periods of re-infatuation are intense enough to make my desire of the moment feel new and fresh, but they also are a product of love deepened by endurance. This is my joy. By now I’ve had at least 20 Prince phases—at least one a year since I fell in love with him at 17. Same with Kate Bush. Disco. Italo disco. New jack swing. Mariah. Stephanie Mills.
I always come back to slow jams, and frequently. My appetite for them feels almost carnal, something that needs to be satiated regularly. A great slow jam is a come-on that works. It invites you in to nestle in the robust spaces between the beats, to marvel at the vocalist rides them, to be covered in smoothness. You are helpless to its charms.
Since buying my first iPhone years ago, I’ve been assembling a playlist of songs that I would want to hear under any circumstance. I now carry 3,000 of my favorite songs of all time around with me everywhere I go. I prefer to listen to MP3s over streaming music, not just for sound quality but so that I can be in total control of my library and am not beholden to the constantly shifting offerings of a streaming service like Spotify. The two top songs on the ranking below, two of my favorite pieces of music that have ever been produced, are nowhere to be found on Spotify, for example. I want all my jams in one place to luxuriate in—to get my fix, I don’t want to be jumping from tub to tub. That gets cold.
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I have about 300 slow jams on my phone, which has a much higher content of upbeat music (my iPhone playlist originated as a workout mix, but over the years I’ve expanded it to include whatever I might want to hear at a moment’s notice). I’ve ranked by Top 40 below, and below that is a Spotify playlist of a lot of what’s on my phone, minus, of course, the artists that Spotify that doesn’t host. (I also tried to keep each artist’s output to no more than seven songs for well-rounded variety. Otherwise there’d be, like, 50 Mariah Carey songs and 20 offerings by The-Dream.)
I’m mostly focused on the ‘80s and beyond, as I think an electronic component is essential in the conception of a slow jam (some earlier stuff, though, like Luther Vandross’s “House Is Not a Home” is too smooth not to include). In this specific curation, I’ve tried to distinguish between ballad and slow jam—the latter of which has a groove I feel in my soul and is in all likelihood something I would fuck to. This criteria is subjective, but it means, for example, no to Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” (and basically all of her pre-Your Love Is My Love ballads) and yes to “Heartbreak Hotel.” I’ve tried to avoid material that at first blush seems like it should apply, but when surrounded by real slow jams feels too upbeat (or aggressively midtempo), like Mary J. Blige’s “Reminisce” or Madonna’s “Justify My Love.”
Finally, though I’ve attempted to do justice to my love for these songs across time, like any ranking, what is below is a reflection of how I feel about these songs today. Love is fluid. An old snare can thwack your head in a new way, nostalgia can pull you back to hearing a song as you did for the first time. The degrees that separate these songs in my heart are often minuscule—the most important thing is that they remain in my life, cherished.
40. Bjork – “All Is Full of Love”
39. Beyoncé – “Dance for You”
38. Janet Jackson – “Twenty Foreplay (Slow Jam Fantasy Mix)”
37. The-Dream – “ROC”
36. TLC – “Baby-Baby-Baby”
35. Usher – “Climax”
34. Erykah Badu featuring Andre 3000 – “Hello”
33. Mary J. Blige – “Mary’s Joint”
32. Sade – “Is It a Crime”
31. Prince – “Crucial”
30. Keith Sweat – “Twisted”
29. Janet Jackson – “Anytime, Anyplace (R. Kelly Remix)”
29. Jodeci – “Forever My Lady”
27. Yuna featuring Usher – “Crush”
26. Mariah Carey – “Ribbon”
25. TLC – “Red Light Special”
24. Prince – “Insatiable”
23. Janet Jackson featuring BLACKstreet – “I Get Lonely (TNTRemix)”
22. Force M.D.’s – “Tender Love”
21. FKA twigs – “Two Weeks”
20. The-Dream – “Right Side of My Brain”
19. The Art of Noise – “Moments in Love”
18. Silk – “Freak Me”
17. Jodeci – “Come & Talk to Me (Hip Hop Remix)”
16. Mariah Carey featuring Krayzie Bone and Wish Bone –“Breakdown”
15. Usher featuring Beyoncé and Lil Wayne – “Love In This ClubPt. 2”
14. SWV – “Weak”
13. Prince – “The Beautiful Ones”
12. Sade – “No Ordinary Love”
11. Luther Vandross – “A House Is Not a Home”
10. Erykah Badu – “Tyrone”
9. Ginuwine – “Pony”
8. Lauryn Hill – “Ex-Factor”
7. Ciara – “Promise”
6. Bobby Brown – “Roni”
5. Shirley Murdock – “As We Lay”
4. Prince – “Do Me, Baby”
3. Mariah Carey – “We Belong Together”
2. Prince – “Adore”
1. Aaliyah – “One in a Million”
Illustration by Sam Woolley