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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Little L" sounds like a happy, groovy jam until you parse the lyrics

On a down day where little seemed to go right for me, a healthy dose of house-like funk temporarily lifted my spirits.

I’ll be completely honest: I lacked inspiration today. I felt down for physical and mental reasons, and I didn’t have much drive to post. Nevertheless, I’m sticking to this format.

With that in mind, I’m actually thankful my mobile order for dinner didn’t go through. In having to wait in line in the restaurant (don’t worry, I wasn’t double-charged), I heard a song I thoroughly enjoy, which despite its lyrical themes let me escape the moment for a bit. That song is Jamiroquai’s “Little L,” a funk/nu-disco number from their 2001 album A funk odyssey. “Little L” is a track that bridge the gap between two dance-made genres I really enjoy, and it’s really hard for me to stay still to it. Thankfully, I can stay still enough for long enough to successfully write about the tune.

The fusion of funk and house is present from the very beginning, with a rock-solid and forward kick drum leading a four-on-the-floor backbeat, while above it the band plays various voicing and extensions of an F minor chord. Particularly prominent is a guitar which plays a tritone of A-flat and D. The latter is an interesting note because it’s the major 6th, from the parallel major key, a rare sound in minor-key contexts. It adds a distinctive brightness, despite it being part of a dissonant interval.

Interestingly, despite the prominence of F minor in the intro, that’s not the song’s key center — rather, E-flat minor is. This change in tonal center remains the track’s most distinctive feature for me, and it’s one that’s fascinated me since I first heard it. Typically, funk tracks stick with the same chord as the tonic for the whole piece, often not moving from it at all. I credit Jamiroquai for making the call, because it definitely adds far more character to the track than simply keeping they key center the same between the two sections, … but I’d love to know more about how they came to that decision, and what they may have considered before coming to the decision as heard on the release.

F minor remains part of the track following the introduction; it’s the third and predominant chord in the four-bar progression that backs the rest of the tune. F minor sets up the dominant chord of B-flat Major, which then resolves to E-flat minor, a very functional harmonic passage. I can still clearly hear F minor in the tune (bless/curse my absolute pitch), but its less prominent position — especially as it leads to two other chords — likely means it’s overlooked by a fair amount of listeners.

"Little L" is much more dour lyrically than it is instrumentally, with its words focusing on frontman Jay Kay attempting to process his breakup with his former fiancé, TV presenter Denise van Outen. Kay was also battling a cocaine addiction during the breakup and the album's production, the effects of which may or may not have manifested in the feverish lyrics. The track depicts falling out of love as Kay, as narrator, lays all the blame on his ex in his frustration. This perspective is understandable for a track which was written so quickly (according to Kay, 25 minutes) in the emotional turmoil following such a massive falling-out.

The line with the title is one that's stuck with me from my first listen to the track a few years ago: "You make me love you, love you, baby / With a little 'L'." It's a fascinating way to mourn the loss of love, and one I'd had trouble understanding at first. Upon further reflection, I understood that the line reflected the decline and ultimate end of enthusiasm in the relationship. What once may have been a fully-fledged, committed "Love" — or even "LOVE!" considering Kay and van Outen's engagement — had dwindled to a lowercase statement of "love" which was only love in name. From the lyrics it seems that Kay held onto the relationship for as long as he could, for better or (more likely) for worse. Letting go of someone you've loved is perhaps the most emotionally trying part of life, because it makes oneself question all aspects of that love in the first place. As the line containing the title repeats while the song fades out, it's clear Kay wasn't ready to move on yet.

Tracks like "Little L" fascinate me in their duality of happy-sounding instrumentation and downtrodden lyrics. For someone like myself, who tends to have an analytical viewpoint toward popular music, it provides a bit of a puzzle to work through, as I try to rationalize why that duality exists. In the case of this particular track, it feels like Jay Kay and Jamiroquai were trying to funk and dance their way through the pain described in the lyrics. Props to them if it worked as a coping mechanism; if not, at least it spawned a gem of a song.


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