Imani Graham’s “Just Stay For Once” is urgent and comforting at the same time.
The lyrics are direct: they ask for what they want. Tender yet demanding, they refuse to permit any evasion. They’re loving, but fed up with the beloved’s wishy-washy nonsense. The rhythm drives, lead-footed, and does not let up on the gas. But there’s something in the song you could sink into and rest, a sense of the room or relationship in which the singer is asking someone to stay.
How does Graham build this refuge amid the rush?
The first piece of solid ground I find is the piano chords. As one of the few undistorted sounds on the track, they sound like a real, solid, identifiable thing (your friendly household piano.) They step down like a sigh to F major, the first chord of the key and therefore the song’s center of gravity. There is a musical sense of coming home, even as the lyrics describe the beloved’s anxious impulse to flee.
The harmony vocals on the chorus, high and pure, hover on a single note a perfect fifth above the melody line. They almost fade into the piano part, a fast, pulsing, but harmonically peaceful chord, a dove flying to outpace a storm. These elements contrast with a tempest of swooping sirens, urgent percussion, and outraged electric guitar.
Graham’s vocals are wonderfully expressive. Her vocal storytelling is augmented by her production details. An echo effect on “‘Cause that’s how it’s been from the beginning” suggests the same argument repeated many times, and a shared history that reverberates like an empty room. The distortion on Graham’s chorus vocals communicates the intensity of the character’s emotion as she sings, “Just choose to stay for once.”
Intensity could be added by singing with a growl, or some other kind of strain. That would draw attention to the effect of the emotion on the singer’s body. By adding the rough edge of distortion digitally, Graham focuses instead on the listener’s experience. The singer’s emotion breaks something not in her own throat, but in the air between her and the listener. She throws her voice against the wall that the beloved has tried to set between them, and it shakes.
The lyrics all build up to that shouted refrain, “Just choose to stay for once.” It’s the song’s title, but with one extra word. Something unfamiliar is embedded in a line we thought we already knew. The surprise of encountering “choose” in the middle of the title phrase draws attention and lends it emphasis. By emphasizing “choose,” the singer insists that staying is a decision entirely within the beloved’s power to make. Whatever habits this person has developed, whatever reflexes they have in response to past hurts, whatever patterns they are settled in, there is still a moment of active choice.
Stay or go. It doesn’t just happen to you.
Staying is a choice, and leaving would be too; it’s just a question whether to surrender to or resist your momentum. Graham illustrates each choice with the instrumental arrangement of this song: driving rhythm, wide-open and welcoming harmonies. Both potential futures are present, and neither wins; the listener is left in the moment of decision.