Anthony Kiedis is a bit of an enigma as a singer. That’s mainly because, for the first decade of the Red Hot Chili Peppers‘ existence, he didn’t really sing. He took the David Lee Roth approach: rapping, spoken word, shouting, and charisma are all you need to power through. Kiedis’ grasp on melody was tenuous at best, especially on albums like Freaky Styley and The Uplift Mofo Party Plan.
But then something strange began to happen. Largely thanks to the influence of John Frusciante, Kiedis began to actually craft genuine melodies and vocal phrases. There were still the salacious rap vocals, like on ‘Suck My Kiss’ and ‘Around the World’, but Kiedis found out the most unlikeliest of things – he was actually a pretty good singer.
Kiedis found his sweet spot by combining his two sides together. Tracks like ‘Aeroplane’, ‘Can’t Stop’ and ‘Dani California’ featured a mix of both styles, but songs like ‘Californication’, ‘Under the Bridge’ and ‘Otherside’ showed that Kiedis didn’t actually need to rap at all if he didn’t want to. He could carry a tune, and it gave the Chili Peppers a new lease on life that let them expand their sound beyond punk-funk.
One of the most essential blends of rap and melody came on the title track for the band’s 2002 album By the Way. Featuring frantic fast-paced verses and mellow harmonised choruses, ‘By the Way’ is everything great about the Chili Peppers wrapped up in one convenient three-minute song. There’s Flea’s mad scientist bass skills, Chad Smith’s booming drums, John Frusciante’s surprisingly sparse guitar work, and of course Kiedis at the centre of the chaos.
By singing relatively softly during the song’s verses, Kiedis imbues a fair amount of beauty and vulnerability into his vocal performance. This was something that Kiedis wouldn’t dare do in the band’s early years. His reputation was a sex-crazed, drug-fueled maniac. Those guys don’t sing love songs, or songs about their demons, or songs with a mix of pain and optimism. But Kiedis found a whole new persona, with tracks like ‘Scar Tissue’ and ‘My Friends’ showing off his softer side.
Of course, there was always room for the manic nonsense to return, and verses don’t get any more inane than the ones in ‘By the Way’. I had an English professor named Dr. Jackson who hated the Chili Peppers’ harebrained sex-rap side of their music but really appreciated their melodic sensibilities. I imagine ‘By the Way’ was the ultimate tug of war in her mind between either liking or disliking the Chili Peppers, and lines like: “Not on strike but I’m about to bowl one / Bite that mic, I know you never stole one” probably tipped the scales towards “dislike”, if I had to guess. Of well, more ridiculousness for the rest of us.
Check out the isolated vocals for ‘By the Way’ down below.