Released: 5th January 2009
Writers: Robbie Nevil / Lauren Evans / Jonas Jeberg / Mich Hansen
Peak position: #16
Chart run: 56-38-28-16-21-29-48-66
Billboard Hot 100 chart run: 79-70-52-39-34-31-24-21-17-17-17-17-19-21-21-19-20-27-35-41-46
What is this; a song from the late ‘00s? Well, bear with us on this one because sure, we’ve gone a bit off-brand, but the release schedules are hopelessly barren at this time of year. More importantly, though, we’ve made an exception for One Step At A Time, because it’s a phenomenal pop song.
Jordin Sparks was one of the first American Idol winners since Kelly Clarkson to get a serious push internationally; it’s not that names like Carrie Underwood were completely alien to people in the UK, but there had never been any concerted effort to establish a market for them. Why Jordin Sparks, then? Well, it was at least partly circumstantial; her identity was arguably less clearly defined as a recording artist, which ultimately led to a debut album that was primarily guided by current music trends, including that duet with Chris Brown. Fundamentally, this made Jordin Sparks commercially viable on an international scale. And she was. Eventually. Her first non-Idol single Tattoo was a #8 hit in America, although a bit of a non-starter here (it reached #51). Luckily, Jordin had No Air up her sleeve and having achieved an international breakthrough, One Step At A Time became the third single from the album. We had to wait a little longer for it because the label opted to re-release Tattoo in Europe first. But it was so worth the wait.
When the Jordin Sparks album was released in America back in 2007, One Step At A Time was an immediate stand-out. Not necessarily as an obvious single, though. Nestled among tracks from in-demand producers like Bloodshy & Avant and Stargate, this was something of a gear-shift as the sole contribution from Cutfather. We’re not sure that was intentional; you’d be forgiven for presuming that this was a Stargate track since it sounds like the brief was to emulate their trademark rhythmic mid-tempo crunch-clap beat, (evidently Ne-Yo’s Because Of You was the template here). In that sense, Cutfather already had form, having contributed All I See to Kylie Minogue’s X album around the same time. Both tracks do indeed have a near-identical beat to each other – as well as Because Of You – but that’s where the similarities end, for One Step At A Time then strides off in its own direction. It possesses a glorious, playful post-‘90s sensibility that evokes memories of early Christina Milian or Ashanti albums.
Jordin Sparks sheds the overwhelming angst of No Air to deliver a peppy uptempo brimming with optimism and positivity. There is something refreshingly wholesome about the way the whole package has been put together; there’s no attempt made to be aloof or ‘cool’, and that feels like a natural fit for Jordin’s personality, which exudes a natural warmth. Nonetheless, One Step At A Time remains on-trend from a production standpoint, and not just because of the Stargate similarities. The track is also a sterling example of the brief fascination pop music had with using inanimate objects (ping pong, anyone?) to provide a beat; in this case, the use of stilettos strutting down the street at least fits thematically with One Step At A Time. Just try not to strut along with it, particularly when the heel clicks suddenly morph into that a thumping production.
Lyrically, the track is smartly written so that it alludes to Jordin Sparks’ journey on American Idol; in the context of her debut album, it carries some of that narrative within it: “You wanna show the world, but no one knows your name yet, wonder when and where and how you’re gonna make it”. However, One Step At A Time is never so prescriptive that it can’t function perfectly well as a breezy, self-determined pop anthem. And that it does; the track is full of cute little production touches that make it feel consistently dynamic: the layering of the vocals during the pre-chorus; the hypnotic semi-robotic spoken vocals during the middle-eight (“when you need to find the strength”); the floaty: “Da-da-da, ba-um-da-da…” hook that runs throughout. What may initially come across as a fairly simple pop song (with an admittedly familiar-sounding beat) is brimming with subtle flourishes
Of course, we can’t discount Jordin Sparks’ contribution to One Step At A Time. This girl didn’t win American Idol for nothing and the track is a textbook example of a good song being elevated by a great singer. A song that is – in some respects – arguably beneath her phenomenal talent. Her performance is pleasingly measured; rather than over-sing the melody, Jordin Sparks adjusts her delivery to comfortably keeps up with the brisk pace. The power in her voice helps drive the track, without ever overpowering it. And while you sense that One Step At A Time never really pushes Jordin’s voice anywhere close to its limit, she still gets the chance to deliver some soaring vocals.
There’s a lot to love in One Step At A Time, but there is one absolute highlight, and that is the middle-eight, which neatly brings all the core elements of the song together in one of the best 20 seconds of Jordin Sparks’ entire career, if not the ‘00s as a whole:
When you can’t wait any LONGER
But there’s no end in sight
(when you need to find the strength)
It’s your FAITH that makes you STRONGER
The only way we get there
Is one step at a T-I-I-I-I-I-I-ME
It’s so, so good. The tone of the vocals is gorgeous, the big note is effortless, and feels like a special moment with Jordin Sparks capturing the virtuous girl-next-door essence of pop music in a way that few other pop acts had done for several years.
Indeed, the music video for One Step At A Time follows through with that general vibe. If you’re a fan of feet, then this is the video for you, since it features – unsurprisingly – a lot of lower leg action. It’s a charming little affair, with Jordin Sparks walking around a city while interspersed with shots of various extras going through significant little milestones, like picking a date up for the prom, learning to ride a skateboard, moving to university or, er, painting a fence. There’s a nice aesthetic quality to the whole thing; it’s beautifully shot, and Jordin Sparks looks stunning. There isn’t even really anything particularly notable about the locations featured within the video; at one point the camera is revolving around a tree with a Chinese takeaway in the background. But there is something so watchable about Jordin Sparks; her personality lights up the screen, and particularly here where she is largely just being herself.
One Step At A Time doesn’t necessarily feel like a song that would’ve been a big hit – particularly in America – but it performed incredibly well. Over on the Billboard Hot 100, the track peaked at #17, becoming Jordin Sparks’ fourth consecutive top 20 hit. Even by American Idol standards, her commercial success was unprecedented. Meanwhile, in the UK, One Step At A Time peaked at #16, comfortably outperforming the re-release of Tattoo. This does raise the question of how big it could have been as the follow-up to No Air since this always feels like a bit of a forgotten hit.
But in any case, there wasn’t much opportunity to ponder. By the time One Step At A Time charted here, it was a fitting – if somewhat premature – end to the Jordin Sparks campaign. And album #2 was just around the corner…