By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
Rhythm & Blue Balls
A case against current R&B, a.k.a. ‘rap & bullshit’
Vibe’s Sean Fennessey recently argued that contemporary R&B music has gone soft. He’s onto something: There are too many emasculated, blue-balled crooners on the radio right now. Hell, whispering whiner/platinum sensation Lloyd’s last name is “Polite.”
But Fennessey overlooked a larger point. Current R&B isn’t just ineffectual—it’s crummy and pointless, derivative and boring. In terms of social relevance, innovation and pure originality, no one approaches such titans of earlier generations as Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, or even Michael Jackson and Prince. R&B is missing a transformative star, but it seems unlikely to find one right now because, as a genre, it barely exists.
Though always something of a hodgepodge, R&B was once a formidable format, a combination of soul, gospel and funk whose best artists didn’t hesitate to experiment with style. But starting in the 1990s, R&B has become pigeonholed. Attempting to piggyback on hip-hop’s popularity, its artists use rap beats and hire MCs for guest verses, resulting in a sound virtually indistinguishable from rap. One of R&B’s biggest names, Akon, in fact, is so strongly associated with hip-hop that he’s often mistakenly referred to as a rapper.
The watering down of the genre is one reason it has been disparaged as “Rap & Bullshit.” Another is because it’s artistically moribund. The vast majority of R&B lyrics are sappy, disingenuous, corny and clichéd. Enough already with testaments to mothers, to promises of everlasting fidelity sung by men sleeping with King models, and to female empowerment anthems written by women with multimillionaire husbands. The contrast with hip-hop is especially stark considering rap has made great creative strides of late. Lil Wayne, Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco and plenty of others are breaking new ground; look no further than 808s & Heartbreak, West’s top-selling, experimental elegy.
The most successful R&B artists, meanwhile, aren’t particularly compelling. Take Ne-Yo, a decorated singer/songwriter who has become the new face of the format. His recent album, Year of the Gentleman, is a critical and commercial smash.
And yet, were we not so starved for R&B possessing even a whisper of creativity, we might have more soberly assessed this banal work. Monster hit “Miss Independent” is arguably the most derivative piece of pop all year. Profoundly asserting that women who have their own thing going on are cool, the song rips off a concept espoused by Webbie and Lil Boosie earlier this year, by Destiny’s Child in 2000, and by Susan B. Anthony in 1852. The track’s beat is stolen wholesale from Justin Timberlake’s hit “My Love” and any number of other Timbaland joints, while Ne-Yo’s singing is filled, like Chris Brown’s, with grating melisma. If Ne-Yo were to stop making records today, would anyone remember him in five years? In truth, Ne-Yo and R&B’s other reigning king, Usher, are little more than bland, well-dressed, Michael Jackson wannabes with good choreographers.
As for queens Mary J. Blige, Beyoncé and Keyshia Cole, they offer little more than overproduced girl jams that only discerning fans can tell apart. None seems to take any pleasure in craft. While all three women have fascinating life stories, you’d never know it from their bland discographies, full of boilerplate love-lost laments and CVS-friendly “stay strong!” anthems.
Crooners such as John Legend, Anthony Hamilton, Robin Thicke and Raheem DeVaughn have gotten critical kudos as well, but they all fall short. Take DeVaughn’s latest album, Love Behind the Melody. Though almost universally praised, the work contains some of the most basic, clichéd lyricism imaginable. His Grammy-nominated hit “Woman” is about—get this—how great the female gender is. The words aren’t even original; lyrics such as “You a lady in the streets and a freak when it’s bedroom time” should be credited to Ludacris, and “I appreciate so much/Like the ‘I love you’ feeling, girl, when we touch” should be credited to a poor translation of an Italian Hallmark card, perhaps. Meanwhile, DeVaughn’s offer to “appetize ya or main course ya” on “Customer” is less poetry than “soundtrack to a porno flick filmed at Carl’s Jr.”
I make no claims to have heard everything out there, of course, and I’m not contending that the entire genre is devoid of anything worth listening to. Erykah Badu remains an influential, endearing talent; inventive Detroit producer/singer Dwele and Philadelphian Jazmine Sullivan have found success by taking risks; and Atlanta’s Janelle Monae’s brand of retro-futurism is refreshingly eccentric.
None of these artists fits the bill, however, as an R&B icon for the new millennium. It may be a lot to ask for another Marvin Gaye or Sam Cooke, both of whom pushed for social change and helped revolutionize the role of the black singer/songwriter in the music industry. It may be too much to ask for another purple one or gloved one, both of whom affected everything from rock and pop to popular culture and marketing. But is it too much to expect a single, stand-out talent? I don’t think so and, as a result, suggest we change the “Rap & Bullshit” moniker to simply “Bullshit.”