Music News

From Akon to Usher, today's R&B is a shadow of its former self

VIBE music editor Sean Fennessey recently posited that contemporary R&B music has gone soft. He's on to something: There are too many emasculated, blue-balled crooners on the radio right now with no true identity. (Hell, whispering whiner/platinum sensation Lloyd's last name is Polite.) But Fennessey overlooks a larger point: R&B isn't just ineffectual right now; it's pointless, derivative and boring. In terms of social relevance, innovation and pure originality, no one approaches titans of earlier generations like Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding or even Michael Jackson and Prince. R&B is missing a transformative star but 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 in the '90s and '00s, R&B became pigeonholed. Attempting to piggyback on hip-hop's popularity, its artists use rap beats and hire MCs for guest verses, resulting in a sound that's virtually indistinguishable from rap. (Try turning off the vocals of Ray J's "Sexy Can I," for example, and see if you can tell the difference.) In fact, one of R&B's biggest names, Akon, is so strongly associated with hip-hop that he's sometimes mistakenly referred to as a rapper.

Fusing genres was traditionally a big part of rhythm and blues — Ray Charles initially made a career out of it. But since New Jack Swing injected a street mentality and rowdy back beats in the late '80s, R&B has shown little desire to evolve or take creative risks. Its crooners have become largely segmented onto urban radio stations, inspiring one mildly successful format-following clone after another.

The watering-down of the genre is one reason it's been disparaged as "Rap & Bullshit." Another is because it's artistically moribund. The vast majority of R&B lyrics are sappy, disingenuous, corny and cliched. Enough already with 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's creative breakthroughs of late. Lil Wayne, Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco and plenty of others are challenging the status quo; for proof, look no further than 808s & Heartbreak, West's top-selling, experimental elegy.

The most successful R&B artists, meanwhile, aren't nearly as 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 commercial smash and was well-received by the likes of Rolling Stone — which gave it four stars out of five — and the Los Angeles Times, which gave it three and a half out of four. Even I didn't totally trash it.

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 in recent memory. 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 last 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 'My Love' and any number of other Timbaland joints, while Ne-Yo's singing is filled, like Chris Brown's, with grating melisma. I'll give him credit for collaborating with NKOTB — even I can't resist "Single" — but let's be honest: If Ne-Yo were to stop making records today, would anyone remember him in twenty 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. Neither has done as much to push the genre forward as R. Kelly, who's at least got a stack of undeniably addictive singles to his credit and is willing to take musical chances. (Unfortunately, Kels doesn't qualify as a respected R&B icon because he hasn't made strong albums and his legacy is tied up in his perversions.)

As for queens like 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 — Cole's mother was a prostitute and drug addict — you'd never know it from their bland discographies, full of boilerplate love-lost laments and CVS-friendly stay-strong anthems. The music from second-tier soulstresses like Ciara and Ashanti, meanwhile, doesn't hold up without the benefit of gruff male voices to contrast their meek vocals. (If you've heard Ashanti's latest album, The Declaration, you know this, but like most everybody else in the world, you haven't.)

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, cliched lyricism imaginable. His Grammy-nominated hit "Woman" is about, get this, how great the female gender is. The words aren't even original; lyrics like "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 Red Lobster.

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, though her recent New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) veers closer to neo-soul and psychedelic funk than to R&B. Inventive Detroit producer/singer Dwele and Philadelphian Jazmine Sullivan, meanwhile, have found success by taking risks, and Atlanta's Janelle Monae's brand of retro-futurism is refreshingly eccentric. She dresses like a robot and inhabits an alter ego named Cindy Mayweather, for starters.

None of these artists fills the bill, however, as a true R&B icon for the new millennium. In fact, no one from the genre has recently captured the public's imagination. It's obviously 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, standout talent? I don't think so — and as a result, I suggest that we amend the "Rap & Bullshit" moniker to simply "Bullshit."

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Ben Westhoff
Contact: Ben Westhoff