With so much discussion surrounding hip-hop’s purported demise, I had completely overlooked my waning interest in another genre: R&B. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll always love the swoon of a luxurious baritone or a sweet soprano, the energy rush of a happy dance jam, and the croon of a sultry ballad. Further, and on a more general level, I have a tendency to rebel against the notion of categories and genres.
No doubt, the discussion I’m generating here about R&B should necessarily raise the question, “What exactly is the R&B genre anyway?” Is it for Beyonce, or is she “pop”? Is it for someone like Me’shell Ndegeocello, or does she defy categorization altogether? I suppose the bottom line is we all know it’s possible to find “good music”—we just have to dig a little harder for it sometimes. It’s out there. Or, as many a music lover will tell you, “Good music is good music, it doesn’t matter what you call it.”
I know all of this. And so do you. But, nevertheless, I can’t shake the feeling that my excitement for R&B has been on the decline.
The Cause of the Decline
I’ve at least located a few reasons why this might be happening. For one thing, I grew weary of certain artistic and stylistic transformations within the genre. Of course artists should, if they are so inclined, be risk takers, willing to expand, make changes, and expound upon their visions. And I don’t have anything against artists who adapt, to an extent, to whatever the current climate might be. There is, after all, an inherent tension between self-expression and aspirations of mass consumption. You fancy yourself doing whatever you like, in as unique as way as you’d like, but you also want people to enjoy it and relate to it.
That artistic tension is tenuous, and there were several artists that, to my ears, strayed too far away from their strengths. I wish I knew why, for example, Mariah Carey became “Mimi”, a whispering pinup doll version of her robust singer-songwriting origins, but the transformation hasn’t worked for me. “Mimi” Carey seems popular when it comes to album sales, which is at least one measure of effectiveness, but I don’t look forward to her releases the way I did in her pre-Glitter days.
Such a transformation may have more to do with the current aesthetic than with an artist’s lack of imagination or proficiency. Since the ‘90s, R&B in the United States has gradually been split from its “soul” components.That’s not to say that artists don’t perform with “soul”, because there’s definitely an argument (if not a fact) that they do, but this split has occurred in the way R&B is promoted, formatted for radio, and critiqued.
In the late ‘90s, R&B of the “old school” variety was sometimes termed “classic R&B” or “vintage soul”, while the “new school” music became “neo-soul” and “hip-hop soul”. The result has been a merger of sorts between rap and R&B, which is far more of an amalgam than simply having an R&B song with a guest emcee or a rap song with an R&B singer performing the hooks.This is more along the lines of Mary J. Blige’s 1992 debut What’s the 411? in which the star we now call The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul sang some pretty convincing love songs over “hip-hop beats”.
The rap-R&B hybrid affects songwriting, with songs being based on loops and samples. This would, arguably, lend a sense of redundancy to the music, although a plausible counterpoint would be that, with the consistency of loops and samples, other aspects of a song (such as vocal arrangement and lyrical content) will stand out. Still, sample-based songs sometimes lack the tempo and chord changes, bridges, and instrumental solos that once adorned the standard R&B selection.
Where R&B has incorporated hip-hop’s production values, particularly at the so-called mainstream level, we’re faced with a more homogenized sound. The days of the R&B songwriting titans are long gone. Babyface and L.A. Reid. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Even Teddy Riley. Basically gone. And, no doubt, the argument can be made that these songwriters and producers, at the height of their powers, had a little homogenization going on as well.
Along these lines, though, another source of disinterest stems from the disappearances of several key R&B players. By “disappearances”, I mean either a lack of output from such artists or a decrease in prominence. It’s understood that a singer’s fame and success will likely ebb and flow, if not wane as the years pass. You hear about this all the time, as some artists are considered to have gone past their prime, or said to have released records that are “no longer relevant”. In a way, you might call it a natural changing of the guard, wherein outdated artists, so to speak, are replaced in the spotlight by fresher ones.
However, it feels as if some artists get removed from the scene a bit too soon. Artists like Anita Baker, Rachelle Ferell, and Faith Evans made big waves in the music scene already, and some of these artists are out there performing, but they’ve also, for a variety of reasons, been somewhat missing in action on record. Anita Baker did well with her 2004 work My Everything, but I just feel like there should be more. There’s no telling how different things could be with more input from artists like this, but their recording absences certainly haven’t helped. Speaking of which, where the heck is D’Angelo? On the upside, Toni Braxton’s Pulse is scheduled for 2010 release, so maybe she’ll be the one to put all of my comeback wishes to rest (but I doubt it).
Groups and bands have also experienced a decline. There hasn’t been a Jodeci album in a long, long time, and Destiny’s Child is no more. The Pussycat Dolls, bands made by Diddy, and the possibility of a comeback by Boys II Men—this might be all that’s really left of the group experience. Like hip-hop, R&B has shifted the majority of its attention to solo acts.
On top of this, the untimely passing of artists like Aaliyah and Gerald Levert created definite vacuums, voids that could be worked around but hardly filled I frequently listen to Aaliyah’s self-titled 2001 LP, her final release, and I’m still of the opinion that it holds up quite well against similarly situated albums by artists like Beyonce, Alicia Keys, Amerie, and Rihanna.
It’s not all gloom and doom, though. I can’t say there haven’t been solid albums in the 21st century’s first decade. Some are even masterful. Amel Larrieux’s Bravebird and Morning are incredibly strong, as are albums by Foreign Exchange and Rahsaan Patterson, among others. I dig Raheem DeVaughn a lot, too. I felt like I was getting back into the groove with R&B in 2009, so I’m really looking forward to what 2010 has to offer.
If anybody is capable of thrilling us in 2010, it’s Erykah Badu. She’s brash, bold, a little bit spacey, and a whole lot funky. In 2008, she gave us New Amerykah, Part One: 4th World War, which is one heck of a soulful, introspective trip. Unfortunately, Part Two has been delayed but, on the positive side, we had the very prolific Georgia Anne Muldrow to tide us over, particularly with her dynamic Umsindo. With New Amerykah, it’s possible that Badu perfected the fusion of hip-hop and R&B, and maybe also elevated it into a separate category of art altogether. That’s why I’m so psyched about hearing the second installment of this series. The buzz is already brewing about the tracks to be included. Wouldn’t this be a great year for new Badu?
Like Erykah Badu, Maxwell has promised a feast of albums to be released in installments. And like Badu, Maxwell dropped his first installment in the series after a hiatus from the music scene. Maxwell’s absence was longer, though, and I was curious to hear the sound of his comeback. Well, he came back stronger than ever with BLACKsummers’night, a robust outing that allayed all fears. Truthfully, I didn’t care much for Maxwell when he first entered the scene. I never truly got into his super popular Maxwell’s Urban Hangout Suite or Embrya, and I really disliked Now, but I’ve always respected his craft. On the other hand, BLACKsummers’night grabbed me immediately, live instrumentation and all. Who knows if we’ll see the second installment in 2010, but I’m betting it’ll be interesting.
I nearly passed out when I heard Sade’s single “Soldier of Love” on the commercial for the final season of Lost. I still can’t believe it’s real. With a new album slated for February 2010, Sade is back, and while I know it’s perilous to pin all of my hopes on the return of a single artist, I can’t help but count the days. Sade releases an album like, what? Every decade or so? Why does she stay away so long? Apparently, she’s discovered the Fountain of Youth, and if her last record, 2000’s Lovers Rock, is any indication, she’ll be bringing her timeless elegance to the fore. Plus, that “Soldier of Love” single is kind of awesome.
EPs & Mixtapes
There are a few free EPs (or “FreEP"s) and mixtapes on the internet that are also worth checking out.
Partnering up with Vaughn Garcia, the talented Carlitta Durand, a frequent vocalist for Little Brother and Nicolay, follows her Carlitta’s Way mixtape with a collection called The Doug & Patty EP. Like Wale’s Seinfeld-themed The Mixtape About Nothing, Carlitta Durand’s Doug & Patty culls its themes of love and longing from Doug, a cartoon. Cleverly, the mixtape centers around, and takes comedic liberties with, the potential attraction between the cartoon’s main character Doug and cutie pie Patti Mayonnaise. In one of the EP’s skits, Mayonnaise enlists the crew of the relationship-wrecking show Cheaters to help catch Doug with another woman, Suzie Mustard. “She’s not even cute,” scoffs Mayonnaise. “I wanted mustard and mayonnaise,” cries Doug. Cold busted.
Likewise, J*DaVeY’s Boudoir Synema: The Great Mistapes promises a bright future for the duo of Miss Jack Davey and Brook D’Leau. This free five song Christmas Day 2009 release doesn’t bring as much of the layering and hefty distortion as the duo’s previous work, which hints at a slightly different direction for their overall sound.
There’s also new work from Res (pronounced “Reese”, like the peanut butter cups). She enchanted us so thoroughly with the indie and R&B style of her 2001 debut, How I Do, that her 2009 Black.Girls.Rock album comes—for free, no less—as a welcome addition. Aside from guest spots for hip-hop artists like Talib Kweli and Evidence, Res joined Talib Kweli and Graph Nobel to form the group Idle Warship. The group distributed their eclectic mixtape Party Robot via the internet in 2009. I’m just happy to have Res back in action.
Nneka’s J. Period-helmed mixtape, “The Madness (Onye-Ala)”, showcases the Nigerian-German singer’s raw and earnest vocals. Her previous releases are dynamic and earthy, with a classy optimism that will hopefully carry over onto her debut United States release, Concrete Jungle.
Finally, there’s one freebie that takes a fresh look at the past while whetting our appetites for the future. Men Love Mary: A Tribute to “My Life” is a mixtape, hosted by Chucky Thompson, in which male soul singers rework songs from Mary J. Blige’s second album titled—you guessed it—My Life. Chucky Thompson’s presence on the mix is informative, given his producer credits on the original album. My Life takes a more personal tone when compared to Blige’s debut, so it’s intriguing to hear singers like Eric Roberson, Jesse Boykins III, and Nino Moschella render these tracks from their own points of view. Maybe women are from Venus, and Men are from Mars, but we can all agree that we love Mary J., right?
No, seriously. Who doesn’t love Mary J. Blige?
Now, if I can just get new albums from Bilal, the multitalented Jill Scott, and the notoriously absent D’Angelo, we’ll know for sure that everything has fallen into place.