It’s no secret that some women love bad boys. Whether we care to admit it or not, most women want to believe that their man will protect them in the face of danger. Depending on the situation, a man can be expected to do anything from stopping an unwarranted advance being made toward his woman to shielding her from actual physical harm.
The appeal of the bad boy is further heightened by sex appeal and abundant cash flow. Aside from having the qualities already mentioned, the optimal bad boy also has personal integrity. This man is not perfect but he is straightforward about who he is at the start of a relationship. Most important, when he slips up he admits his transgression to his woman instead of justifying it or, worse, blaming her for it.
Bad boys are not a new phenomenon in black culture. In the ‘70s, film characters like Shaft, Hammer, and Slaughter resurrected the image of a sexy black man who could kick ass and hold it down for himself and his people. Although these men were rarely law-abiding or faithful, they nonetheless had their own code of honor that guided their lives.
Today, just as then, bad boys counter the mainstream portraits of black men as either wide-eyed buffoons in comedies or infantile louts in ‘hood dramas. For a generation of blacks who grew up watching Good Times and Sanford and Son on television, it’s understandable that many young black men found movie characters like Iceberg Slim, Superfly and Black Caesar more attractive role models than J.J. Evans or Lamont Sanford. Just as in the early ‘70s, rap music and hip-hop culture continue to be influenced by depictions of powerful, street-educated black men who beat the system.
It should be, then, no shock that a new generation of R&B singers raised on hip-hop culture has adopted its “Keep It Real” ethos. While Aaron Hall of the group Guy, with his bald head and bare chest, may be the prototype of the street balladeer, it was R. Kelly who took ghetto love to new heights. Since his days with Public Announcement, R. Kelly has made a career of singing earnestly about love and lust within the context of the ‘hood. Although R. Kelly may make opulent videos like more traditional R&B artists, the language and tone of songs like “Homie, Lover, Friend”, “You Remind Me of Something”, “Half on a Baby” and “I Wish” distinguish him from artists like Luther Vandross, Brian McKnight or even Carl Thomas who concentrate on the sublime aspects of romance.
Without downplaying the material deprivation of ghetto communities, it’s still safe to say that it’s the richness of this segment of American society that fuels popular culture. Pop artists of every hue are imitating the style and persona of the so-called underclass and are being handsomely compensated for their mimicking. This occurrence is no surprise to people who read history.
Seventy-five years ago, in his classic essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”, poet Langston Hughes said, “[t]here are the low-down folks, the so-called common element and they are the majority—may the Lord be praised! The people who have their nip of gin on Saturday nights and are not too important to themselves or the community, or too well fed or too learned to watch the lazy world go round… They furnish a wealth of colorful distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their own individuality in the face of American standardization.”
The ghetto remains fertile creative ground precisely because circumstances have forced its inhabitants to make rules and choices that conform to their own reality. Furthermore, these lifestyle decisions rarely follow the dictates of the bourgeoisie, who often make similar choices but have more invested in maintaining a facade of propriety.
Although love, loss and deceit are universal experiences, the new breed of R&B singers uses a shorthand that is understood by black Americans nationwide who populate a world still under the mainstream radar. As these singers croon about love, their discourse in many instances is centered on topics like hustling, babies’ mamas, the club scene and prison. While smooth R&B songs accompanied by stylized videos detail the idealized version of romance, ghetto love depictions are earthier and more realistic. Of the scads of new ghetto love singers, the standouts are former Blackstreet member Dave Hollister and newcomer Jaheim.
Hollister has a wonderful, strong voice. Moreover, like R. Kelly, he combines secular content with the inflections of a singer trained in the Black church. Hollister’s 1999 solo debut effort was the raw Ghetto Hymns. Ghetto Hymns is most remembered for the single “Babymamadrama”, about warring, unmarried parents. His sophomore album, Chicago ‘85… the Movie, is more polished and does a better job of showcasing his excellent voice than the previous release.
On his latest album Hollister is clearly a man who has matured, checked in his player card and is now intent on loving his woman and keeping his family together. On the first single, “Taking Care of Home”, Hollister preaches to men that, rather than being selfish and egotistical, they should make their women the priority. According to Hollister, a man should consider himself lucky if he has got a good woman who will love him and stand by his side. The hook, “If you take care of home, you don’t have to worry about yours”, means that if you and your woman are simpatico then the rest of your life will also fall into place.
Monogamy is one of those issues that male singers either avoid altogether or approach in a cloying, worshipful fashion that sounds disingenuous. On the cut “One Woman Man”, Hollister sees an old flame and admits that, while she is still tempting, he is now totally committed to his woman who is waiting for him at home. Hollister, however, is not perfect, as is evident in “On the Side”, where he tells his mistress to stop broadcasting their affair because he is not leaving his girlfriend. Furthermore on “We’ve Come Too Far”, Hollister alludes to infidelity when he implores his lover not to give up on the relationship despite his missteps. Hollister’s songs represent a man whose main mission, despite his flaws, is to treasure his woman and his family.
Made more in the image of a rap artist than an R&B singer, Jaheim is the roughneck with a heart of gold. Like Hollister, Jaheim, on his debut album Ghetto Love, is searching for true love and is hitting some bumps along the way. With a voice reminiscent of Teddy Pendergrass, Jaheim is masterful at expressing his sincere need to have a woman in his life—although the songs on the album are sometimes pedestrian. On numerous tracks like “Looking for Love”, “Ghetto Love” and the lush “Forever”, Jaheim croons about committed relationships and the importance of pleasing his woman.
While Hollister chooses to discuss hustling toward the end of Chicago ‘85…the Movie, Jaheim establishes his street credentials from the door in the intro about his release from jail. Moreover, on the moving yet up-tempo “Just In Case”, Jaheim is a hustler who vows everlasting love to his woman in the event that he meets death on the street. Jaheim also shows that women’s treachery is in full effect on “Could It Be”, a tale about gold diggers, and “Lil Nigga Ain’t Mine”, about a fraudulent paternity claim. Like Hollister, Jaheim also steps out on his woman on “Happiness” but good sex is not enough for him to leave his baby’s mama for the “second string” player.
What makes singers Hollister and Jaheim so refreshing is that while they are street-slick they are also vulnerable and accessible. While iced-out rap artists stack women like chips but eschew closeness, most R&B superstars romance models in exotic locales free from everyday concerns. In contrast, Dave Hollister and Jaheim have the personas of guys from around the way who made good telling stories for and about average black folks.
The term “ghetto love”, more than a description of the interactions between déclassé thugs and hoochies, is really a euphemism for the daily trials and tribulations of trying to find and maintain an intimate relationship. At every socio-economic stratum, many of today’s unions include exes, children, scheming friends and less than perfect partners. Ghetto love songs simply discuss the joy and the drama of love straight—with no chaser.
In light of the cynicism and fear that exist among many young black Americans about relationships, ghetto love singers like Hollister and Jaheim are making it hip to pursue love and commitment. According to these bad boys, love is not just for suckers, anymore.
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