Rhythm and Bullshit?: The Slow Decline of R&B, Epilogue

[22 July 2005]

By Mark Anthony Neal

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Epilogue

While the slow collapse of the independent-promoter payola scheme suggests an opportunity for non-mainstream artists, the practice of legal sponsored spins (pay for play legitimized by a broadcast disclaimer) continue to put small independent labels and the innovative R&B they cultivate at a disadvantage-they simply don’t have the resources to compete in that arena. Even major-label R&B artists struggle to be heard: Tweet garnered far less attention for her truly nuanced R&B than for the “scandal” of her first single “Oh My” and the rumor of a relationship with Missy Elliot. Perhaps John Legend’s success signals a small shift-I’m not sure many programmers would have risked playing a singer-songwriter five years ago. But for every John Legend, there are others who never break through. For those enterprising program directors and fans looking for R&B that deserves greater recognition, here’s a brief list of worthy artists still below the radar.


Lewis Taylor

Lewis Taylor
That I need to begin with Lewis Taylor epitomizes the tragedy of contemporary R&B. Although Taylor is arguably the most brilliant talent to emerge in R&B in the last decade, most R&B fans in the United States are still unaware of his existence, even after six studio recordings (the last four on his own label). The reason for Taylor’s invisibility are many, starting with his Britishness and his whiteness and his commitment to push the boundaries of R&B. Taylor makes R&B for folk as fluent in Marvin Gaye and Bobby Womack as they are in the Beach Boys (Pet Sounds specifically) and Radiohead. Taylor’s eponymous 1977 debut is simply classic, and it earned him the attention of D’Angelo, who reportedly referred to Taylor as his favorite R&B artist. Even the late Aaliyah remarked that she was into Taylor, telling the New York Daily News in 2001, “My favorite CD right now is Lewis Taylor. My stylist had a mixed tape with his song ‘Bittersweet’ and I had to know who was singing.” The influence of Taylor’s “Bittersweet” can be heard on the Timbaland-produced “Come Back in One Piece,” from the Romeo Must Die soundtrack. Taylor’s obscurity has a great deal to do with his then-label’s inability to grasp what he was doing musically, particularly as Taylor resisted being packaged like blue-eyed-soul hacks such as Michael Bolton. Lewis Taylor and Lewis II (2000) (which included Taylor’s sweet cover of Jeff Buckley’s “Everybody Here Wants You”) are the best introductions to Taylor, though his independently released Stoned, Part 1 (2003) is also a fine outing. Stoned, Part 1, will be released in the United States in September by Hacktone Records.


Rahsaan Patterson

Rahsaan Patterson
In his thoughtful biography of Luther Vandross, journalist Craig Seymor suggests that one of Vandross’s great talents was his ability to expand the range of emotions that could be expressed by a black male Soul or R&B artist. Of course Vandross paid a symbolic price for his expressiveness: His emotional depth was often read as evidence of a diminished masculinity, as if the two were antithetical. Journalist Ernest Hardy says it best: “Naked emotionalism renders almost any male in American culture suspect, but especially if he’s of the Negro persuasion, and most especially if the emotion is not exaggeratedly countered with macho or thug signifiers.” In this regard, Vandross suffered the fate of Ronnie Dyson-tragically obscured in an era marked by Teddy Pendergrass-like gruffness and hypersexuality-and foreshadowed that of Rahsaan Patterson. Though Patterson’s two major label releases, Rahsaan Patterson (1996) and Love in Stereo (1999), lack the musical depth of, say, D’Angelo’s Voodoo (2000) or the catchy riffs of Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite (1996), Patterson’s voice is otherworldly. In a recent Village Voice piece, Jason King describes Patterson as the “love-child of Chaka Khan and Al Jarreau.” No other contemporary vocalist, in my view, could pull off the emotional intricacies that Patterson displays on tracks like “Can’t We Wait a Minute”, “Joy” (backed by Take 6), and “It’s All Right Now”. After an amicable split with MCA, Patterson is currently touring in support of his indie-label debut After Hours.

Jaguar Wright
It was Jaguar Wright’s misfortune that her debut, Denials, Delusions, and Decisions was released just as the neo-Soul gravy train was grinding to a halt. Truth be told, Wright never really fit the neo-Soul script, something that her label at the time never quite understood. Wright’s vocals were ragged with the kind of emotion last heard in these parts from the likes of Betty Wright (no relation), Ann Peebles and Millie Jackson. As Wright told Philadelphia’s City Paper back in 2002, “I make cussin’ sound natural. I’m not vulgar. I make grown-folks music; I don’t make music for kids. It’s grown language, talking ‘bout grown shit for grown people.” The title of Wright’s new recording on the Artemis label-Divorcing the Neo 2 Marry Soul-suggests she has finally made a recording that speaks to her grittier sensibilities. Tracks such as “Play the Field” and “Free” sound like they could have been recorded at Muscle Shoals (Fame Sound Studio) 25 years ago. Thus it’s not surprising that Wright dares to remake Shirley Brown’s “Woman to Woman”-a song that brought the drama of infidelity to Soul and R&B audiences when R. Kelly was still in kindergarten. Wright’s new found musical freedom is best expressed on “Do Your Worst”-a nearly 12-minute display of anger, betrayal and murderous rage that recalls Lonette McKee’s heartbreaking rendition of Van McCoy’s “Giving Up” in the film Sparkle (1976).


Eric Roberson

Eric Roberson
Bilal and Musiq are generally regarded as the signature male vocalists of the so-called Philly Neo-Soul movement. But Musiq is perhaps a better songwriter and arranger than he is a vocalist, and Bilal’s vocal sensibility is limited somewhat to the recording studio. Arguably the most accomplished artist to emerge from the Philly scene is Eric Roberson. Roberson’s songwriting credits can be found on albums by Will Downing, Musiq, Vivian Green and on Jill Scott’s Experience: Jill Scott (826+), where most first heard Roberson, opposite Scott on “One Time”. At that point, Roberson already had a small underground following courtesy of his now out-of-print and hard-to-find The Esoteric Movement (2001)-it lists for $30-plus used on Amazon. Trying to feed the needs of those clamoring for more music, Roberson emptied his drawer and independently released Eric Roberson Presents: The Vault 1.0 (later updated as The Vault, 1.5). There are many standouts on Roberson’s latest, including “Def Ears” and “Couldn’t Hearme”. Throughout, Roberson proves that sample-based R&B is not totally bankrupt. On the nostalgic “Right Back to Me” Roberson makes ample use of Isaac Hayes’s version of the Carpenters’ “Close to You (They Long to Be)”, creating a lush musical landscape reminiscent of Hayes’s own creative peak in the early 1970s on Hot Buttered Soul and Black Moses.


Frank McComb

Frank McComb
Like the title of the song he performed on Buckshot LeFonque’s (Branford Marsalis) Music Revolution, Frank McComb is a phoenix-Donny Hathaway reborn. After a canned Motown outing, his major label debut Love Stories (2000) offered him chance for wider recognition beyond those few who caught his performance with Marsalis. But that recognition never came, as McComb suffered the fate of so many decidedly mature R&B artists from the late 1990s-Will Downing, Johnny Gill, Rachelle Ferrell and Regina Belle among them-who were too “old” for contemporary R&B and arguably too soulful for the “Smoove” jazz denizens. Truth (2003), McCombs’s follow-up, wasn’t even released in the States, and that’s a shame. Tracks such as “When You Call My Name”, “Better Off Without You”, and “Intimate Time” only reinforce McComb’s furthering of Hathaway’s legacy-hopefully a duet between Combs and Lalah Hathaway awaits us in the future-especially at a time when contemporary R&B could desperately use the secularized spirituality that made Hathaway so affecting in the first place.


Mint Condition

Mint Condition
When Mint Condition, six musicians from Minneapolis, first emerged in 1991 with their debut Meant to Be Meant, they were quickly regarded as part of the R&B avant-garde-group that includes Meshell Ndegeocello, Joi, Van Hunt, Martin Luther, Anthony David, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and Res. Though Mint Condition recorded some of the best R&B of the past 15 years with recordings like From the Mint Factory (1993) and Definition of a Band (1996), and though their lead vocalist, Stokley, is on the shortlist of the best vocalists of the 1990s, the group never caught on with most R&B listeners. Six years after the largely ignored Life’s Aquarium, Mint Condition—now a quintet since Keri Lewis (Mr. Toni Braxton) departed the group amicably—returned with Livin’ the Luxury Brown, released on their own label, Caged Bird. Mint Condition is in regular form throughout the album, though it lacks a signature ballad on the level of “Pretty Brown Eyes” (1991), “If You Love Me” (1999), or their classic “What Kind of Man Can I Be”. Highlights include “Sad Girl”, the breezy “Look Whatchu Done for Me” and the lead single, “I’m Ready”.


Carmen Rodgers

Carmen Rodgers
While so many of us profess our love for the indie world of neo-Soul, Nu-Soul or whatever label we’re attaching to this music today, the reality is that many of these artists-no matter how good their music sounds while we’re waiting for the open mic performance at the local Afro-Boho spot- are somewhat flawed. The major labels might not be interested in promoting R&B artists who don’t have some kind of affiliation with a hip-hop crew, but give then some credit for at least being able to identify talent. That said, Carmen Rodgers might be an exception-On her indie debut Free (ABMG/Expansion Records), Rodgers manages to neither pander to Soul music’s past nor tries to keep pace with the fleeting rhythms of contemporary R&B. There is much to like about Free, including “Missing You” and “Fallen”, but the real gem of the disc is Rodgers’s remake of the Captain and Tennille’s “The Way (I Want to Touch)”.


Faith Evans

Faith Evans
In many ways Faith Evans doesn’t belong on this list., but she has always been in the shadow of Mary J. Blige and her late husband Christopher Wallace and too often betrayed by material deemed appropriate by the Puffinator. Liberated from Bad Boy land, Evans released The First Lady (Capitol), which is simply her most accomplished recording. On the lead single, “Again”, Ivan Barias and Carvin Haggins (late of A Touch of Jazz Productions) provide Evans with some Motown-era pop candy, helping her to live up to the regality of the disc’s title. The duo continues their winning ways on tracks like “Stop and Go”, “Get Over You” and cutesy “Jealous”, which samples Los Angeles Negroes’ “Esta noche la paso contigo” (1975). The First Lady loses much of its glow when Barias and Haggins aren’t in the room-Pharrell’s “Goin’ Out” is easily the worst track. That the recording’s quality drops when Pharrell and Jermaine Dupri are producing should be an indication to the majors that star producers don’t always deliver the goods-the money could be better spent on actual promotion. The one exception here is “Mesmerized,” produced by Chucky Thompson, Andre Johnson and Todd Russaw (Faith’s hubby). Replete with rhythm guitar jacked from George Benson and the bassline from Lou Donaldson’s version of “Who’s Making Love”, “Mesmerized” might be Evans’s strongest track. The first lady of R&B, though? More like the second coming of Lynn Collins.


Raheem DeVaughn

Raheem DeVaughn
Raheem DeVaughn is one of those artists that has benefited from the presence of Satellite Radio. While it’s likely that the same kind of paid-spins politics is happening at XM and Sirius, satellite radio for the time being still delivers on its promise to break the monotony. DeVaughn’s The Love Experience (Jive) exemplifies this. The album suffers from the ongoing need of artists to use all 80 minutes the compact disc format allows, but once you strip away the filler, what’s left is compelling. DeVaughn’s vocals are reminiscent of Dwele’s, but where the latter’s music was overly restrained, DeVaughn is R&B unreconstructed—messy and ragged. The lead single, “Guess Who Loves You More”, with its smart use of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love”, is a fine introduction to DeVaughn, but the real gems are the Prince-like “Who” and two political tracks, “Until” and “Catch 22”. On the latter track DeVaughn perfects the symphonic thug soul of Dave Hollister (“Baby Mama Drama”) and Blackstreet (“Hustler’s Prayer”).

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Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Epilogue

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/050722-randb4/