R&B Is “Rap & Bullshit”

As one of contemporary R&B's brightest stars, John Legend possesses Grammys and hits galore. But could he be any blander? His twinkling tunes about love and relationships are serviceable and inoffensive, nothing more. And lyrically he treads the same ground as a hundred others. Sure, he's not annoying — we're not talking about Lloyd or Ray J here — but his status as a top dog in the genre says plenty about the state of R&B itself, which has become crummy and 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 has become pigeonholed. Attempting to piggyback on hip-hop's popularity, its artists used rap beats and hired MCs for guest verses, resulting in a sound 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.) One of R&B's biggest names, Akon, in fact, 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 — hell, Ray Charles made a career out of it. But since New Jack Swing injected a street mentality and rowdy backbeats in the 1980s, R&B has since 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. If you know who Pleasure P and The-Dream are, well, I'm guessing you're not white.

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 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 multi-millionaire husbands. The contrast to hip-hop is especially stark considering rap has made great creative strides of late. It's hard to argue that Lil Wayne, Kanye West, and Lupe Fiasco aren't breaking new ground. For proof, 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 commercial smash and has been well-reviewed by the likes of Rolling Stone — which gave it four stars out of five — and the Los Angeles Times, which gave it 3 1/2 stars out of four. High-profile music critic Michelangelo Matos called it "a tour de force," and even I didn't totally trash it.

Ne-Yo and R&B's other reigning king, Usher, are little more than bland, well-dressed Michael Jackson wanna-bes with good choreographers. Neither has done as much to push the genre forward as sexual non-offender R. Kelly, who's at least got a stack of undeniably addictive singles to his credit and is willing to take musical chances.

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. Though 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.

I make no claims to have heard everything out there, of course, and I'm not contending that the entire genre is devoid of something worth listening to. Erykah Badu remains an influential, endearing talent, although 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 Monáe'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 fits the bill, however, as an R&B icon for the new millennium. In fact, no one from the genre has recently captured the public's imagination. 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, standout talent? I don't think so.

 
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4 comments
destinycampbell84
destinycampbell84

Also, the last time I checked Mary J Blige, Alicia Keys, Beyonce, Usher, and Neyo are standout talents in R&B. In fact, they are even recognized by many whites (I'm only stating this b/c the author of this article has a habit of correlating success and talent with white mainstream acceptance). The five artists I just mentioned above are some of the most recognizable music artists in the world and the first four have been lauded for their talent by critics and fans alike for OVER A DECADE and are STILL MAKING MAINSTREAM HITS. Again, this article was clearly written by someone who simply does not like R&B music so even though an artist like Beyonce or Usher  are clearly INTERNATIONAL SUPERSTARS they want to still deny that R&B has legit talent that is ALSO a success. Why should today's R&B artists be pressured to be like artists from the past (which would actually be a cliche in and of itself) but pop singers like Katy Perry and Lady Gaga (aka Madonna 2.0) not be subjected to that same scrutiny? What about The White Strips, Arcade of Fire, All American Rejects, Death Cab for Cutie, Muse, Bon Iver, and the countless number of rock bands that can overlap each other in style, look, and content? Should they be gunning to sound like the Beatles or Rolling Stone or Guns n Roses, or Queen, or Nirvana? In fact its almost hypocritical and nonsensical to criticize modern R&B singers for not being original, cliche, sappy, or corny then turn around and say that they should be trying to duplicate what R&B legends from the past did. How would that be original? In fact, r&b artists of today are actually showing their innovation by NOT completely copying the style of their ancestors. For example, Mary J Blige was quite innovative in that she took an old school vibe and sound and mixed it with hip hop to create a more street savvy sound which was more grittier than the Mary Jane girls' disco or Chaka Kahn's funk. It was new and fresh at the time she came out and spoke to a new generation.  Now New Jack Swing has given way to R&B/Hip Hop and R&B/Techno hybrids for mainstream radio as well as a reemergence of Neo Soul, Motown, Funk or Jazzy sound on the underground end. The innovation is there, nut if you never cared for the genre, like if you don't care for rock, pop, or country, you will never care to notice it.

destinycampbell84
destinycampbell84

I disagree with this article. For one, I can find all the typical cliche's and clones in EVERY genre of music. Country: The blonde girl with the guitar talking about love and love lost  or the honky tonk guy with cowboy hats and boots singing about how its great to be a redneck. Rock: Oh look at me I'm a middle class suburban white guy who is angry at the world, full of angst, rebellious, or suicidal and I can play my guitar REAL loud. Pop: I'm a sexy dancing girl with little singing talent who sings about love, dating, and screwing some guy I just met or I'm a cheesy boy band or boy wonder who sings love songs and dresses in trendy clothes with a million dancers and a backing track behind me trying to impress a million screaming pre-teen girls. Acoustic Pop= I'm a hipster white chick or dude who likes to write sappy love songs and play my guitar on street corners. I mean, with EVERY genre you have TONS of artists who fit into complete stereotypes and clones of the industry. It's unfair to single R&B out just because you don't like the genre. I listen to SOME rock, but a lot of these garage bands, acoustic folk singers, or metal bands can start to sound the same and they tend to talk about the same things (in fact, most music artists usually talk about either love, sex, heart ache, or social issues). Just like there aren't really any Marvin Gaye's out there in modern R&B there are not any rock bands that are considered Beatles, Queen, Guns n Roses, or Nirvana caliber either. Every decade music changes and just like the scope of pop has changed in the last 7 years are so to electro dance, hip, r&b, and rock are starting to reflect that. I'm sick and tired of music 'experts' asserting that a genre is only 'innovative' and valid if white America is listening to it on the regular. Who cares if white Americans are not too familiar with The Dream or who cares if Beyonce's last album 4 is not filled with techno pop tracks to appeal to a more white audience!  Also, anybody who cared to listen could CLEARLY tell the difference between Mary, Keyshia, and Beyonce. For one thing, their SINGING VOICES are completely different and Mary focuses on heart break and struggles (much like Adele does) and Beyonce more on love and female empowerment. How is Adele inventive when she talks about the SAME breakup throughout her whole album and sometimes produces the most blandest sound but Mary J is redundant and cliche? How is Beyonce boring but Katy Perry or Kelly Clarkson (who also specializes in the same 'I don't need you!" female anthems only in the pop rock format) exciting? Because more whites listen to the latter than to the former? Did you ever think that when some R&B artists make music, they are making it for a certain market or aesthetic (predominantly African American)? This is no different than the COUNTLESS white garage bands, alternative bands, boy bands, teen heart throbs, pop princesses, country crooners, and metal heads that make music for a specific market. To those on the outside, the music can sound repetitive, corny, and cliched (how many rockers have sung about depression, suicide, rebellion, bucking the system, drugs, or heart break), but those that love that type of music will be able to 'discern' amongst its artists and see the subtle 'innovations' within the genre. R&B is more than 'Rap and BS"  it is still a viable genre. However, R&B, just like Rap, Rock, and other genres are being overshadowed by the electro dance genre when it comes to mainstream radio and many are  jumping on board to profit from it (which I don't blame them).; No need to single R&B when other genres are evolving too.

Jim
Jim

Just another wrong-headed article by a simpleton who does all he/she can take a jab at music genres he/she knows little to nothing about. Old hat.

It got comical when you lumped Michael Jackson in as an R&B singer when every dope under the sun (except you) knows he sung Pop exclusively.

Please rewrite this article, but this time with the aid of people who know what the hell they're talking about.

Brad
Brad

I found this article by doing a Yahoo! search for "Musiq Soulchild sucks". My co-worker directly across from me listens to this "Nu-soul" garbage ALL. DAY. LONG. Out loud. I've been listening to the same albums for the last 5 years - Mary J., Beyonce, Erykah, Jill Scott, Chrisette Michele, Musiq, Anthony Hamilton. It's all bullshit. ALL of the above want to be looked back upon as the next Nina Simone, the next Marvin Gaye, the next Teddy Pendergrass. It's not going to happen, and you know why? Because the subject matter is identical from song to song.

Mary J. wants you to know that life's been hard for her and she's struggling and striving. It's been hard for me, too - because I've had to listen to it forever.

Musiq wants you to know that he loves you, baby. He wants you to be his buddy, his one and only, his love, his baby, his boo, and he's never going to leave you. I feel like gagging, for some odd reason.

Jill Scott is nothing more than a Mary J wannabe, except she can't even do THAT. I get it...she's strong. She's moving on. Highstepping, y'all. Wonderful. I don't give a fuck, because I've heard it before.

And not only that, half of these R&B singers can't...well, SING. No voice, can't write a lyric any better than a 2-year old can color within the lines.

What I believe is the reason why Al Green, Aretha, Curtis Mayfield and all of the originals succeeded is that they were humble enough to put their own lives to the side and sing about what OTHER people were going through around them. Not this self-obsessed "I'm this, I'm that" mentality that has plagued music today. When Marvin sang "What's going on", you could listen to it 40 years later and say "That was back in this era...this was going on, that was going on..." - it was a SIGN OF THE TIMES - it didn't talk down to you saying "I'm up here, you don't get me, you're down there", it said "Come walk with me and let's talk about what we've experienced...TOGETHER". I don't want to hear about the singers "trials and tribulations", I want to hear about the shitty economy we're in and what's REALLY going on.

Thank you so much for writing this article. It really feels good to know that I'm not the only one who thinks R&B is stuck in a fat, deep rut.

 
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