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.
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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.