R&B HAS RARELY BEEN AS POLITE AS IT IS RIGHT NOW. THE SEXIEST GENRE HAS OFFICIALLY ENTERED THE ERA OF SOFT.
by Sean. Fennessey
R&B is at war with itself – and the wussies are winning. While other genres die on the vine, rhythm and blues is enjoying a creative surge from both sides. From the left, id-addled artists like The Dream, T-Pain and even the consistently shameless Ray J are pushing aside creative constraints and flagging sales to make music on weirder and more profane levels than ever before-picking up, and even improving on Prince’s bump and R. Kelly’s grind. But from the right, something soothing and downright hokey is quietly infiltrating. Call it The Soft. This fall, with a gaggle of artists releasing music, R&B sounds more polite than ever. Ne-Yo epitomized the moment with his graceful and gracious third album for Def Jam: The Year of the Gentleman.
Which is not to say the genre’s never been genteel; Boyz II Men, Al B. Sure!, Luther Vandross, and Smokey Robinson were titans of tenderness-forgiving, emotionally available, vocally unguarded. But these are raunchy times-filled with pantyless celebutantes and TMZ “gotcha” cams-that would seem to demand raunchy artists. Instead, we’ve got a gang of sweethearts. Usher’s Here I Stand (LaFace/Zomba) glided to the top of the charts this spring on the strength of the lewdly imagined-but gently delivered-“Love In This Club”, a song that caressed when it should have clutched. The rest of the album was even more mannerly: “Love You Gently” is as proper as it sounds. “This Ain’t Sex” insists that lovemaking is about “making moments that will outlast the world” and not, um, sex. And “Best Thing”, featuring the Beyonce-tamed leader of men, Jay-Z, is a stirring ode to commitment. Seems the man who so recently sang about creeping on his woman has settled down. But do the rest of his comrades have to follow suit?
Chris Brown, still riding high on the charts, straddles the line from “Kiss Kiss” to “With You”. He always wants it both ways. This fall, Robin Thicke as well as rumored sex addict Eric Benet and that prime minister of pliancy John Legend are releasing albums steeped in sensitivity training.
The best of the new slew comes from the impossibly velvety Lloyd. His Lessions In Love (Young Goldie/The Inc/Universal Motown) is not unlike Usher’s last effort: full of songs whose titles, at last, sound lustful and dangerous: from “Sex Education” to the simmering single “Girls Around The World”, to “Party All Over Your Body”. But hearing Lloyd sing them brings to mind one thing: the Downy fabric-softener bear. He promises to “Treat U Good” and “Change Your Life” in a voice pleading and childlike, making up for his lack of range with a devastating sense of melody and a taste for sticky 80’s choruses-but how can he make up for his lack of swagger? Lloyd (whose real last name is-no kidding-Polite) never sounds like more than a nice guy to bring home to mom.
There are other softies: Musiq Soulchild has made an entire career throwing raincoats over muddy puddles. Last year’s sleazy fuck-friend tune “BUDDY” kicked off the project, but he scored a Quiet Storm killer with the follow-up “Teach Me” from Luvanmusiq (Atlantic). He’s prepping a similarly friendly new release for this year. The winsome former Tony! Toni! Tone! front-man Raphael Saadiq is making a comeback with The Way I See It (Columbia), a closer companion to The Temptations than Prince’s “Tempation”-a departure for the man who once sang “My ex-girlfriend is a ho”. It’s not a bad thought, though. Soft does sell. Just ask James Ingram. Even Terrence Howard, an actor consistently lauded for his grit and naturalism, is bringing the mush on his debut, Shine Through It (Columbia). The one-time Hustle & Flow (MTV/Paramount Classics, 2005) pimp/MC opens his album with the acoustic guitar-accompanied cry-fest “Love Makes You Beautiful”. So much for “Whoop That Trick”.
The woman of R&B are becoming more sanitized, too. Alicia Keys once again dominated the charts this year with “Like You’ll Never See Me Again” and “Teenage Love Affair”, songs as old-fashioned as a Sadie Hawkins Dance. The new queen of unmean is Leona Lewis, a British songbird with an impeccable voice, huge ballads, and a barely-there backstory. But even when “Bleeding Love”, she doesn’t set loins aflame the way, say, Mariah Carey has. And despite the firtations of recent E=MC2 (Island), Mimi got herself wifed by that paragon of Nickelodeonism, Nick Cannon. To say nothing of Duffy. And though Estelle’s no choir girl, she literally begs “Pretty Please (Love Me)” on her wonderous U.S. debut, Shine (Homeschool/Atlantic). John Legend signed the Brit star, naturally.
R&B has long enjoyed a reputation as music’s den of iniquity, but now it feels as if it has begun to recoil. Has eight years of conservative leadership-with faith and federal government becoming bedmates-forced artists to look within for something pure? More likely this is just another churn in the cycle of rising and receding sexuality in America. 1950s: Safe. 1960s and 1970s: Salacious. 1980s: Scared. 1990s: Scandal-ridden. At first, the new millennium seemed as filthy as the decade prior. But now R&B is shrinking in message and mode, becoming bashful instead of brash. Still, the old adage is as true today as the day it was first uttered: Nice guys? They finish last. Unless they go platinum.
October 2008 Issue of Vibe is on news stands now.