In 2008, Sean Fennessey, then VIBE’s music editor, wrote how R&B had grown soft. Ripping recent offerings by everyone from Ne-Yo and Usher, to Lloyd and John Legend, Fennessey decried R&B’s sudden tendency to "caress when it should’ve clutched,” and accused the genre of going limp in the decade following “Prince’s bump and R. Kelly's grind."
Well, here we are now. In the thick of a genre moribund from it’s insistence on being as un-R&B as possible.
“It’s not cool to be an R&B singer no more,” Trey Songz noted in a Power 105.1 Breakfast Club interview earlier this year. In a broader sense, Songz was speaking on his crooning colleagues’ proclivity in employing non-R&B methods to gain crossover success.
Well, Songz may not have been bitten by the EDM or techno bug, but he, along with a gaggle of young guns running R&B right now, are faking the funk for popularity nonetheless.
Listening to the R&B ruling the airwaves it’s obvious: R&B’s leading men don’t want to be R&B artists; they want to be rappers.
With a self-esteem and imagination as shaky as their vibratos, R&B’s new guard is a group of misogynistic morons more concerned with being cool, than suave; with charting a momentary meme than a classic song; with mistreating and degrading hoes, rather than seducing, and loving women. Rhythm and blues has become rhythm and bash.
There’s the obvious culprits: Chris Brown’s “Loyal,” which spends the better part of four minutes marginalizing women as mindless adulterers whilst simultaneously nudging them into mindless adultery. Or Ty Dolla $ign’s latest “Or Nah” which latches on to the current meme-of-the-moment as he basically asks women—sorry, "b*tches"—how far they’re willing to go to fulfill his hedonistic sexual pleasures:
Is you really 'bout the money or nah?
Can you really take d*ck or nah?
Can I bring another b*tch or nah?
Is you with this sh*ts or nah?
Rico Love, who has a background penning hits for Beyonce, Usher, and others does the same with his latest, “B****** Be Like,” which is as ridiculous as its title implies.
Some artists posture this new trend of jarring lewdness as an authentic reflection of culture. In a recent interview with ThisIsRnB, Mack Wilds spoke on R&B's cocksure ethos as indicative of today’s “no chill at all” generation. While comparing Dolla $ign’s earlier hit “Paranoid" to Boyz II Men’s "I’ll Make Love To You," Wilds said “They won’t apologize for keeping it real. You gotta keep it 100% real. The R&B guys right now are doing that.”
It’s a problematic equivalency: that increased callousness directly correlates with greater authenticity. Why does being "real" have to equate with treating women like sh*t? Have we reached the point where, even in R&B, showing too much love is a sign of weakness?
Perhaps the most important role R&B has played the last twenty years or so is that of refuge. Since rap’s ascendency, R&B has been that necessary space listeners (most importantly, women) could retreat to when they grew tired of rap’s misogyny, but as a considerable swath of rising and established stars continue to bash, that space dissipates.
It’s not just the tunes that are abrasive, either. Some of these crooners, in attempts to reinforce their machismo outside the booth, are feeding reputations as brash, confrontational, and wholly unlikeable.
August Alsina, R&B’s newest star whose album I enjoyed, is one. Whether immaturely berating women VJ’s, abandoning adoring fans mid-concert, or brazenly dissing magazines during magazine interviews with women journalists, it seems he’s doing all he can to reinforce how tough he is. We won't even talk about Chris Brown's…Chris Brown-ness.
It’s all very strange. Having seen Trey (and August, and Chris) break down and cry more than Beyoncé — or Boyz II Men— it’s silly to think they believe we somehow will begin to see them as uber-tough guys because they treat women poorly. The insecurity masked as bravado is as eye-rollingly obvious as their squinty-eyed, lip-licking Instagram pics. It’s a sign of weakness, not avant-gardism, that you have to relegate to bashing in a genre that’s quite literally about the opposite, to make yourself seem tough.
You know what it takes to pull off successful and memorable R&B? Confidence. Confidence in knowing how to seduce, satisfy, and stay with a woman. Hell, there’s even confidence in your unconfidence: a surety in knowing that revealing how much you messed up, will end up being that first step in making things right again. Confidence in being authentically you.
Right now, R&B’s youngest stars with the most potential aren’t being honest, or confident.
The blueprints are there: Marvin’s R&B was sexy in the sixties and seventies. Rick turned it up a notch to freaky in the eighties. Jodeci and others made the nineties about the bad boy and raunchiness. Jaheim and company gave the genre a hood edge in the new millennium. All without bashing the ones they were singing to.
Five years ago, R&B was a caress. Please stop trying to turn it into a b*tch slap.