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VIBE Music Editor Sean Fennessey recently argued that contemporary R&B music has gone soft. He's onto something — there are too many emasculated, blue-balled crooners on the radio right now with no true identity. (Hell, whispering whiner/platinum sensation Lloyd's last name is Polite.) But Fennessey overlooked a larger point. R&B isn't just ineffectual right now — it's pointless, derivative, and boring. In terms of social relevance, innovation, and originality, nobody 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 use rap beats and hire 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 — Ray Charles initially made a career out of it. But since New Jack Swing injected a street mentality and rowdy backbeats in the late '80s, R&B has 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.
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 of promises of everlasting fidelity sung by men sleeping with King models and of female-empowerment anthems written by women with multimillionaire husbands. The contrast with hip-hop is especially stark considering rap's creative breakthroughs of late. Lil Wayne, Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, Nas, and plenty of others are challenging the status quo; for proof, look no further than 808s & Heartbreak, West's top-selling, experimental elegy.
The most successful R&B artists, meanwhile, aren't nearly as 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 three and a half stars out of four. Pop music critic Michaelangelo Matos called it "a tour de force," and even I didn't totally trash it.
And yet... were we not so starved for R&B possessing even a whisper of creativity, we might have more soberly assessed this banal work. Monster hit "Miss Independent" is arguably the most derivative piece of pop all year. Profoundly asserting that women who have their own thing going on are cool, the song rips off a concept espoused by Webbie and Lil Boosie earlier this year, by Destiny's Child in 2000, and by Susan B. Anthony in 1852. The track's beat is stolen wholesale from Justin Timberlake's hit "My Love" and any number of other Timbaland joints, while Ne-Yo's singing is filled, like Chris Brown's, with grating melisma. I'll give him credit for collaborating with NKOTB — even I can't resist "Single" — but, let's be honest. If Ne-Yo were to stop making records today, would anyone remember him in 20 years?
In truth, Ne-Yo and R&B's other reigning king, Usher, are little more than bland, well-dressed, Michael Jackson wannabes with good choreographers. Neither has done as much to push the genre forward as R. Kelly, who's at least got a stack of undeniably addictive singles to his credit and is willing to take musical chances. Unfortunately, Kels doesn't qualify as a respected R&B icon because he hasn't made strong albums and his legacy is tied up in his perversions.
As for queens like Mary J. Blige, Beyonce, and Keyshia Cole, they offer little more than overproduced girl-jams that only discerning fans can tell apart. None seem to take any pleasure in craft. While all three women have fascinating life stories — Cole's mother was a prostitute and drug addict — you'd never know it from their bland discographies, full of boilerplate love-lost laments and CVS-friendly stay-strong anthems. The music from second-tier soulstresses like Ciara and Ashanti, meanwhile, doesn't hold up without the benefit of gruff male voices to contrast their meek vocals. If you've heard Ashanti's latest album, The Declaration, you know this, but like most everybody else in the world, you haven't.
Crooners like John Legend, Anthony Hamilton, Robin Thicke, and Raheem DeVaughn have gotten critical kudos as well, but they all fall short. Take DeVaughn's latest album, Love Behind the Melody. Though almost universally praised, the work contains some of the most basic, clichéd lyricism imaginable. His Grammy-nominated hit "Woman" is about, get this, how great the female gender is. The words aren't even original; lyrics like "you a lady in the streets and a freak when it's bedroom time" should be credited to Ludacris and "I appreciate so much/Like the 'I love you' feeling girl when we touch" should be credited to a poor translation of an Italian Hallmark card, perhaps. Meanwhile, DeVaughn's offer to "appetize ya or main course ya" on "Customer" is less poetry than soundtrack to a porno flick filmed at Red Lobster.