WHERE’S THE SOUL GONE? ONE PERSPECTIVE ON TODAY’S R&B

The current state of R&B is creating an ongoing discussion that has everyone asking, “where’s the soul?” With singers rapping, rappers singing and the production resembling Dubstep, we’re currently in a ball of confusion. There are artists who are trying to bring the sound back whilst infusing new musical elements that elevate the genre more than it completely changes it – Frank Ocean, Miguel, Janelle Monae, and Elle Varner are huge examples of that.

Many claim that today’s R&B is oversexed – these same people who cry foul are those who grew up on songs that had their nine year old friends singing about knocking boots, freaking people and seeking out that honey love. I grew up within this same time frame and I have to say that while I do have my artists that I enjoy regularly, R&B today is a bit out of pocket. R. Kelly lived that freaky life he sang about – and got caught up a few times over it but we won’t discuss that here – but he also made songs like “I Believe I Can Fly”, “Gotham City” (for the Batman & Robin soundtrack, which was and still is a pretty big deal), and did a duet with Celine Dion.

What’s this called? Versatility.

Singing about sex is fine; it’s a natural thing that humans take part in for pleasure or to do as God intended for it and populate the world. Somewhere along the line, people forgot that in R&B versatility is the key to longevity. Part of this is a societal issue, though; to put it plainly, if the consumer has a ratchet mindset, then they’ll only identify with ratchet things that coincide with said mindset thus supporting ratchet music and keeping it in constant rotation. It’s a cycle and the more people complain with no action, the cycle will continue.

Personally, I like my R&B soulful and targeted at my heart; the R&B I was exposed to from a young age was passionate about love – and getting the draws every now and then – and making that one person understand just how much he or she would do for just one chance. I identified with that wholeheartedly because my personality was well matched with those elements. A strong voice combined with relevant lyrics to my life went a long way and, what do you know, that is still the case today.

There are instances when I can get the artist’s gist even without having gone through certain situations. I haven’t been heartbroken as many times as Keyshia Cole to relate to her type of pain, but I felt her for a little while. In the same instance, I’ve never been married so I also can’t identify with finding my destiny in the form of a soulmate but her singing about love speaks to me as well. As a kid, I shied away from Usher’s “Nice And Slow” because I thought it was too sexy for me to be listening to even though my classmates were all over it like they were old enough to be entertaining this man’s advances.

We were eleven.

In 2004, when he sang about being his lady’s groupie because she was his superstar I fell in love because I identified with that ideal completely. Usher’s done songs for Disney compilations and all sorts of various situations in love – yes, he’s dunked himself into the pool of dance music but he’s an entertainer and it was bound to happen. Typically, when you’re a singer who dances you’re going to be grouped in the category of entertainer and let’s face it – you can’t do an eight count to the melody of a piano. When did people stop considering Michael Jackson to be an R&B artist and started labeling him a pop artist and entertainer?

What happens, though, when you drift off to the other end of the spectrum? You don’t dance but you’re a singer within the R&B genre – what’s your career map looking like?

Once again, R. Kelly is pretty much the father of this subcategory of R&B with Marvin Gaye being the grandfather of it. Marvin did cute steps every now and then when he’d perform on television but he was an R&B artist who stayed in that lane. He had pop hits but they weren’t necessarily meant to be that; essentially, he was bred as a rhythm and blues artist and carried out his career as such. Marvin also went outside of material such as “Sexual Healing” and “Let’s Get It On” (done much later in his career) and made powerful odes to the plight of his people like “Mercy Mercy Me” and “Inner City Blues”. It would make sense to keep the lineage of R&B’s evolution in this path, right? So, who’s next?

Trey Songz – go ahead, you can say it.

Trey’s been making music even before his debut album, I Gotta Make It and from his first album you could tell that he had a healthy appetite for the ladies; what twenty year old doesn’t, though? What was special about the album was how passionate he sounded as he talked about his absentee father and his mother’s struggle to keep him in line over the years, losing love after putting his all into the relationship to the point where he hated it, and making something of himself with hopes that his lady will stick the rough times out with him. That was a well-rounded R&B album that, over the years as he’s released each project, many reference for its genuine sound.

As the years passed, albums and mix tapes were released and Trey gradually grew but there were steady constants in each project – sex. We all have learned that Trey loves long-haired redbones, thick with their legs long who are extremely great at things that make grown women blush. I know I blush when I hear it. He’s made this his lane and that’s fine: you understand early on what the people like to hear from you and you go with it, that’s great – do you. The problem is that there hasn’t been any toning down or phasing out of the sexual material and the mob’s voices are starting to rumble louder than they ever have.

His fifth album, Chapter V, is set to hit stores in just five short days and this is an amazing feat in itself, especially with the music industry not making too much money these days. As a fan, I’m personally proud of Trey for making it this far because coming from where we come from (the Richmond/Petersburg area) people don’t believe they can make it out let alone actually accomplish a dream. I love seeing him out and about because it gives hope to a generation and tells them not to let their circumstances stunt their growth as people.

Still, there’s something missing.

Ne-Yo recently expressed that Trey is lacking an emotional disconnect in his music and he’d like to see him step his game up a bit. HONESTLY? I don’t see the flaw in his statement; Ne-Yo’s a songwriter – a successful one – and has done pretty well for himself as an artist but even more so behind the scenes. I’m not his biggest fan by any means, but there comes a time when you have to call a spade a spade and that’s what Ne-Yo was doing. He threw his opinion out there, which he’s entitled to, and people reacted.

My opinion (as I am entitled to one as well)? I’ve never been a fan of songs saturated in sex, even as a kid because I felt that wasn’t for me. My personality doesn’t fit that yet I love Trey’s music and THAT’S what frustrates me the most: I ride for this guy tough and he has the potential to be among the greats but harping on one specific subject for fifteen songs then sprinkling four beautiful love-lorn ballads in an album doesn’t cut it for me.

Maybe something has to happen for him to flip the switch and say, “I want to open up more”; that’s not to discredit what he’s already done, though because Trey does have some amazing songs – they just get overlooked for the pum-pum anthems.

If there’s anything that new R&B artists can learn from anyone mentioned in this piece, it’s to give every bit of yourself so you aren’t pigeon holed as one type of artist to the point where you dwell in that lane until you can’t sustain any longer.

If you’d like to know what I think about Chapter V, stay tuned – that review will be up soon!

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