Why I Can’t Stop Worrying and Learn to Love R&B

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Everyone has been going batshit about the new Frank Ocean record over past the month or so, and rightly so, because it’s that rarest of beasts in 2012: a good R&B record. Over the last 15-20 years, contemporary R&B has been this writer’s single most loathed genre, a point of view that’s led to the occasional argument with friends and colleagues over the years. And for all that the genre seems to be undergoing a creative renaissance of late, it’s hard to abandon two decades’ worth of deep suspicion at the drop of Frank Ocean’s hat — especially when there’s still so much awful pap being released (viz. the Trey Songz record that drops this week, for instance). Still, lest I be accused of being a hater, then, here’s an explanation: why I can’t stop worrying and learn to love contemporary R&B.

First, though, there’s the question of what the term “R&B” actually means. Back when the acronym was invented, R&B was exactly what it said on the tin: rhythm and blues. What we call R&B today would no doubt have bewildered the people who first coined the term, who’d probably end up asking the same question we always do when an R. Kelly song comes on the radio: What the fuck is this shit?

Quite how R&B evolved from rhythm and blues into the saccharine mess it is today is a long and strange story – we could spend hours tracing the genre’s evolution/de-evolution here, identifying key turning points, examining the process of how the meaning of a genre designation can change over time just as surely as the meaning of a word can do the same thing. My theory, however, boils down to one simple premise: basically, it’s all R. Kelly’s fault.

Sure, he wrote the occasional decent song (“Ignition” comes to mind), and since we’re talking purely about music here, we can ignore his closet-dwelling ways and his alleged – alleged! – penchant for urination and/or girls substantially younger than himself. But he’s also responsible for “I Can Believe I Can Fly,” the song that provided a sort of unholy blueprint for everything that would follow.

“I Believe I Can Fly” embodies basically everything that’s loathsome about R&B today: the overwrought and contrived emoting, the overriding melodrama, the weird American obsession with “belief” as a panacea for society’s every ill. (Note to R. Kelly: whether or not you Truly Believe you can fly doesn’t matter a bit.)

The song’s 1996 release – for a film that starred Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny, lest we forget – was a sort of reverse Hunter S. Thompson-style high watermark moment, not so much the moment where the wave started to roll back as the moment when the entire sea swirled miserably into a gaping fissure in the earth’s crust, never to be seen again. It was a moment when R&B turned irreversibly on a track toward commercial dominance and creative bankruptcy, the moment where the Peabo Brysonization of the genre was complete.

Fifteen or so years later, the result is that what we call R&B has little in the way of rhythm and, more importantly, basically nothing to do with blues, either. R&B has always been music that’s addressed love and human relationships, and in that respect, at least, it hasn’t changed. But the blues is a sound that’s shot through with all sorts of uncomfortable emotions: yearning, jealousy, guilt. The best bluesmen and women were so compelling because their music addressed love in all its complex glory.

This has largely been lost to the genre over the last 20 years. The ability to invest a song with real emotion has been replaced by the ability to invest a single syllable with as many notes as possible in the pursuit of some sort of hand-wringing meaning that’s ultimately both contrived and hollow. It’s a sort of emotional arms race – singers emote more and more desperately, warble more and more maniacally, and as they do so, the genuine emotional depth they strive for slips further and further away. The result is that on the whole – on the whole, because yes, there are always exceptions – contemporary R&B has as much to do with the reality of its subject matter as Snoop and Akon’s “I Wanna Fuck You” has to do with romance.

Which brings us to the other failing of contemporary R&B. At its best, as noted above, R&B is music that’s both sensuous and intoxicating, a frank and seductive exploration of human sexuality in all its glory. And just as burgeoning sexuality can be just as terrifying as it is thrilling, so R&B can be shot through with its own subtle streak of darkness. In fact, we’d argue that it simply doesn’t work any other way – without such depth, you’re left with exactly the sort of bilge that’s filled our charts for 20 years, music that purveys a vision of love and sex that has no basis in reality, music that’s as fundamentally dishonest as it is cloyingly saccharine. (This, incidentally, is why Channel Orange is so great: it eschews all this nonsense for genuine vulnerability and openness, and as a result is more beautiful and moving than anything the genre’s seen since god knows when.)

As Jarvis Cocker once observed, love isn’t “about chocolate boxes and roses – it’s dirtier than that.” Little Richard understood this. Chuck Berry understood this. (He understood it rather too well, actually, but that’s another story.) Even clean-cut new jack swing types like Color Me Badd had a vague grasp, even if their promises to sex you up seem a wee bit lame in retrospect. But these days? Nah. There’s crudeness, sure – cf. the aforementioned “I Wanna Fuck You” amongst many, many others, including our all-time favorite, Riskay’s “Smell Yo Dick.” But genuine danger? Genuine sexiness? A stack of Usher discs can’t compare to the freakiness in one Little Richard holler.

Thankfully, over the last year or so, the risk has started to return to the genre. The reason for this is a man who’s basically the anti-R. Kelly: The Weeknd. The two men do share something in common – the fact that you wouldn’t leave either of them alone with your daughter – but beyond that, they’re essentially polar opposites. As we’ve mentioned before, Abel Tesfaye’s music reminds us of Bret Easton Ellis, and particularly Less Than Zero, a book that’s coincidentally (or perhaps not) also evoked by Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids” – it’s casually nihilistic, full of brutality and ennui, and as a result, it’s utterly terrifying. When was the last time an R&B artist made a song as compelling as “The Party and the After Party” or “High for This”? (And no, R. Kelly being generally creepy doesn’t count.)

Tesfaye’s trilogy of records last year, along with the aforementioned Channel Orange and several others – most notably Janelle Monáe’s The ArchAndroid, which despite its futuristic subject matter shares a great deal with what R&B used to be – mean that there have been more worthwhile R&B records released this decade than over the previous two put together. Does this signal some sort of sea change in the world of R&B? We can only hope. But as long as R. Kelly and his offspring stalk the genre’s landscape, I’m not abandoning my hearty suspicion of all things R&B-related just yet.