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Thursday, September 17, 2009

R&B At A Crossroads
One thing even a casual music fan could note about the times after what I might call the "LaFace Era"--so named after the co-founders of LaFace Records, Antonio "LA" Reid and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds from about 1988-2000--is the seeming omnipresence of hip-hop/rap as the face (pardon the pun) of Black music. I recall anecdotally that rap, R&B, and even soul could be distinguished. If you wanted rap, you consumed radio that provided it. If you wanted soul, you got soul, and that alone. "R&B" (which used to stand for 'rhythm and blues') was and is an ambiguous term, because it denotes both the fast and the slow, percussive and vocal. It isn't that hip-hop and soul are inherently hostile and opposed, but it seemed until very recently that the forms respected the distinct but occasionally overlapping audiences.
I think certainly what we see today is hip-hop entirely subsuming R&B and soul. The crossover to White audiences en masse probably began with Michael Jackson, and Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, (in no small part via Janet Jackson) Reid and Edmonds carried it all the way to the end of the century. But the shift is real. What has caused it? I see two reasons:
1. The critical mass of the music-buying public is getting younger. I can't back this up yet, but I began buying music at 13. Some of it had adolescent themes, but much of it wears well 15+ years later. It consciously reflected not only where I was, but where I thought I would be in the future. So, at the risk of sounding like an old fogey, the mature sexual themes in some R&B music were understood as something belonging to the future, not necessarily to the present. And this leads to the second point:
2. The premature sexualization of kids and teenagers. If surveys and recent studies are even partly accurate, today's young people are experimenting in ways and at times that even my generation (I'm 29) would have found alarming. As a result, there is no permanence reflected in the songs about these mature subjects. Let me ask: When is the last time you heard a post-2000[non-Babyface, haha] soul/R&B song and thought, "That'd be a great song for a wedding/anniversary?" Maybe some artists are stepping in to fill the void (Robin Thicke, Usher--at times). But I'm not the only one thinking, "What happened to the romantic songs?" A generation has grown up believing it's all about sex, and the music reflects that.
I can't blame this on rap/hip-hop itself; but whoever the gatekeepers are, what they are allowing to cross over to the mass audience is BAD hip-hop. It does rap more specifically a disservice too. It may have been raw, but it used to be about things. Social, political, etc. Leftish things, but real nonetheless. The whole Top 40 radio format is dominated by people who frankly are using "phat beats" to cover the fact that they cannot sing. Since they can't rhyme either, we get this bizzare Frankenstein-combo thing.
Have you also noticed that singer-songwriters are back in fashion? (I view this generally as a good thing, but let's acknowledge their debt to black artists and groups of the 1990s.) John Mayer, Colbie Caillat, Jason Mraz, and others are filling a void left by black vocal groups and solo artists who (I guess) fell out of fashion. [Notice: If you move people and are white, you're a singer-songwriter; if you are black, you are a "soul singer," apparently. It's very sad that I, as a white male, am noticing this.]
Oh, it's a rant. Maybe I'm just tired of bad quasi-rap and emo-whine. I just wish all my favorite songs weren't from the last decade or before. And that the music will mean something again.

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