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What’s Your Criteria for Determining if an R&B Singer Can “Sing”?

If you were to ask me to list my top five greatest R&B or soul singers of all time, the list would would at different times include any of the following people: Donny Hathaway (he’d always be in the top five as a personal favorite but because he is one of two people whose voice ever made me cry), Phyllis Hyman (the other), Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Teddy Pendergrass, Whitney Houston, Marvin Gaye, Mariah Carey, Minnie Riperton. Expanding it to 10 would include them all and they’re all immediately in the top 20.

One thing that all of the listed singers have in common is this: if any of them walked into your church right now (I know that all but two of them are dead, literally heavenly voices at this point), the pastor or whoever is running the service that day would absolutely invite them up to sing a song for the church and not one person would object. In fact, you’d almost EXPECT them to know that if they came into your church, they’d be singing.

Obviously, that list of individuals at the top is a top shelf list of singers who are historically regarded in such a light, but that number is super expansive. For instance, Monica, Faith Evans, R. Kelly (I know, I know), K-Ci and JoJo Hailey, Sisqo, even the Casey brothers from Jagged Edge, would be on a very long list of singers who could come into your church and sing. Beyonce, Kelly, etc.

On the FLIPSIDE, there is an ever expanding list of singers, or people who have made their living as such who absolutely would not get that same ask. Nobody in New Edition but Johnny, 112, Total, (whereas everybody in Xscape could come sing at the altar), Rihanna, Kyle from Jagged Edge, DeVante, etc. would be asked to come to the front of the church to sing. Mary J. Blige, for all of her musical contributions to the world should absolutely not be singing church solos. And I like Mary, I will fight you over both My Life and Share My World, but while she sings, she’s not necessary a singer.

The truth is, a lot of these artists are more vocalists than singers. They’re Axl Rose. You’d never put Whitney and Mary on the same level; or Marvin and Trey Songz. Those who are vocalists are very good at what they do – they typically have the hits to show for it – but to say they are singers overstates their talents. Shit, sometimes their talent is existing (see Fenty, Robyn). And that’s not to sell Rihanna short, because she has matured into a full fledged artist at this point and we’re all better for it, and I’d even argue is part of the reason why Beyonce has become so much more of an artist than just singer.

And oh John the Rabbit, oh yes, Beyonce is absolutely a singer. Nobody who hears songs like “Dangerously In Love” and says she can’t sing should be allowed to offer critical commentary on vocal abilities.

Now, I will acknowledge that my church criteria might be high; however, for the most part, when I listen to gospel music, every lead can sing in a way that I think most people would agree with. There are very few slum singers that make it out of the church. Now, that isn’t to say that all church singers are good. I’m not trying to throw rocks here, but I come from a church where there was definitely a Struggle Choir, but it also wasn’t a church that focused heavily on the choirs. I led the Youth Choir for a bit, before being unceremoniously unseated due to my, hmm, attempts to push us into Baptist territory that was frowned upon by the more conservative members of my United Methodist church. I promise you though, I definitely did Milly Rock down the aisle before that was a thing. It was my last Sunday leading the choir. My desire to sing Old Negro Spirituals because I really liked dropping my voice extra low was also frowned upon. My tenure was frowned upon.

Back to the lecture at hand, on Facebook last night I wrote this:

I love writing about music for VSB. And not about what’s hot now, but throwback music articles because it starts so many random debates and dialogues. Music is the most subjective topic that we all swear we’re objective about. Every opinion is fact and I’m here for all the shenanigans.

Plus, what other art form does a poet who can’t sing, dance, or play an instrument get to call himself Musiq and everybody is like, “cool, I’ll buy that album.”

Music is life.

With that said, I’m always right.

Two things of note here: 1) I’m definitely not always right, but I felt like there was no better place to drop that hammer than in a place where I point out that every opinion is fact in conversations where everybody swears they’re being objective about intentionally subjective material. 2) I didn’t think musiq soulchild would be a point of contention, mostly because I didn’t realize that people think he can sing. I kind of always assumed we all just accepted that he was a SUPREMELY talented songwriter who could craft a hit who wasn’t the best singer. He’s not a Minister at the Church of Struggle Notes Cathedral, but I’d never really be like, “you know who really holds notes really well? Musiq.”

Apparently, many people feel otherwise. But that speaks directly to the subjective nature of what makes somebody a good singer. Some people are just not good, no matter what bar you create. The women of Total represent that bag, though, I rather ENJOY the way their vocal were used to craft their songs, I’d just not like to hear Kima, Keisha, or Pam sing solo ever.

But that church criteria is what I usually fall onto when saying somebody CAN sing. It’s why young Michael Jackson can sing and Janet Jackson – regardless of how much I love her – can’t. Prince is an interesting case, too, because I can’t imagine Prince singing any church songs, but I’m also not going to say he can’t sing either.

However, if Stevie walks into your church, you will make sure he makes his way to the keyboard and microphone and pray for his hairline. Coko from SWV could sing in my church any day of the week. Controversially speaking, so could Teairra Mari or Chris Brown. Almost none of my determination has to do with whether or not I like the artists music or not, because in most cases I absolutely do.

And praise the lord for Amel Larrieux.

Now I wrote all of this for two reasons: 1) I’m curious about what metrics people use for determining if an artist can “sing” or not? And 2) because in the past 7 minutes you spent reading this you could have saved as much as 15 percent by switching to Geico, and you’re right here with me. I appreciate that.

Oh, and most importantly, who are your top 5 singers, VSB? Fire away.

Panama Jackson

Panama Jackson is pretty fly (and gorgeous) for a light guy. He used to ship his frito to Tito in the District, but shipping prices increased so he moved there to save money. He refuses to eat cocaine chicken. When he's not saving humanity with his words or making music with his mouth, you can find him at your mama's mama's house drinking her fine liquors. Most importantly, he believes the children are our future. You can hit him on his hitter at panamadjackson@gmail.com.

  • If your lips don’t quiver, you can’t sing.

    If your face don’t turn up stank at the corners when you get to that special part, you can’t sing.

    If your name is Ashanti, Jennifer Lopez or Keith Sweat, you can’t sing.

    • Cheech

      Lol at your last sentence.

    • I agree

    • Courtney Wheeler

      I actually laughed out loud with the last sentence….man..Keith Sweat..

      • Looking4Treble

        Keith has a three-note range, but you can’t knock his musical hustle. A lot of folks are here bc of what their parents did to his songs.

        • Courtney Wheeler

          Make it Last Forever is a straight jammer. Can’t deny that.

          • grownandsexy2

            Yaaaaaas!!

        • Brother Mouzone

          And a five-whine range.

          • Looking4Treble

            Five-whine…hilarious. And true.

          • *dead*

          • Janelle Doe

            It got him far so it is hard to hate.
            I mean he hasn’t needed a new album or has he?

        • Chieta

          I hate what you’ve written, but the laugh took me by surprise.

          • Looking4Treble

            Glad to be responsible for a genuine chuckle.

      • Cheech

        Beh beh … howyalldooiin? …

      • He sounds like an out of tune lawn mower.

        • smellslikegrownasswomanspirit

          I always heard goat from him and that singer Kem. Like fingernails on a chalk board.

          • C. M.

            I always think of sheep when I hear him; baaaah, baaaah

          • I can’t stand KEM..And I feel bad because I’m from Detroit.

            • I just saw this and hollered.

            • SororSalsa

              I saw Kem live for the first time a couple of months ago. He makes me make the stank face…and not in the good way.

              • Yes!!! Lol

              • Courtney Wheeler

                My mom is a huge Kem fan…I’m miserable

          • Sweet Potato Kai ?

            And Trey Songs

          • Nik White

            His made a career out of immitating Al Jarreau (RIP) but he puts on a great show.

          • Tlholohelo Makatu

            My mum has all of his albums. She was playing them in the house one whole weekend and I just thought (I was a teen then), “why must he draw out the word ‘girl’? There’s n’s that shouldn’t be there.”

        • Courtney Wheeler

          My sister always said Keith Sweat sounds like a fly that got stuck in your ear.

      • SororSalsa

        The goats are still waiting for their credits and royalties from Keith’s first 3 albums.

    • Looking4Treble

      One of the reasons I love Patti LaBelle so is that she sings with her whole body. She can drop the mike, keep singing and you can’t tell the difference. Mama Patti aint playin’.

      • And those bird wings she be sprouting. Take you right on up with her!

        • Looking4Treble

          Indeed! To the sky!

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      • When she kick them shoes off you know it’s on

    • Looking4Treble

      I have always loved J-Lo, but for a whole other reason, so I reluctantly agree with your ASSessment, Pinks :-)

    • PIIIIIINKS!!!!!!!!!

      “If your name is Ashanti, Jennifer Lopez or Keith Sweat, you can’t sing.”

      This is why we peoples!!

      • Yes boo! They all irritating lol

      • Janelle Doe

        And all of Total?

        • SororSalsa

          Total, when used the right way, kind of works. Puffy used them for backing vocals on some songs and it was fine. And “Kissing You” will never not be my jam, despite the fact that their vocal goat stylings took the perm out of my hair in the 90’s.

      • NonyaB?

        NWT! Como has estado? Keep keeping on.

    • tgtaggie

      You can add Tyrese and Rihanna to that list

      • Now hold on…

        • Janelle Doe

          Right??

      • You Know I’m Sawcy

        Rihanna can sing now.

        • Janelle Doe

          on a scale of one to rihanna or a scale from 1 to 10?

        • Photoshop’s a helluva drug

          Nope. But she knows her lane….most of the time.

        • Sweet Potato Kai ?

          I want to love you but cloud Tim’s, Barry Gibbs, and now Rihanna Fenty? How do I even explain this to the ancestors?

          • You Know I’m Sawcy

            The ancestors blessed us with Rihanna. I stand by all the other stuff too.

      • LoveTrenia

        Now I’d usually be the last one to defend one Tyrese “bad advice” Gibson, but Coca-Cola commercial Tyrese can sang.

        • grownandsexy2

          I loved that Coca-Cola commercial.

      • StillSuga

        Tyrese can’t act a lick but he can definitely sing

      • SororSalsa

        Rihanna’s goat warble will never work in an actual singing way, but girl knows a hit when she hears one.

    • gr8p

      Keith Sweat cannot sing! LOL

    • Dee Squared

      Dayum that was cold…but true!
      I can’t read anymore!

    • kingpinenut

      Hold up…you killed Keith Sweat???

      Panks how you gonna murk a legend?!!!

      • I don’t make the rules – I just enforce ’em.

        • kingpinenut

          *downvotes like a muggggphukker*

    • HouseOfBonnets

      Had the nerve to call Ashanti the Queen at that…..

    • NonyaB?

      My lips hella quiver and my face turns up stank when we get to that special part but it ain’t because I was sanging tho. *Long ugleh cackle*

    • Overtymem Usicradio

      And yet Mr. Sweat has filled concert halls for nearly 30 years. Go figure.

      • Danielle

        Shiiiiiidddddd! I just saw Keith in Detroit last month. Surprisingly, he still sounds the same, voice hasn’t changed at all.

        • Sparger

          Have you ever heard of an artist with a mediocre voice getting polyps on their vocal cords. Its always the ones that have range and good voices.

    • Emily Harris

      I literally came to the comments hoping for Ashanti shade and you delivered. Thank you for your service, ma’am.

    • JLo sings much better in Spanish, ironically.

    • E_Deshon

      Man I cannot listen to more than one keith sweat song in a row. His voice has always annoyed me.
      He had a radio show that would come on in va. I’d crack up bc his voice was reminiscent of the Lady’s Man character. Thats just not sexy.

    • What has Keith Sweat done to you???

  • Sarah Thomas

    I have to disagree on Mary J. Blige. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xV83n9aVQ5c

    • panamajackson

      Mary is the great Unequalizer. People either think she’s a great singer (which I think is because we love her not b/c of her voice) or can’t sing a lick.

      • People like her style.
        I saw her live and had a ball. I couldnt tell uou the first or last song she sang.

      • Sarah Thomas

        If I couldn’t sing a lick like she can’t sing a lick, I would be a very happy woman who never shut up.

      • I always thought she would have been a dope rock singer in another era. I saw her cover a Janis Joplin song once and she owned it.

        • MsSula

          Yup! I think her voice has the edge and rasp-iness necessary for the genre.

    • Lego

      This is only evidence that Mary’s vocals (in this performance) aren’t a total mess, but they ain’t spotless either.
      At least she’s not selfish, she’s making her back-up sound real good.

  • Tarik

    Pleasant voice:
    Sounds like a man (if person is a man, some bass should be heard)
    Sounds like a woman (if person is a woman, meaning not a high-pitched screech, not someone who yells for no reason).
    Can carry a tune even if it isn’t in a suitcase.

  • Sing without runs.
    Sing without runs.
    Sing without all them fucked up, warbly, suffering azz runs.
    Go join a damn yodeling class.

    • Courtney Wheeler

      Yeah…too many runs is insufferable. It’s basically telling me you’re super insecure in your singing abilities.

      • I love you Courtney.
        Thank you.
        Thank you.
        P.s. The heII with Fantasia too.

      • Looking4Treble

        I agree. When Keisha Cole first came out, that song ‘Love’ had me changing the dial every time she started that yodeling. She sounded like she was auditioning for a Tarzan voice over. Goodness.

        • Shes yet ANOTHER sufferrin’ azz jawn.

          • Cheech

            Loving your opinions today, pops.

            • MsSula

              Same here!

            • In the words of that poet laureate
              Anderson Paak,
              “Yall niqqas got me hot!”

        • I only like that song she had with Kanye. Other than that she was anti-good to me. K. Michelle took her lane.

        • theaythmonth

          “Love” had me feeling ALL the feelings.

          • Looking4Treble

            Oh, the sentiment of the song was on point, no doubt. I just kept expecting to see her in a jungle print leotard swinging from a tree when I heard it.

            • theaythmonth

              “jungle print leotard swinging from a tree” – accurate

        • KNeale

          Saw her live at Afraam back in 07 or 08 and was pleasantly surprised. I never thought her to be very good from her music but she did a cover of Prince and actually had a clear voice and exercised some power and control. I was flabbergasted. I’ve heard her live before when she sounded like death was at the backdoor knocking but I guess everybody has a good day at some point.

      • Iwanthamma

        This is Fantasia to me! I think she can probably sing. I mean…she won Idol, a singing competition! But whenever she’s performing live she screeching like some undiscovered Amazonian species, sweating, and running around barefoot like Betty Rubble’s one black friend. Good day, Girl cuz I can’t.

        • Lady Legasus

          You did not just…Betty Rubble’s one black friend! Too many jokes today.

    • Sweet Potato Kai ?

      Naw, runs are what we do, and who doesnt love it when one catches the spirit of Jazmine Sullivan?

      • I hate jazmine sullivans voice.

        • Sweet Potato Kai ?

          You are surely the feds!!

          • I was done with you when you said “runs are what WE do.”
            I partied with Natalie Cole, Phyllis, Rachelle, even Patty, when we used to jump in about 5 cab caravan and go from club to club. Just housin’ the mic away from people for fun.
            Jazmine my foot.

        • Nawl..I gotta block you now.

          • Hurry.
            It aint gonna get any better

          • Sigma_Since 93

            I only like I’m In Love with Someone Else. The way she sang that last part made me feel some kind of way. Her other stuff I can’t deal with.

            • That’s one of her best songs, but listen to some of her album cuts that didn’t hit the radio. She’s dope.

        • StillSuga

          Fed.

        • Zil Nabu

          We’re over.

          • Sweet Potato Kai ?

            Thank you. He don’t know any better.

          • You annnnndd her can go-
            *signal lost*

            • Zil Nabu

              Don’t expect me to return any of your sweatpants.

              • Why… you gonna”selfie” with them on too…?

                • Zil Nabu

                  I just might selfie in your sweats and nothing else if you don’t drink some ackrite.

        • TrcyNcle

          Oh wow… now that was a comment. Not one I agree with but wow.

        • RaeRae

          **whispers the melody of you are not alone**

    • Cheech

      It’s a fine line between melisma and miasma.

    • Jocelyn

      Controlled runs are fine. Runs done wrong indicate they should have walked (sang straight and standard) instead.

    • MsSula

      I positively hate runs.

    • siante

      Runs werk upon my nerves.

      Reason why I still haven’t watched Johnny Gills episode of Unsung.

  • D-Nice

    I always thought Prince was an exceptional singer. Truly great. His voice is distinctive and he can do all sorts of things with it. He’s always in key and has excellent control. The black church standard is understandable, but also limiting.

    • panamajackson

      I do agree the church standard can be limiting.

    • MsSula

      The Black church standard works in one genre and one genre only. I am not trying to hear Mariah Carey singing Blues to me. No ma’am.

    • Brother Mouzone

      I once read in an audio magazine back in the 90s, that Prince had the most vocal range, low to high and in pitch, of any other singer of that time.

    • Brother Mouzone

      Prince would rip the steeple off of a church if they asked him to sang a spiritual during Sunday service.

      • I_AmU

        Especially since he was a Jehovah’s Witness. Prince, Larry Graham and Chaka Khan used to do field service together.

      • Mz.JayHA

        Yup. Just Listen to “Still Will Stand All Time”

        • SororSalsa

          Have you heard the live version where Prince stopped the song to fuss at one of the Steeles? He yelled out, “Who’s the fool singing Would??? It’s Will!” LOL Prince “I Want Some Perfection!” Rogers Nelson is just the best.

    • SororSalsa

      Totally agree. Every time I listen to Adore I imagine Prince leading a choir in a selection. His voice is anointed.

  • Damn, that Phyllis Hyman sure could sing.
    Rachelle Ferell …sigh.

    • Looking4Treble

      Rachelle Ferrell gets an honorable mention on incredible range and vocal control alone. I’ve seen her in concert twice, and goodness, that woman can blow. Jazz singers don’t really get their just due.

      • Anyone that can go up and down the register effortlessly, without screaming or runs gets my vote.

    • Brother Mouzone

      Thumbs up on Ms. Hyman. Voice like a finely tuned instrument.

  • Alessandro De Medici

    Does Maxwell make the cut?

    • panamajackson

      Honestly, I have no idea if Maxwell can really sing or not. I do know that I love a lot of his songs, but vocally? Yo no se.

      • Sassypants

        Listen to fortunate. It’s a classic.

    • Courtney Wheeler

      Ive heard him sing live. He’s quite talented.

    • Sassypants

      He gets an honourable mention from me. I think ppl overlook him cause of the neo soul thing.

    • MsSula

      I am on my 1 woman standalone island with this: I don’t get Maxwell. There I said it.

  • Looking4Treble

    Donny Hathaway
    Marvin Gaye
    Aretha Franklin
    Phyllis Hyman
    Stevie Wonder

    • Stevie singing “Ave’ Maria” might make you shed a thug tear.

      • Looking4Treble

        I saw SW in concert about a year or two ago and checked off a box on my bucket list. My all time favorite singer. Genius. Full stop.

    • Brother Mouzone

      I agree with ALLa dis

    • Sweet Potato Kai ?

      Stephanie Mills

      • Looking4Treble

        Agreed.

      • grownandsexy2

        How could I forget Stephanie? She shoulda been on my list.

    • D-Nice

      Natalie Cole – early Natalie Cole, before she went 80s pop and adult contemporary. Simply incredible. The first four albums are all great, but if I have to recommend one Natalie album to drive home what a powerhouse she was it’s “Natalie Live” where her singing is filtered through studio production. There was talk back them of her becoming the next Aretha and “Natalie Live” illustrates clearly why that was the case. A vocal giant, IMO. I can’t stand that a huge amount of people only know her from her schmaltzy “Unforgettable” album and the duet with her dead father.

  • KWhoa

    Anita Baker’s got to be in that top 10. Patti Labelle too.

    • Anita Baker, yep

    • Jocelyn

      I forgot her because I’m still mad about the retirement.

    • Ess Tee

      Yup yup, to Anita Baker.

    • “Giving You the Best That I Got” = top 10 love songs of all time too

    • Another Man’s Rhubarb
  • Alessandro De Medici

    How come no one really ever includes Michael Jackson?

    Is it because of the dancing?

    • Dee-Light

      Michael Jackson is definitely a great singer. He used a lot of vocal techniques to preserve his voice since he danced while singing.

      • Cheech

        I wish Johnny Gill had used some of those techniques. Many urged him to learn.

    • panamajackson

      I think – and i’m not looking to get murdered on this – that Mike’s range dissipated over time. At some point, his voice was doggone near purely anohter instrument versus being used to belt out notes, etc.

      • No Google

        “that Mike’s range dissipated over time.”

        NOT.AT.ALL
        Did you listen to the Invincible album? Or watch This Is it?

        • theaythmonth

          Butterflies is MY JAM.

          • grownandsexy2

            All the time. So beautiful

    • No Google

      I think so. People think of him as a dancer/entertainer first and foremost. He had a beautiful voice.
      I think Usher is in the same boat. Usher has a great voice too. But people don’t include him in lists like this.

      • MsCee

        I love when Usher is being Usher. He has an amazing voice. However, never in my life do I ever want to hear him utter the words “ghetto D,” ever again in life.

      • grownandsexy2

        I love me some Usher. He has a great voice but I love to see him dance.

    • Brother Mouzone

      Michael started doing too much grunting and hee hees towards the end. On pure vocal talent though, one of the best.

    • grownandsexy2

      I did. Michael’s on my list.

    • D-Nice

      That’s an interesting discussion. His voice beautifully served the R&B and pop that he was making. But while I always thought he was a good singer, I never really thought he was a great singer. Then again, I didn’t really ponder his singing ability.

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