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

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

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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.

  • Dee-Light

    I love her songs, but Aretha Franklin is overrated. Fight me.

    • panamajackson

      I know others who feel this way too.

    • Sweet Potato Kai ?

      I will help you in this fight. Queen of Soul must be a title she won by default.

      • Brother Mouzone

        Okay, y’all gone stop disrespecting the Queen.

        • Sweet Potato Kai ?

          IJS, sometimes it sounds like she had a chicken bone in her throat. Sometimes.

          • Brother Mouzone

            She 75 years old!!! Don’t judge her on what she sound like NOW…lol.

    • I only like Aretha foing opera

      • Ms.Moon

        Aretha can sing anything. Her Nessun Dorma at the Grammys gave me life can anyone do that on like no notice the Queen can.

    • In some of her older gospel songs, absolutely. Back in the day, she was killing it. Now, I can’t see her and not be blinded by those massive chesticles and the shade that seems to envelope her entire being.

    • MsSula

      You and I need to get in formation to fight the oncoming slaughter, but I agree.

    • Looking4Treble

      Tom Joyner is looking for you.

    • Sassypants

      Overrated, yes, but she changed the game and created stars. Carole King wouldn’t be who she is without her. Check out her pre-muscle shoals catalog.

    • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PB2Mu2zBzjw

      This erases all talk of being overrated.

      Nope.. I can’t let y’all do that…If that’s the case Patti ain’t the same and neither was Whitney… y’all can’t do that..

      • Brother Mouzone

        Take that for data!

      • But Cissy Houston in the back killing it thooooooooooo

      • Zil Nabu

        Wow! She was so slim. Love that dress at the piano.

        • CrankUpThe_AC

          Aretha was a baddy. Look so good she might make you mess up your credit. Also known as the Badu Effect.

          • Zil Nabu

            You lucky she was before your time.

        • grownandsexy2

          I remember when she was maybe a size 8. She came out on stage in what looked like a bathing suit, but she was wearing the hayle out of it.

      • Megan Blanchard

        Gives me chills!

    • Brother Mouzone

      Hole Lup, Hole Lup…we bout to move some furniture!

  • Courtney Wheeler

    Luther Vandross.

  • Hadassah

    I wanna know if he really loves me, I say a prayer with every heart beat. I fall in love whenever we meeeeeeet. #tuneeee!

    1.) Whitney Houston.
    2.) 90’s Mariah
    3.) I’m trying to think.

    Trey songs can carry a note to a point, so he is a noter? Perhaps not singer singer?

    • Sweet Potato Kai ?

      He can carry a note where?

      • Tiebaby

        To the bedroom, cuz that’s the only place he gets played lmao.

      • Brother Mouzone

        From his left hand to his right hand.

        • MissRosé


    • Trey still a baby.
      I’m trynna smash an trey is on?
      I’m not even taking off my hat.

      • Hadassah

        What do you mean he is still a baby? He could be my husband or cyanic’s.

      • grownandsexy2

        He’s a sexy baby tho.

        • Cradle robber

          • grownandsexy2

            I ain’t ever too old to look. lol

  • theaythmonth

    Panama, you’re on a roll. The music discussions these past 2 days have been fun. I’ve been jamming during my work commutes.

    Now having said that, HOW DARE YOU FORGET USHER RAYMOND IV?! The man has natural talent. Go back and listen to “Here I Stand” or “Can U Help Me?” or “Slow Jam” (w/ Monica) or even “Caught Up.” Vocals, vocals, vocals, and he knows how to CONTROL his voice and not do too much. I think that’s a huge determining fact; can the singer in question maintain control throughout?

    Theatrics/Drama/Overkill gets a no from me.

    • panamajackson

      I didn’t forget Usher, he’s just not on my top 10 list. That list of people who can actually sing is huge. I couldn’t list everybody if I tried.

      • One day I’m going to try to figure out what happened to Usher. He’s not terrible to me now but for a moment he was on track to be a monster.

        • D-Nice

          But, didn’t he reach monster status? Since he’s not at the top anymore, it’s easy to forget what an enormous sustained run he had. Crazy that he’s only 38.

    • Brother Mouzone

      Ursher, fo real doe?

    • StillSuga

      Now Usher wouldn’t make my top 20 singers list, but he gets all the credit for me for his control and the fact that he’s still doing it while dancing all over the stage (minimal lip syncing, at least when I’ve seen him)

      • grownandsexy2

        I love Usher Raymond. Don’t know how else to say it. One of the best weekends I ever had was a Mother’s Day concert the night before and an Usher concert that Friday. I will pay good money to see him anytime anywhere. Last time I saw him I had really good seats, took really sharp close up shots and lost my dayum camera. Spoiled my whole weekend. I still feel some kind of way about that.

    • grownandsexy2

      Both of them are my honeys – Usher and Trey lol

  • Sweet Potato Kai ?

    Kandi Buruss and Tiny belong in no one’s church, ever, on no day. Now those Scott sisters are a different story. I don’t even know what Tiny’s singing voice sounds like.

    • siante

      Tiny starts singing around 56 seconds

      • Sweet Potato Kai ?

        Dont care. Shes trash.

        • siante

          Disrespect! Lol

      • Sweet Potato Kai ?

        Top 10 tho? Come on.

    • panamajackson

      I’ll bet you do. Tiny sang leads on Understanding. One of their biggest songs.

      • Sweet Potato Kai ?

        I said what I said. Those heiffas dont belong in the house of the Lord!! IDC what hit the sang on
        ***bangs gavel***

        • Sassypants

          Lol You said what you said!

  • Sigma_Since 93

    Anita Baker
    Stevie Wonder
    Ella Fitzgerald
    Dave Hollister

    • panamajackson

      We should let Stokley know he’s in somebody’s top 5. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. I’m sure he doesn’t get that love enough.

    • I’m not here on the Stevie as a good singer train.

      Songwriter and overall artist, yes, he’s the man and I LOVE HIM TO LIFE. His voice isn’t great.

      • Sigma_Since 93

        You used to be my homie, you used to be my Ace……

      • KMN

        OMG THANK YOU I thought I was the only one who felt this way…I mean he’s average vocally but overall like you said he’s 100

  • Brother Mouzone

    If they get put on the spot to sing, no music, no enhancement..straight acappela, and they blow it out the water. Saw Chaka Khan do this, as well as Johnny Gill and a few others that I can’t think of off the top of my head. ALL you could say was..wuh damn!

    • Sarah Thomas

      Chaka Khan for sure. Also Lauryn Hill. (I know.)

      • Chaka Khan sang at our block party a few years back.

        • Looking4Treble

          Props to Chaka as well. Listen to her on Fourplay’s rendition of “Between the Sheets”. Fire. That whole song is fire. Those vocalists sang the he11 out of that song.

          • “My Funny Valentine”
            “Don’t Go To Strangers”…
            We could do this all day, lol.

      • AnotherBlackGirl

        Teena Marie had a beautiful voice to me.

        • Uncle Remus

          Nope. I can only listen to Teena Marie for one song at most. They put her on during one of the back to back shows and I’m changing the station.

          • AnotherBlackGirl

            Oh wow! I think she had an amazing voice and I think she was so underappreciated.

        • D-Nice

          Love Teena and know lots of other hardcore Teena fans. But, I can see why people like Uncle Remus might be put off. She was a very distinct, dramatic style (at times overly dramatic), often with some warbling, and many times a distinctive high pitch. I love it, but can understand why others wouldn’t.

          • Crystal

            Agree about the drama on Teena’s vocals. And mind you most of what we heard was her reigning herself in. Rick James tried to teach her how to save the drama til the end of the song.

          • SororSalsa

            Yeah, Teena’s warble was a bit much and she was uber dramatic, but those early songs? Maaaaaan…..Young Love, Portuguese Love, Fire & Desire, etc. That woman really had soul. She sang her heart out on a song.

          • It got on my nerves… it was straight “White girl doing too much”

            In the end.

      • DiamondIsMyRealName

        Lauryn is definitely one to leave you like… “wuh damn!”

    • Cheech
    • Brother Mouzone

      Saw Whitney do this too but didn’t feel the need to mention it because, well, Whitney.

  • Ghettoprincess

    Etta James, Jill Scott, James Brown, Sade, Luther

    • Damn, how I forget Jill.
      (My bad Jill)

    • KMN

      I have a friend that said Beyoncé can sing better than Etta James.

      I looked at him like he lost hisdamnmind

    • D-Nice

      I saw Sade live during the Solider of Love tour and she was really great. She’s not super dramatic and her “pocket” for the most part isn’t huge – she doesn’t sing over a big range. But it doesn’t matter. Her voice is gorgeous and emotive and strong. She knows exactly what her strengths are and she sings beautifully live, without a lot of drama or gymnastics – icy soul.

  • HouseOfBonnets
  • KWhoa

    3 categories of good singers:

    –The artists who have a naturally magical-sounding voices. Meaning, without using style–the raw tenor of their voice is truly rich. You can even hear it when they speak.

    — The artists who have the natural voice of a mere mortal, but the magic is in how how to USE it. They’ve got pitch, good instincts, and the mechanics & execution are superb.

    — And then you have the small group of artists who have both.

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