Featured, Music, Pop Culture, Theory & Essay

This Generation’s R&B Music is Asswater. Stop Paying For It.

A couple weeks ago, while driving to Ann Arbor for the homecoming of my alma mater University of Michigan, Donny Hathaway’s “A Song For You” popped up on the shuffle. He didn’t write the song, but he made the definitive version; much like with Isaac Hayes’ “By The Time I Get to Phoenix” or Luther Vandross’ “A House is Not a Home,” there’s no need to even bump the original.

I’m a voracious consumer of all genres of music that aren’t Country, and I have nearly 23,000 songs in my iTunes playlist. “A Song For You” is maybe one of a dozen or so for which listening to it is like the first time, every time. Hathaway’s tenor gliding over the plaintive piano makes me feel like cartoon cherubs and hummingbirds are carrying me over a blanket of clouds as a sun with a smiley face beams down on me on a perfect Saturday afternoon. It makes me wanna go on a cocaine-and-herbal-penis-pill binge and run up a $75,000 tab at a Nevada brothel, only so my wife can leave me and I’ll have a valid excuse to play it on repeat to salve the heartbreak.

The song came out in 1971 – a full decade before my mama shat me out – and it’s entirely possible that it will one day resonate with any seed I may have as it has with me. Unfortunately, I haven’t heard one R&B song that comes within spitting distance of it in years.

Rhythm & Blues music, as I know it, started with the Motown sound of late 1950s, evolved to 1970s soul music (the best ever) and then to the Care Free Curl activator-powered 1980s R&B, when Luther Vandross and Whitney Houston were at god level. The genre peaked in the 1990s, which beget numerous four- and five-part-harmony groups and the (apparent) last generation of melismatic, octave-heavy powerhouses. After Maxwell and a handful of dope artists from the turn-of-the-century “neo-soul” movement, shit started going downhill.

Though R&B got progressively poppier, vocals still mattered through the 20th century – the biggest differences were a decreased emphasis on live instrumentation and an increased emphasis on image: it went from male singers in the 60s who looked like they washed their faces with broken glass every morning to pretty-boy, high-yellow dudes caked in foundation, singing about “doin’ it all night long.”

Today, R&B is bleeding out like Mr. Orange in Reservoir Dogs. The lifelong hip-hop head in me fully recognizes that commerciality isn’t a factor in musical quality (the two, in fact, often share an inverse relationship), but if you attempted to rattle off chart-topping acts in the 1990s with some real pipes, you’d certainly miss a few. These days, you can count them on two hands and have plenty of fingers left over to jab out Fetty Wap’s other eye. As with good, obscure hip-hop, you have to dig through the digital crates to unearth dope contemporary R&B.

I’d argue that Beyonce is the best and highest-profile R&B singer of 2015, but what has she done lately (ever?) that’s time capsule-worthy? Mariah Carey, Beyonce’s analogue 25 years ago, created an eponymous debut album with classics on top of classics that stick to your ribcage like Memphis barbecue. “One Sweet Day”, her nearly two-decade-old duet with Boyz II Men, still holds the record for longest number-one track on Billboard’s Hot 100. Despite being played ad nauseam to the point that I wanted to jump into rush hour traffic when it came on, the saingin’ on that cut cannot be denied. As of press time, Beyonce has “Single Ladies” and “surfbordt, surfbordt.” Where is her equivalent to Aretha’s “Natural Woman”?

And I’m just not feeling the new artists whom many of my peers consider a throwback to the halcyon era of 1990s R&B. The Weeknd uses Auto-Tune entirely too much for me to take him seriously, and I soldiered through Frank Ocean’s struggle verses only with the help of espresso shots. The lil’ lil’ homie Miguel is okay, but he spends more time on rappers’ tracks than Nicki Minaj’s hairstylist.

Just to make sure I’m not completely reaching here, I played the R&B/Soul station on Apple Music before I started writing. The first several songs were from Drake (“Hotline Bling”), some chick named Tinashe who couldn’t buy more than two octaves with Donald Trump money and a handful of “rhythm and trap” singers covered in shitty flash tattoos that they’ll regret in 30 years (if the drugs don’t take them out first) who sound like they’re gargling a knapsack full of baby dicks while suffering a Tourette’s tic. August Alsina, Jeremih and pretty much anyone “singing” on DJ Khaled’s new album stand as a testament as to why God (via Steve Jobs) invented the digital skip button.

Oddly enough, the only contemporary stars making commercial waves by sending their big voices to the rafters are considered “Pop” and whiter than a “Seinfeld” marathon at a VFW hall in Eau Claire, Wisconsin: Adele’s new single “Hello” is pretty dope and Jesus is gonna have to put his return plans on hold until she releases 25. Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” was likely the most ubiquitous vocal hit of the last year. And, keeping it 100, I’d rather listen to a Florence + The Machine album than that of any other black singer who dropped in 2015.

Frankly, I blame Kanye for a lot of this shit. He’s the putative progenitor of this generation of aural fuckery: 808s & Heartbreak, his unqualified worst album (which is saying a lot in a world with Yeezus), made it acceptable for dudes to follow the Zimbabwean proverb “If you can talk you can sing, if you can walk you can dance” to the point of audacity. Early on, my response to Drake – a decent rapper when he wants to be – releasing full songs of him “singing” was like that of Birdie to Bugaloo in Above the Rim: “Is this a fuckin’ joke?!? Tell me this is a fuckin’ joke!!

But it’s no joke. No curtain pulled back. No wizard behind the scenes. Aubrey is making more bank than ever, despite the fact that he’s the R&B equivalent of Skrillex or any other highly-paid EDM “artist” making it big for pushing buttons and calling it musicianship. These niglets are basically getting paid to play Guitar Hero. And these “expert” music reviewers – many of whom weren’t alive for the first season of “In Living Color” – eat all this shit up. I read someone call Drake and Future’s album What a Time to Be Alive “fresh and spontaneous.” Which is like calling Transformers: Age of Extinction “groundbreaking.”

Look, every last one of us can sing our shower voices into Auto-Tune in the hopes that we can create something that will catch on and knock out our student loans. But unless the 2006 film Idiocracy becomes completely manifest in the real world, very little of the so-called R&B topping the charts these days will connect with people decades from now. “Hotline Bling” and that stupid fucking video are catchy right now, but it has no real musical resonance. Sixty-four-year-old you probably won’t grab your spouse and start stepping to “Hold On, We’re Going Home” the way your parents will today if The Isley Brothers’ “Living for the Love of You” comes on at a barbecue. And unless she oozes pure, unmitigated thotnosity, your great-granddaughter will likely not be seduced by a guy playing anything Future ever recorded.

So yes, I will vocally judge you for being over 30 and blasting What a Time to Be Alive unironically in a world where music from Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Al Green, The Dells, The Dramatics, The Spinners, Bill Withers and so forth still exists and is far from played out after half a century. But I’ll remain quietly pissed off as I impatiently wait for Maxwell to finish the trilogy of albums he started six goddamn years ago.

Dustin Seibert

Dustin J. Seibert lifts heavy weights and plays all his video games on hard mode to find peace. He has a better ear for hip-hop than anyone else you know. He writes like the English language is going outta style because the steaks in his freezer are dependent on it.

  • slow-fucking-clap boss! OMG! Like…what even is music these days? The radio is a wasteland. Leave me to my own specially curated collection of auditory bliss!

  • I’m always shocked at the play counts on music on Spotify. What has the world come to that people have access to Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Track of my Tears” and nobody is listening to it. Ugh, the youth.

    My favorite Donny Hathaway is “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know”. One of the singular reasons touching a Black man’s radio could prove fatal.

    • PaddyfotePrincess

      I may or may not shed a tear everytime I hear “Someday We’ll All Be Free.”

    • Jennifer

      “What has the world come to that people have access to Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Track of my Tears” and nobody is listening to it. Ugh, the youth.”

      Had a discussion with a friend about this. You, like me, were probably introduced to that good music through your parents or someone older. (How else could 6 year old me develop a mean Bobby Blue Bland impression?) These kids today never have to listen to the same music their parents hear. They have phones, mp3 players, and earbuds, and can be off in their own world. It’s been that way since the Walkman. If you’re not exposed to that good ol’ stuff, you’re not going to know it, let alone appreciate it. Their friends, the media, advertising, and the radio are the ones influencing young people’s choices in music. Parents are barely the curators they used to be.

      • I hear you. It seems like today’s music is so disposable, though. I’d hate to hear an oldies station in 25 years.

        • Jennifer

          I often wonder what we AREN’T hearing on the oldies station today. What was the bad stuff we don’t remember now that never made it to the oldies station. lol

      • miss t-lee

        “(How else could 6 year old me develop a mean Bobby Blue Bland impression?)”

        You was doing the roar?

        • Jennifer

          Yep!

          The “roar” as I discovered later was just clearing the phlegm from his smoking habit. :-/

          • miss t-lee

            I mean…it sounded like it.
            LMFAO

            • Jennifer

              LOL! Lord forgive me for laughing! RIP BBB

              • miss t-lee

                HEE HEE

      • fxd8424

        You’d be surprised at the young folks that are exposed, listening and wishing they could have grown up with Smokey Robinson and his ilk.

    • Val

      Sounds like Spotify’s demographic is very young. As they age likely they’ll find Smokey and the rest.

      • Music comes and goes so fast now, we may be looking at the first generation to intentionally stop making classics.

    • Wild Cougar

      I’m sure I’m older than you and I would never willingly listen to Smokey Robinson, or pretty much any 1960s R&B. It’s been played way too much for my taste. I get bored with things. I was bored with Smokey Robinson before I had enough allowance to buy my own music.

      • I never get tired of a great song. I could listen to “Purple Rain” anytime anyplace.

        • Wild Cougar

          The Motown sound is meh to me for the most part. No punch, no crescendo, no climax, its all modulated to be non threatening. Meh. Whether it’s a great song is a matter of subjective taste.

          • Stax/Volt >>>>

          • True that. What I love about the Motown sound is that is so organic. Real voices and real instruments.

          • blackmoses

            There’s literally hundreds – probably thousands – of Motown records that this does not apply to; one just has to venture outside of the 25 or so (overplayed) classics that are replay ad naseum over Muzak.

            Also, it should be clear that most of those hit records were designed to be dance songs and needed to keep a certain rhythm, though “The Tracks of My Tears” is a perfect example of a Motown recording with a punch, a crescendo, and a climax.

      • fxd8424

        Safe bet I’m older than you. Can’t get enough of Smokey Robinson and all the 60s songs. Going to see the O’Jays and Gladys Knight Friday.

  • Jennifer

    When I clicked on the story, this was the first sentence I happened to see: “It makes me wanna go on a cocaine-and-herbal-penis-pill binge and run up a $75,000 tab at a Nevada brothel, only so my wife can leave me and I’ll have a valid excuse to play it on repeat to salve the heartbreak.”

    I really thought this was going to be a paragraph about The Weeknd. Oops.

    • I only f*ck you when it’s half past five. The only time that I’ll be by your side. I only like it when you touch me, not feel me. When I’m f*cked up, that’s the real me. When I’m f*cked up that’s the real me, babe.

      • Jennifer

        **the scent of hookers, blow, and dreams deferred wafts through the air**

        • I don’t pay for it, and the strongest drug around me is weed. Oh, and I hold down jobs and push dreams. Or maybe I’m an odd duck.

          • Jennifer

            Mumbling Anita voice: “You bring me joy…” lol

            • My dad shoved Anita Baker down our throats on road trips. I can sing the Rapture album by heart.

              • Jennifer

                Then, he raised you right.

      • Baemie St. Patrick

        his vocals are trash but House of Balloons and Thursday still gets spins from me. I don’t have to love their voice to love the music

        • CamCamtheGreat

          He has still never made anything better than HoB and Thursday to me.

  • Chris James

    Bravo. I’ll add only that while you cannot blame music for the state of society today, what passes as music seems made to reinforce and uphold an extremely shallow society.

    Either that, or we’re just getting old.

    • You’re right. People used to tell the station what’s hot. Now it’s the other way around.

    • You’re getting old. Deal.

      • Chris James

        Ha, I resent this to the deepest depths of Hayle. I’m black. Aging is optional.

  • Jennifer

    “I read someone call Drake and Future’s album What a Time to Be Alive “fresh and spontaneous.”

    That just sounds like they didn’t rehearse before recording the track.

  • Thank you for saying that about Beyonce. And yes Kanye (and The Dream) have a heavy influence on today’s R&B. However, there are still some good artists out there but I agree mainstream is pretty bad.

    • Jennifer

      I think people should stop comparing Bey to Aretha, Mariah, and Whitney though. I feel like Diana Ross is more like Bey’s analogue: a heckuva entertainer, but she didn’t even have the strongest voice in the Supremes.

      • Epsilonicus

        Never thought of it that way but good comparison. He analogue is definitely more Ross than anyone else.

      • I feel like part of Dreamgirls was really telling (what would become) Beyonce’s trajectory. That whole part about why Deena needed to be The One, even though Effie was The Voice, is basically Destiny’s Child* and how Beyonce figured in the group dynamics there.

        *The Supremes, but this analogy has to ride.

        • roseduchess12

          I mean, I’m no Beyonce stan…but she had the best voice in DC3. I couldn’t handle Michelle’s goat-like yodeling for too long and Kelly’s voice was underdeveloped/whispery. There’s no Effie analogue to Bey’s Deena. I’d make the argument that Beyonce was both Deena and Effie since she never sang full-out the way she does now until she fired her father.

      • And she’s following Diana Ross’ playbook to a T as well.

      • That’s a good comparison. And I agree I think that’s more or less my issue with Beyonce is she gets way too much hype which I guess is not completely her fault.

        • fxd8424

          Bey is worth the hype. Have you seen her show?

          • I haven’t seen one of her shows in person, but I know that she is a great performer. Hearing her songs on cd tho doesn’t do much for me.

      • miss t-lee

        Solid comparision.

  • Nat Mit

    How about Miguel tho…I mean nowhere close to Donny Hathaway A Song For You status (every time I hear that song my allergies act up) but, Miguel does interesting R&B esque stuff

    • miss t-lee

      His last album >>>

  • Jocelyn

    I’m in my office giving you a standing ovation while listening to Aretha Franklin sing about bridges and troubled water. I have a hard time connecting with these “artists” today and can outsing most of them in my car on a bad day. Long live real music!

  • miss t-lee

    I dig Florence and The Machine too.
    When I’m listening to R&B these days, I listen mostly to the classics I grew up on. Marvin, Otis, Aretha, Dusty, Johnnie, Bobby, OV, Dionne, etc.
    As far as the new? Loved Miguel’s latest, Mayer Hawthorne/Tuxedo, Ledisi, Eric Roberson.
    Otherwise, I’m listening to pretty much any other genre that catches my ear that day,

    • I mean I think everything has it’s place. However, when I’m trying to get some soul-touching music…I definitely travel back in time. If I just wanna sing, or shake a tail feather, sure queue up some Bey or whatever.

      • miss t-lee

        “I mean I think everything has it’s place.”

        My thoughts exactly.

    • Baemie St. Patrick

      THIS! I don’t wanna listen to The Isleys on the way to the club. Dafuq???

      I live in the city that just took the World Series. Don’t think I won’t be playing “Big Rings” here in the IMEEJIT future.

      • miss t-lee

        DO IT. I’d act a whole entire azz if the Astros won it all.

        If the Isleys come on in the club, and it’s not 30 minutes before closing time, I’m in the wrong dayum club.

  • bigheadbaby

    This here is some of the most vibrant writing I have read in awhile. The visual imagery of the words just jumped up and slapped the crap out of me. I am one of those people who likes the book version best because honestly, I prefer the images I paint in my mind over someone else’s rendering. The things I saw in my mind while reading this…LOL A few of those sentences I wish I could “unsee,” but oh, well. That’s cost of doing business among the well-worded. I’m on visual overload…hurry up and write me something else to read…LOL

    • Baemie St. Patrick

      ” These days, you can count them on two hands and have plenty of fingers left over to jab out Fetty Wap’s other eye. ” has me WEAK!!!

    • [Insert Creative Name Here]

      What a wonderfully worded compliment to the writer.

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