Death Of The Love Song

Right off top, here’s something that you need to understand: I’m an R&B dude. Not an R&B thug, not an R&B gangster, not even an R&B soldier. No qualifiers needed here, no faux-machismo terms required so I can try to make it sound different than what it is. I like to hear people sing.

This doesn’t mean I don’t like other genres. My music collection is flooded with a little bit of everything. So for conversations sake, I’m a hip- hop dude as well. We all have the same songs on our computers, we all recite the same lyrics and we all have the same "top 5 dead or alive" arguments.  That’s nothing. That’s easy for me.

I was a late ‘70s baby, though; and like all of us born in that era, we came up in a time before rap music was the dominant expression of black culture that it is today. The music of that era consisted of the remnants of disco and the beginning amalgamation of pop, soul and punk that would form the up-tempo, synthesizer sound that would define 80s Top 40 radio. Rap music didn’t enter my life until I was 8 or 9. I only have blurry images of anything pre-LL.

My tastes were constructed by the music that my parents played – Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes; The Delfonics; Earth, Wind and Fire; etc. As a kid, that’s all I knew. That was my YMCMB. Naturally, if you grow up around that, you gain an appreciation for a certain sound. Slow jams played in my house on weekend mornings and listening to grown men sing about the complexities of relationships went hand in hand with our pancakes and syrup.

There were no hetero violations or misguided sissified notions floating through our home because men were revealing their feelings. Remember, half of these dudes sang in falsetto and the other half wore what we would now consider blouses. Even with that, these dudes were certified in their manliness (ask your slutty aunt if you don’t believe me).

Radio dubbed the format “quiet storm” music and for the next couple of decades it remained a major part of the black experience. The names changed, but the sentiment stayed the same: there’s a woman out here that I care about and she’s about to understand how much, they were singing. As artists like Luther Vandross and New Edition turned into Guy and Keith Sweat, the sound changed. From the New Jack Swinging late-80s, R&B bonded with hip-hop in the '90s and from that emerged a new generation. Acts like R.Kelly and Jodeci and then later people like Jagged Edge and Dru Hill. Some of the music coming out was hit or miss (let’s not front like Sisqo was out there killing), but at least there was volume. When D’Angelo, Bilal and the whole Soulquarians movement peaked in the early aughts, I thought we were set. There were some truly great songs that surfaced then, and R&B was as relevant as it had been in years. I had no idea that it was about to shrivel up and die.

As in stands right now, in the fall of 2012, R&B is currently in a downswing in its relevance.  Dudes, especially, have given up on it and women have had to carry the slow jam torch for the last decade. These days, women sing most R&B songs and almost all the slow joints (and unquestionably the best ones) have become the domain of matriarchy. I have no idea why. All I know is I’m not feeling the options available. If you want to hear male-created soul music you really only have two extremes: the lovey-dovey sanctimony of cats like Eric Benet (yes, he is still making records…there are a lot of single 46-year old women out here) and the "I don’t chase ‘em, I replace 'em" mentality of dudes like Chris Brown and Trey Songz.  The pickings are type slim when it comes to honest male expression of relationships. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle of those camps, but good luck finding records to back you up.

There are a few exceptions – the Frank Oceans and the Anthony Hamiltons – and some underground kings that get love over at websites like soulbounce. Really, though, I’m taking issue with the dudes that hit the Top 40 mega-hard. Songs that you can actually expect to hear on a regular basis. There is no Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder equivalent (those guys are on another level of course…i'm just saying that there are no male singers even flirting with that level of music making). I like The Dream and Ne-Yo and I guess you have to recognize Usher for his commitment and consistency, but, again, most of these songs are made for women. Its not like a bunch of guys are out here blasting “Best of Usher” playlists.

That’s why I got so amped when I first heard Miguel’s joint “Adorn”. It’s the no questions asked, if you don’t like it I don’t believe you, slow jam of the moment. Seriously, I’m not debating this one. It’s a great song. It straddles the line between being emotional without being mushy, romantic without sounding desperate, sexy without seeming inappropriate. This isn’t rest haven music, this is a manifesto set to sound. It’s one of those songs where you start to think you either need to press rewind or press fast-forward. Either way, the current spot you’re standing in just isn’t sufficient anymore. You need to find a woman worthy of breaking a man’s nose for. It’s that real.

We need more of these joints. More of these songs where dudes aren’t whining and begging and shuffling their feet. Dude: stand with your head and your chin held high, shake those nerves off and spit out that self-consciousness. Let this woman know, straight up and down, that we are going to move as a unit from this point forward. No shaky hands, bruh. Go and get the life you deserve.

Men often times need these songs to bridge the gap. The difference between the two sexes are myriad, we all know that, that’s been true for time immemorial. Dudes communicate different and, in years past, if you didn’t know the correct ways to express your feelings, you could do it via a love song. Some dudes need a short cut, a buffer, an emotional wingman even. You’re not going to convince anyone that you are serious with a song like this and certainly not one like this song either.

For some reason, in the 21st century, dudes have gotten too cool for school when it comes to slow jams. As if, by admitting you like these songs, you gotta turn in your man card or something. Like you’re a sucker because you expressed to a woman that you care for her or that her existence in your life is meaningful. What part of the game is that?

Sure, on some level most guys have traces of misogyny on our breath when we’re young – I certainly did. Even if I did sing along to one of those Unsung era love songs, I still categorized women based on certain superficial things. However, I learned what I needed to learn and all that negativity died when I learned how to shave. If you’re above 20 and you still think and act in this manner then that’s a serious issue. I don’t trust any dude who hates women. That’s as suspect as it gets.

So what is it going to take for the trend to turn back? Hard to say. This idea of men shunning R&B has calcified in recent years and it might not come back for a while. If it does, it will be because there are some real changes in the way men contextualize relationships. We’re a long way from that and we’ll need more than music to get black relationships back on the right track. You see that on the horizon? Me neither, but I’m optimistic. Especially if this dude can ever, for real, come back from whatever dungeon he was in and give us another album. He might be the only guy who can do it. Come on D, make it happen.

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