Although we’re a week removed from last Sunday’s Grammys, that voice still haunts me. I am driven to my favorite bourbon just to keep the cringe-worthy noise from totally enveloping my soul. At night, I break out into cold sweats. The culprit? The much-anticipated Frank Ocean, who was performing his brave, thought-provoking track “Forrest Gump,” a riveting song detailing a past-summer romantic experience with a man. Indeed, the hype leading up to that night was well warranted. Ocean managed to produce one of the most inventive R&B albums in recent memory with his acclaimed debut, Channel Orange; a work heavy on layered lyricism and genre-expanding grooves. But when it came time to take his show to the big stage, in front of the largest televised audience of his young career, Ocean flopped.
To be more specific, Ocean’s pitch-challenged vocals ruined what was supposed to be a triumphant moment. But as the heralded Grammy-winning singer/songwriter made a strong case for the virtues of lip-syncing, Ocean’s shaky, live showing underlined a more important issue.
Before we get into the meat-and-potatoes of things, it’s not all dark. Musically, the artistic scope and risk-taking momentum of R&B has been on a winning streak. Credit the new breed. Miguel, who may be the most impressive out of the pack, is turning the heat up on his competitors by dropping some of the best, coolest, most sensual material on the scene today, as he earns rave reviews (and strong radio play) for his sophomore set, Kaleidoscope Dream. The Weeknd’s 30-track package, Trilogy, has turned on listeners with its unpredictable, alternative sonic markers.
Indeed, the hipster press and blogging contingent have praised this new era of R&B as an artistic reawakening of sorts for the well-traveled genre. But what’s missing from these new acts, are first-rate vocal chops and a feel for unabashed, unfiltered soul.
“We don’t have a lot of those new, great, strong voices like we did with Al Green or artists like Anita Baker,” says Njai Joszor, a staff writer at respected R&B site Singersroom. “We do have a few strong voices like Tyrese, Tamia and Elle Varner, all of whom were Grammy nominees. And we have artists, like Miguel, doing some exciting things; so we definitely have a little movement there. But is there room for improvement? Yes.”
Legendary hip-hop producer DJ Premier, who has also collaborated with such R&B notables as D’Angelo and Alicia Keys, offers a less diplomatic view of the current rhythm and blues landscape.
“I’ve seen Prince, I’ve seen Tina Turner, the Isley Brothers, Earth Wind & Fire, the Commodores, and Chaka Khan, live,” Primo says. “Everybody went all-out to make sure they were on pitch and gave a memorable performance. These new R&B artists are very spoiled. They don’t understand that it’s beyond making a good record. You have to be very groomed in being a sure-shot artist for the rest of your career.”
The joke last week was that Justin Timberlake’s show-stealing Grammy return from his self-imposed hibernation was more R&B than many of the nominated rhythm and blues acts and performers. The former poppy-boy-band refugee turned blue-eyed soul star had the kind of cooking big band—complete with live horns—that seemed like a throwback to a different era.
And while it’s evident that Timberlake’s current buzz-heavy Timbaland-produced single, “Suit & Tie,” and the strong, previewed album track, “Pusher Love Girl,” are nothing more than the falsetto charmer doing Robin Thicke better than…Robin Thicke, it’s damn near impossible to imagine the likes of Chris Brown, Ne-Yo or even Usher going that pure and uncut route. They all seem too concerned with scoring Euro-pop hits (all three have logged studio time with omnipresent dance producer David Guetta).
The blues in R&B has seemingly become an afterthought.
The switch to the pop charts by some of R&B’s biggest stars has evolved over the last few years due to a number of factors. Music genres that were once segregated have become more integrated as younger fans now have easier online access to a diverse palette of artists. There are rarities, like hybrid R&B-pop artist Beyoncé who has been able to transcend categories and remain a platinum-level artist. And then there’s R&B’s declining sales.
To be fair, the music business as a whole continues to face dwindling record sales. Compared to 2011, 2012’s album sales fell by 4.4 percent, from 331 million to 316 million units. Singles’ success, Twitter followers and YouTube hits have become the barometer for star power. But when you look specifically at R&B, you realize no 2012 releases went gold.
The closest to reach that status is Usher’s Looking 4 Myself, which to-date has moved 450,000 copies. It’s quite simple: Why reach for Keyshia Cole’s fanbase when you can thrive in the pop lane like Rihanna does? (Sidenote: when the “Stay” beauty was added to Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart late last year, many observers balked at the move, given that the performer’s overall pop-fueled reign would keep out more deserving rhythm and blues talents.)
It’s getting to the point where R&B acts are punished for having powerful, church-reared vocals. While Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson has earned chart-topping R&B hit singles acclaim, she has yet to enjoy full-blown album success. In an era when the current R&B scene stresses production and songwriting innovation, possessing mammoth pipes almost becomes a hindrance.
“But what’s really the difference between Jill Scott and Adele?” asks Raheem DeVaughn, who recently dropped his soulful mid-tempo single “Love Connection.” “Of course their tone is different, but what makes Adele this big pop singer and Jill a neo-soul singer? I think when we get into labels that’s the problem. There’s a lot of great R&B songs out there with nobody to sing them. Just make good music. I think if more artists understand that, then R&B music could be quote, unquote saved.”
Of course, dissecting the state of R&B is nothing new. Ever since Nelson George released his provocative, landmark book “The Death of Rhythm and Blues,” in 1988, the musical art form has died and been reborn by many critics and fans over more than two decades. Everything, from the closing of black music label departments to the overwhelming influence of hip-hop (blame Diddy!!!), has been to blame. But there has always been one constant: the singer. Over the years, the diverse likes of Charlie Wilson, Aaron Hall, R. Kelly, Jodeci’s K-Ci and JoJo, Mary J. Blige, Faith Evans, Brandy, Erykah Badu, and Maxwell, have all carried the flag of traditional R&B in their own indelible way.
However, if you are a current act, like Chrisette Michele, Marsha Ambrosius, DeVaughn, Melanie Fiona or a fresh-face newcomer like Varner, how do you shine in a world where soulful singing is no longer a measure of talent or record sales? Do you languish in specialized categories (I still don’t know the difference between Adult Contemporary R&B and Urban Adult Contemporary)? Or do you carry on the good fight and ignore all labels?
For the new R&B kids on the block, one thing is clear: before mastering the art of soul, learning how to stay on pitch would be a good start. “Mary J. Blige was shaky, vocally, in her earlier years,” recalls DJ Premier. “But she practiced her craft…now she is a problem. She will damage anybody onstage. I think a lot of the new R&B artists out today can learn from that.”