As one of contemporary R&B's brightest stars, John Legend possesses Grammys and hits galore. But could he be any blander? His twinkling tunes about love and relationships are at best serviceable, and lyrically he treads the same ground as a hundred other singers. His status as a genre top dog says plenty about the state of R&B itself, which has become crummy and pointless, derivative and boring.
In terms of social relevance, innovation, and pure originality, no one approaches the titans of earlier generations like Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, and Otis Redding, or even Michael Jackson and Prince. R&B is missing a transformative star, but seems unlikely to find one right now because, as a genre, it barely exists.
Though always something of a hodgepodge, R&B was once a formidable format, a combination of soul, gospel, and funk whose best artists didn't hesitate to experiment with style. But in the '90s and '00s, R&B has become pigeonholed. Attempting to piggyback on hip-hop's popularity, its artists use rap beats and hire MCs for guest verses, resulting in a sound virtually indistinguishable from rap. (Try turning off the vocals on Legend's "Green Light," for example, and see if you can tell the difference.) One of R&B's biggest names, Akon, is so strongly associated with hip-hop that he's sometimes mistakenly referred to as a rapper.
Fusing genres was traditionally a big part of rhythm and blues — hell, Ray Charles initially made a career out of it. But since New Jack Swing injected a street mentality and rowdy backbeats in the 1980s, R&B shows little desire to evolve or take creative risks. Its crooners have become largely separated onto urban radio stations, inspiring one mildly successful, format-following clone after another.
The watering down of the genre is one reason it's been disparaged as "Rap & Bullshit." Another is because it's artistically moribund. The vast majority of R&B lyrics are disingenuous and clichéd. Enough already with testaments to mothers, to promises of everlasting fidelity, and to female empowerment anthems written by women with multimillionaire husbands.
The most successful R&B artists aren't artistically compelling. Take Ne-Yo, a decorated singer-songwriter who had an even better 2008 than Legend. His recent album, Year of the Gentleman, is a commercial smash and has been well-reviewed by the likes of Rolling Stone. And yet ... were we not so starved for R&B possessing even a whisper of creativity, we might have more soberly assessed this banal work. Ne-Yo's monster hit "Miss Independent" is arguably the most derivative piece of pop in recent memory. Profoundly asserting that women who have their own thing going on are cool, the song rips off a concept espoused by Webbie and Lil Boosie last year, by Destiny's Child in 2000, and by Susan B. Anthony in 1852. The track's beat is stolen wholesale from Justin Timberlake's hit "My Love," while Ne-Yo's singing is filled with grating melisma. I'll give him credit for collaborating with New Kids on the Block — it's hard to resist "Single" — but let's be honest. If Ne-Yo were to stop making records today, would anyone remember him in 20 years?
In truth, Ne-Yo and R&B's other reigning king, Usher, are little more than bland, well-dressed Michael Jackson wannabes with good choreographers. Neither has done as much to push the genre forward as sexual nonoffender R. Kelly, who at least is willing to take musical chances. (Unfortunately, he doesn't qualify as a respected R&B icon because he hasn't made strong albums, and his legacy is tied up in his perversions.)
As for queens Mary J. Blige, Beyoncé, and Keyshia Cole, they offer little more than overproduced girl-jams only discerning fans can tell apart. None seems to take any pleasure in craft. While all three women have fascinating life stories — Cole's mother was a prostitute and drug addict — you'd never know it from their bland discographies, full of boilerplate love-lost laments and CVS-friendly stay-strong anthems. The music from second-tier soulstresses like Ciara and Ashanti, meanwhile, doesn't hold up without the benefit of gruff male voices to contrast their meek vocals. (If you've heard Ashanti's latest album, The Declaration, you'll know this.)
Crooners like Anthony Hamilton, Robin Thicke, and Raheem DeVaughn have gotten critical kudos as well, but they all fall short. Take DeVaughn's latest album, Love Behind the Melody. Though almost universally praised, it contains the most basic, clichéd lyricism imaginable. His Grammy-nominated hit "Woman" is about — get this — how great the female gender is. The words aren't even original; lyrics like "You a lady in the streets and a freak when it's bedroom time" should be credited to Ludacris, and "I appreciate so much/Like the 'I love you' feeling girl when we touch" should perhaps be credited to a poor translation of an Italian Hallmark card. Meanwhile, DeVaughn's offer to "appetize ya or main course ya" on "Customer" is less poetry than soundtrack to a porno flick filmed at Carl's Jr.
I make no claims to have heard everything out there, of course, and I'm not contending that the entire genre is devoid of anything worth listening to. Erykah Badu remains an influential, endearing talent, although her recent New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) veers closer to neo-soul and psychedelic funk than to R&B. Inventive Detroit producer-singer Dwele and Philadelphian Jazmine Sullivan, meanwhile, have found success by taking risks, and Atlanta's Janelle Monae's brand of retrofuturism is refreshingly eccentric. She dresses like a robot and inhabits an alter ego named Cindy Mayweather, for starters.
None of these artists fit the bill, however, as an R&B icon for the new millennium. It may be a lot to ask for another Marvin Gaye or Sam Cooke, both of whom pushed for social change and helped revolutionize the role of the black singer-songwriter in the music industry. It may be too much to ask for another purple one or gloved one, both of whom affected everything from rock and pop to popular culture and marketing. But is it too much to expect a single standout talent? I don't think so, and, as a result suggest we change the "Rap & Bullshit" moniker to simply "Bullshit."