Males In R&B : Then Vs. Now
Do R&B Artists Need to ‘Man Up’ Nowadays?
Something different and less influential has happened. The subject may seem so apparent and natural that it has allowed many of us to talk around it, without ever truly discussing it. And by doing so, we’re proving how much distance we as men have to go before we, to put it indelicately, man the eff up. Last week, during a conversation over beers, a good friend who coaches a basketball team for young teenagers mentioned his emphatic concern that his team isn’t aggressive enough. His story centered around one particular player who had immediately broke out into tears and curled up into a fetal position after having ineptly tripped mid-play and failed to execute it.
What my friend found baffling was the shortness of pride and how instant his player presumed that falling into a fetal position over such a trivial and easily redeemable error would be a respected action. Okay, I can understand that he’s just a kid, but his impulse to opt out from showing any resilience for empathy through unreserved feebleness, could very well stir up some public concern (and I’m not even the kid’s father). To rant further, what happened to the seminal characteristic of maleness where we inherently had things under control—our confidence, spirit, and cool? This argument is greatly supported by the male influence in today’s music culture, more specifically with the ever-gradual genre of Rhythm & Blues.
For R&B, I realize that there is a more apparent amount of its music today that serves as a lionized confession booth, than the spirited lovemaking machine it once was defined as for many generations. Does genuine love and sex, public leadership, or life not inspire this music anymore? Is requesting for unremitting empathy for a broken heart, a challenging addiction, or the hardship to lead a fruitful life need to be commercial?
Body and Soul Music
Over 40 years ago, musicians of R&B would take the art of storytelling and boldly steam things up—both tastefully sexual and politically controversial. For instance, Marvin Gaye with What’s Going On (1970) addressed issues of injustice, suffering, and public brutality. When expected to create many controversial concerns, it was his passionately powerful character that outweighed it all and helped the record received a wildly positive response. Fast-forward to his career in 1973; a more spiritual, love lust, and inspired Gaye released Let’s Get It On—a song that married both the body and the soul together with the intended exploration of sexual passion and human hunger. I contend that sex is sex, and love is love. When combined, they work well together, if two people are about the same mind… Have your sex; it can be exciting, if you’re lucky. I hope the music I present here makes you lucky. – Marvin Gaye (Interview; 1973)
R&B defined many moments of love and intimacy, carnal pleasure, unrequited dreams, and necessity of displaying endless charm and devotion. For many of its early generations, it would go without saying that rhythm and blues was visibly meant for an audience of women. Furthermore, when women liked to be the center of attention, the men of R&B offered just that; Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, Barry White, Luther Vandross, Freddie Jackson, Michael Jackson, Prince, and, of course, one of the better known, low tenor voiced, male sex symbols of the late 70’s and 80’s, Teddy Pendergrass—let it be known that there was nothing juvenile about Pendergrass’ voice. It had authority. It made demands. It was not to be negotiated with.
Entering into the early to mid-90’s, Rhythm and Blues became considerably and notably popular. The macho presence of Teddy Pendergrass or a hypersexual femininity of Prince peaked with their careers, as many of the hit makers of the 90’s (R. Kelly, Babyface, Keith Sweat and young Usher) delivered more of smooth and lush style vocal arrangement—a velvety tone said to have been adapted from the genre’s much earlier influences; Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, Billy Paul, and Let’s Stay Together’s Al Green.
One Woman Type Of Man
Where male R&B artists of the 70’s and 80’s would make thorough and assertive efforts to swoon a lady, the 90’s took a more respectable and warm optimism that determined their lady was the one (and to not get that twisted).
Additionally, the decade had an exceptional introduction and focus on women (Whitney Houston, Tony Braxton, Brandy/Monica, and Mariah Carey), in turn, they were all in great company of many successful all-male R&B vocal groups. These groups would champion a slick styling of many singers, highlight challenging vocal runs and ranges, and compose intricate vocal harmonies. As proof, the genre delivered great chart-topping strides with All-4-One’s, I Swear; Dru Hill’s, These Are the Times , Blackstreet’s, Joy, and the “lets-skip-dessert” sensationI’ll Make Love To You by Boyz II Men.
Once the late 90’s rolled into the early 2000’s, the amalgamation between Jazz, Hip-Hop, and Soul—or better known as the R&B sub-genre, Neo-Soul—had made its mark into the mainstream. Many great male musicians such as Maxwell, Musiq Soulchild, Anthony Hamilton, John Legend, and D’Angelo had represented Neo-Soul. Subsequently, Neo-Soul’s commercial success was made brief and began to become subjectively followed when in 2004, Rhythm and Blues made a massive crossover into Dance Pop, where the release of Usher’s club anthem, Yeah!, became insanely successful (No.1 for twelve consecutive weeks and Hot 100 for forty-five weeks). The genre’s ill-fated turning point was conceived by the influence and popularity of Electronic Dance Music and the more playful side of Hip-Hop, all to later give birth to Chris Brown, Ne-Yo, Trey Songz, and Jason Derulo.
Many years after fitful integration of dance music, commercial R&B’s music would soon be matched alongside a different resonance; a sound that would sequentially result into something far less stimulating. Male R&B became less involved with dancing and more concentrated on emotional clarity. Lyrics would describe moments of sharing ambivalent feelings, settle with unrequited love and emotionless sex, and the occasional intake of hallucinogens. They would be sung between repressed falsettos or a clear metallic cry (both with or without the auto-tune effect). Contributing to its contrast, the music and digital instrumentation would create a multi-layered, bass-heavy dullness that directly flouts the rules of the genre.
"Yes. What Better Time Than Now?"
This trajectory through the life of R&B has realized the extent to which the male influence has retreated from “taking life by the horns” to channeling a more narcissistic melancholic psyche. However, it cannot be justified that songs of true romance and soul seizes to exist today—an effort that owes more to Jesse Boykins III, Raphael Saadiq, and Miguel—it’s just really difficult to find. Where the original male cast of R&B cultivated their own optimism and manly principles, it has proven great purpose and influence for our gender. Therefore, our legacy is yearning to make pals with our mature and virile past, to possess the essential dignity those define our romantic and limitless character, and universally resonate true and traditional Rhythm and Blues. How bout it? Time we man the eff up.
By: Marco Pelayo