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.