I remember being about six or seven years old. It was around the time teen R&B female singers such as Brandy, Monica and Aaliyah were bursting on the scene. My second grade friends and I looked up to them; sang Brandy’s “Brokenhearted” on the playground like we had been in the same condition, and Monica’s “Like This And Like That” like we’d experienced real relationship woes. When Aaliyah’s R. Kelly-assisted slow jam “Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number” was hot on BET’s Video Soul, of course we liked that, too; even did the slow bop walk like they did in the video. But looking back, to know that a 15 year old was disregarding age when it came to wanting to have sexual relations with an adult, I now realize the scandal in how that would catch someone a case! But while sexual themes are popular in R&B songs, could those themes potentially mislead people (especially young people) about what sex, love, and relationships are all about? Does today’s music glorify lust over love?
R&B has long been known for being the go-to genre if you want to make love and/or a baby. Even before Marvin Gaye’s bedroom staple “Let’s Get It On,” the genre has been responsible for helping to keep the earth populated since its inception. But modern mainstream R&B has evolved into being more blunt about the birds and the bees. Sure, Minnie Riperton’s “Inside My Love” and the moans throughout Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby” would make a drunken sailor blush, but both singers repeatedly mentioned “love” in those hits: an indirect mention of care and emotion for the other person.
In 2011, CNN.com writer John Blake posed the question “Where is the love?” in regards to R&B music, saying it’s now “drained of romance, tenderness and seduction.” True enough, seems like most mainstream R&B on the airwaves from back in the day consisted of a common theme of love. Earth, Wind, and Fire asked “would you mind, if I touched, if I kissed, if I held you tight, in the morning light? Aaahh!” In “Cause I Love You”, you feel every bit of emotion as Lenny Williams sings “Girl, you know I, I, I love you!” with such intense conviction that you just KNOW he was sincerely sorry for whatever crime against the heart he committed. Barry White was an all-around musician who brought the sexy, while not forgetting the romance. His hit song “Ecstasy” sounds frank, but White softened the mood with romantic charm: “All my life I’ve been searchin’ for a star / Now my search is over and here we are / Livin’ in ecstasy, yeah, when you lay down next to me, yeah / Here in ecstasy, when you’re layin’ down next to me.” He calls the woman a “star” which he’s been searching for, much like the theme of a romance novel.
Gender roles in male/female relationships play a vital part. Notice the common thread in vintage R&B? Romance and seduction reigned in which typically, the woman was loved, then wooed and accordingly. There aren’t too many female R&B singers who sing about raw sexuality; you almost have to be a woman rapper to get away with brute, frank sex talk. Soul/blues singers Millie Jackson and Denise LaSalle are in that small class, as well. But more so, the raunchy lyrics are expressed from a more selfish, narcissistic point of view, predominantly from male singers. An example would be R. Kelly’s “Hit It Till The Morning,” where Kelly’s outer appearance of wealth is what he plans on using to hook a woman to sleep with for the night, objectifying her for his pleasure only: “…Caught her starin' at the ice in my ear / She almost fainted when she saw these glaciers… / She's ready for the pipe, f*ckin' wit her emotions… /And she got a fat ol' ass that'll brighten up the room / Come, let a West Side Nigga slide this d*ck off in yo womb / Put the dial on her booty make her lively / Most likely, she think I'ma make her Wifey /Got her hooked like Nike, she wanna bite me / When I come up in the room in a White-T.” Heartthrob Trey Songz’s is another artist whose notorious sex lyrics, overall, include a very small amount of seduction. Take “Ur Behind,” for instance: “All I see ur behind / And all I see / Is you on top of me / Watching you ride / Looking to my eyes /All I need is to be inside / I'll be sliding in the front / Going to the behind.”
Right now, you’re either blushing like a school girl or enticed like no other. But whichever reaction you’re having, one can’t deny the obvious influx of the lack of tender feelings in the R&B department. What does this say about men and women’s dating/relationship/courtship roles? What caused this shift?
Earth Wind and Fire keyboardist Larry Dunn insists the lack of love in contemporary mainstream R&B stems from a generation of people who are skeptical because they come from broken homes and don’t understand unity. “How are you going to write about love when you don't know what it is?" he told CNN. And when you think about it, it’s true. During the 1970s era, there was more unity. The demographics of families (especially black families) have changed since the 1970s. A 2009 study from the Institute for American Values and the National Center on African American Marriages and Parenting at Hampton University in Virginia found that 70.3% of all black adults were married in 1970, that rate dropped to 39.6% by 2008. Also, the 1980s was a difficult time for black communities; stable jobs began to disappear and the crack cocaine epidemic disintegrated families even more. Music critic Rashod Ollison says men and women have objectified each other in modern R&B, then whine "about not getting what they felt they deserved.” In other words, they end up singing about their surroundings, which elevates the fact that art imitates life.
It seems the bottom line is this: the need to feel love is still there, it’s just that maybe, a whole generation ultimately feels pain and resentment due to societal trends, and they don’t know how to go about expressing it. That’s not to say love is completely gone: R. Kelly and Trey Songz both have tunes in their catalogs that express emotional connections, like Songz’s “Sex Ain’t Better Than Love and ” Kelly’s “Green Light” and “Step In The Name Of Love.” Other contemporary R&B artists like Jesse Boykins III, Ro James, Rashad, Musiq Soulchild, Eric Benet and many many countless others hold a torch for love. So this Valentine’s Day, whether you want to turn up the seduction and “turn off the lights, and light a candle” like Teddy P, or get down to the nitty gritty and “reach up in that dresser where them condoms is” in order to go all night with no bullsh*t like Chris Brown, you have a wide choice of music to accompany your escapade.