R&B loses its voice as the soul of American music

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

April 10, 2003|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN STAFF

I've been listening patiently, begrudgingly -- hoping somebody, to quote Chaka Khan, will "tell me something good."

After Ashanti, with her Post-It-thin vocals and one-stroke music, won a Grammy, after 50 Cent's inane "In Da Club" topped black urban (and mainstream) play lists, after Jaguar Wright's awesome debut Denials, Delusions and Decisions went unnoticed, I said enough is enough.

Will R&B ever be interesting again? Or is the music, as writer Nelson George suggested years ago, really dead?

Solid sounds are still around. The Dixie Chicks' Home is a modern country classic; The Roots keep hip-hop fresh and vibrantly challenging on Phrenology; and Cody ChestnuTT may be one of the most innovative rock/soul artists without a major record contract.

But lately, I've been so disappointed with the sounds on black radio, just as some folks have been griping about the flashiness and emptiness of rock. Half-jokingly, I've always thought of myself as a bona fide soul brotha, one who wholeheartedly supports the music of black America, which is really (and has truly always been) the music of America, period.

But with the advent and domination of hip-hop, it has become hard to distinguish what's R&B and what's not. The fluid, intimate instrumentation of traditional R&B has been obliterated by the hard, cold, anti-melodic beats of hip-hop. And the thuggish images generally associated with the genre are now part of R&B, embraced particularly by the men. Where you once had suave, clean-cut brothers crooning satiny confections, you now have artists promising everlasting love in baggy jeans and zigzagging cornrows.

Keith Sweat, for instance, tried to go hardcore on us late last year with the album Rebirth, which nobody bought. On the cover, there he was, a 41-year-old tattooed father of four in black, a platinum chain and shades, trying to look intimidating. This from a man who sold millions of records in the late '80s and '90s sporting handsome sweaters, slacks and tailored suits as he begged his lady love to "make it last forever."

Younger R&B cats like Jaheim, Dave Hollister, Jagged Edge, even Dru Hill have adopted a street lover-man persona, which at times seems forced.

Now, I don't want you to think that I'm anti-hip-hop or some closed-minded traditionalist. The year of my birth was the year of disco, the year of Studio 54, the year Saturday Night Fever ruled the box office. I am of the hip-hop generation. But unlike my East Coast pals, I wasn't baptized in it at an early age.

My home is Arkansas -- born in Hot Springs, raised in Little Rock. A shy, chunky boy with two hopelessly self-centered sisters (they're still that way, but I love 'em), I was a loner. Daddy fostered my love for what he called the "real stuff." I'm talking about the blues, the greasy, soul-soaked kind from Albert King, Little Milton, Millie Jackson, Johnnie Taylor. Fusion jazz (mostly Wes Montgomery) and some bop (mainly acoustic-era Miles Davis) floated through the house. Mama dug gospel, Motown, Aretha. And because hip-hop wasn't a huge presence in 1980s Arkansas (save for crossover acts like LL Cool J and Run D.M.C.), we younger folks generally dug what our parents played. I certainly did.

It wasn't unusual for a neighborhood kid to know the lyrics to Z.Z. Hill's "Down Home Blues," especially if his parents were working-class folks who threw loud bid whist parties on the weekends and funky fish fries in July. Techno funk -- Midnight Star, the Gap Band, the S.O.S. Band, Slave -- was king down home. The layered synthesizers and driving beats of that style have been extended today by producers like the Neptunes and Jermaine Dupri, but with less grit and imagination.

I'm really not that young to pine for the days of sophisticated soul. The lush sounds of Sade, Anita Baker, Luther Vandross and Phyllis Hyman were popular when I was in elementary school. Such artists displayed class, especially Baker and Hyman. But a decade later, there doesn't seem to be any cohesion or class in R&B or urban or neo-soul or whatever folks are calling black music these days.

The flame keepers -- Angie Stone, Jill Scott, D'Angelo (whenever he can get himself into the studio), Erykah Badu, Syleena Johnson and others -- excite me. But more often than not, their lyrics tend to be too self-involved (Scott), too esoteric (Badu) or well-sung but underdeveloped (Johnson). And the arrangements backing them are often flat.

In the '70s, a fervent time for soul, artists overlaid gospel-splashed and jazz-imbued rhythms with elements of rock, Latin and classical. Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Minnie Riperton, Gamble and Huff did it wondrously. But today, there doesn't seem to be a creative or inspired sound in urban music. Timbaland, best known for his work with Missy Elliott, is an exception. But his productions, at times, radiate little warmth. As legendary Motown percussionist Jack Ashford told me a few months back, "[Today's] artists are in [music] to market, not to create."

Because black pop has become so boring, I've been exploring non-urban artists lately, like Nirvana, Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, the Red Hot Chili Peppers --hey, even the Carpenters. (Truth be told, I've always had an affinity for pillowy AM pop. Burt Bacharach, anyone?)

Good music is good music regardless of its classification.

I just wish that what we know as R&B becomes more sophisticated, grows, stretches.

Or rises from the grave.

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