Thugs' tough love makes no room for romance

Critical Eye


It's not your mother's Motown romance, where love felt like a heat wave and all seemed precious. Taking its cues from hip-hop, thug love is more complicated. The ups and downs of relationships are rendered in brutal, often melodramatic detail. The music behind the lyrics is usually stark and synthetic.

Although thug R&B isn't entirely new, the sub-genre has been extended in recent releases by acclaimed newcomers Keyshia Cole and Trey Songz. Their songs, where things are more street than sweet, don't have the transporting effects of more emotionally mature music by artists such as Rachelle Ferrell or Marlon Saunders. Because of the ubiquitousness of thug R&B, you unfortunately hear little else on urban radio.

Men may be the purveyors of the style, but women certainly aren't excluded. For the guy, the streets are the first priority. He's a hustler, always looking over his shoulder because his material wealth -- his "bling," his cars -- makes him "vulnerable" to haters and scheming women. When he's not fighting the streets, he's the ultimate stud, a super lover. His icy demeanor only heightens his sex appeal.

The women of thug love R&B are divas with bulletproof hearts. To paraphrase singer-songwriter Nona Hendrix, "the scars they wear are nowhere near the surface of their skin." Ever practical, steely and selective, the chicks are ultra-sexy. Their sexiness is their power.

The Top 20 debuts of Cole (The Way It Is) and Songz (I Gotta Make It) keep the flame of thug love burning bright. Cole details a crumbling affair on her album. With titles like "(I Just Want It) To Be Over" and "I Should Have Cheated," the California-native's latest hit on urban radio, Cole's outlook on love is often dismal and pessimistic. Songz's album isn't as bleak (or as well written). With numbers like "Ur Behind" and "In the Middle," the Virginia-born artist has lust on his mind. He clumsily tries to balance the sweet and the nasty. Affirming one of the tenets of thug love -- that material things bring happiness -- he promises his girl a shopping spree and a Mercedes in the title track, which is currently heating urban airwaves.

Barely past 20, Cole and Songz subscribe to a sub-genre whose roots go back to the early '90s with the rise of Jodeci and Mary J. Blige. Around this time, urban radio embraced more hard-edged, hip-hop-drenched productions with remnants of classic R&B sounds. Lyrically, the pioneers of thug soul -- Bell, Biv, Devoe and R. Kelly chief among them -- adopted the crudeness of rappers. They also affected the look and posturing.

Sweet passion between the sexes evaporated, and the songs became heated combats. TLC called down-and-out brothers "scrubs," declaring them undeserving of their attention. R. Kelly compared women to his jeep and bank account. EnVogue told guys that they're "never gonna get it."

Songz is a direct disciple of R. Kelly, absorbing the veteran artist's melismatic vocal style and fondness for idiotic sexual metaphors. With her tattoos, penchant for bold hair colors, and open-wound lyricism, Cole recalls early Blige.

Although thug R&B ultimately exaggerates the myths and madness of ghetto life, its lyrics usually contain a thread of reality. In ghetto love, passion rarely supplants toughness. Things seldom work out beautifully. The men, nonchalantly, move on to the next waiting honey. And the women don't cry. It's love as real and ugly as boarded-up buildings and cracked concrete.

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