Mindless Behavior, Travis Porter, and the Resurrection of the Black Boy Band
How 'All Around the World' and 'Mr. Porter' may address the dearth of black pop in 2013
What happened to the black boy band? New Edition, Dru Hill, B2K, Pretty Ricky, and then, what? There’s also a notable dearth of black pop right now. Consider, too, that the boy band was the last place where the slowed-down, all-out R&B ballad got to breathe. The Backstreet Boys’ catalog is dominated by slow jams; ‘N Sync worked closely with Babyface. Justin Timberlake began his solo career chasing Michael Jackson and just released a new album that aims for Maxwell’s soulful sprawl. Well, enter Mindless Behavior, a foursome from Los Angeles, mining the same boy-band novelty and unabashedly melodramatic, lovey-dovey intensity as One Direction. And like One Direction, there’s a self-satisfied embrace of old-fashioned “chops” incorporated into their smoothed-out pop that should code as at least kind of “respectable.” Why aren’t Mindless Behavior a bigger deal?
Their new album, All Around the World, isn’t really getting talked about enough. EDM’s shots of serotonin-rush synths are dominant, yet, the vocals feel comfortable and restrained; the emotions less platitudinous. The title track is a kind of global-trance-pop Amazing Race version of Future’s “Turn On the Lights”; “Forever” is an electro guitar ballad. Think: Babyface for ’90s babies or, shit man, 2000s babies even; “I’m Falling” is a springy, dead-serious first-love-as-love-for-life song; Jerk-ish sidechick track “Keep Her on the Low” happens to have the most enticing beat on the whole album: A Nintendo 64 plink-plonk with a little alt-R&B Dawn Richard histrionics and Big Sean “A$$” clap-smack paraphrasing in there too. Restrained maximalism, if you can imagine that. Rarely ever are these guys bleating over the beats, which makes sense because the best EDM has come in the form of R&B-tinged soulful fist-pumpers from artists like Chris Brown, Ne-Yo, and Rihanna, anyways.
You’re already anticipating Mindless Behavior (or at least one of them, probably Prodigy, who has the most expressive and confident voice) growing up a little and downshifting into the more “adult” pop world. Big bold R&B proper, with a pop mindset, and even a little bit of a rock sensibility (versus a clueless rawk sensibility, which One Direction lean towards way too often). A slight shaking off of record-label demands and a bump in the personality category a la Miguel between All I Want Is You and the Art Dealer Chic EPs, and Mindless Behavior might stick around! That is, if what’s left of the pop world would even let them. Listening to All Around the World is invigorating, though if you think a little harder, it’s depressing because a 2013 music-industry reality is that black artists are being shoved off the charts and out of the mainstream.
Maybe part of the trick of is avoiding the “boy band” tag altogether. It has certainly worked for Travis Porter, the handsome, funny, booty-rap trio from Atlanta. In spirit, they are a boy band. Yes, a boy band posted up for good in an ATL shake club, but a boy band nonetheless. The one-take, Porky’s-at-a-five-star hotel video for “Ayy Ladies” feels very ‘N Sync. Travis Porter are lewd, but it’s nothing that pre-teens don’t hear in R-rated movies. On their new mixtape, Mr. Porter, there are hooks for days and days, and just a palpable sense of hornball, learned-it-from-rap-videos-not-real-life fun that’s dirty yet innocuous. They’re three annoying, hilarious best friends disrupting your math class. Highlights: “Wassup” is kiddie trap music, which probably shouldn’t be allowed to exist, but if it does, this is the ideal strain; and “Err Damn Day” featuring Jeremih, a jet-setting call-and-response party track. Mostly, though, Mr. Porter is just 22 tracks of tipsy party music. That’s enough.
Not exactly teeny-bopper stuff, but we’re talking about a generation of kids who wisely accepted Lil Wayne as their pop star. In the best sense, that’s how inside-out and upside-down Weezy’s dominance has flipped the industry. There’s no need for “I need your love (but it really means your dick)”-type platitudes for the Internet generation. Travis Porter’s “single entendres” (that’s what Stereogum‘s Tom Breihan called their lyrics) are ideal for youngsters who are always communicating via text and Twitter and Snapchat. Who needs R&B poetry? And more importantly, Travis Porter have hooks and the kind of charming, indistinct personalities ideal for a boy band. They aren’t clear-cut characters, so it’s even easier to project one’s own feelings onto them. Imagine a prophet-like A&R prepping a Travis Porter remix of Mindless Behavior’s “Keep Her on the Low,” prepping black boy-band domination. Just don’t imagine the higher-up who laughs off the idea, though.