Rap and R&B right now are, for the most part, interchangeable. That’s not a complaint, it’s a simple fact of contemporary urban music. R&B grabbed some of rap’s edginess so it didn’t become mom-and-girlfriend music, and rap successfully teamed up with R&B to create what De La Soul once called “rap and bullshit.” But even though rap’s still up for criticism by any and everyone (even Ashley Judd!), it’s rare to hear serious complaints about the content of the latest slow jam. If rap has to deal with all of R&B’s corny nonsense, then R&B should have to deal with some of the fallout from those who still claim rap is corrupting America.
A fun game is spotting the random African-American male crooner who gets tagged as a “rapper” by any number of clueless newspapers or magazines. There’s an implicit value judgment made when, say, Ne-Yo receives the “rapper” label: This stuff, with it’s futuristic synths and bold drums and sexually explicit lyrics, is not R&B (a.k.a., love songs for grown-ass men and women). Even more common is the act of referring to a troubled R&B singer as a “rapper.” Google “rapper R. Kelly” and see what comes up. Chris Brown was suddenly a “rapper” around the time he viciously assaulted Rihanna and, once again, when he threw a chair at a window after he was asked about Rihanna in an interview with journalistic heavy-hitters Good Morning America.
Brown, ever the opportunistic shitbag in his post-Rihanna career, has welcomed and even exploited the rapper tag. It’s a minor but not insignificant part of why he’s been able to make such a bold comeback. His song “Deuces” received an epic rap remix, and America’s favorite young domestic abuser even rhymes alongside Busta Rhymes and Lil Wayne on America’s current No. 1 R&B/Hip-Hop single “Look At Me Now.” By rapping a bit, even dying his hair blonde, or possibly leaking that nude photo of himself, Brown conveys some vague sense of danger and suggests a hip-hop reinvention that distracts from, or at least recasts, his controversy: No longer was he the sweet young R&B singer who beat up Rihanna, he was now the impervious rapper who beat up Rihanna. Ultimately, Brown copped-out on the rapper schtick. F.A.M.E. (which stands for “Forgiving All My Enemies”) is essentially an R&B album full of gross horny crooner tracks and Euro-trashy party pumpers. Still, this is a pretty fascinating phenomenon: The girlfriend-beating R&B loverman dabbles in hip-hop to improve his public image.
R&B’s lewd self-parody is bad enough (from F.A.M.E.‘s “No Bullshit”): “Three in the morning / You know I’m horny / So why don’t you come over my place / Put a smile on my face?”). Then there’s the disturbing trend over the past decade for R&B seduction songs to hinge on booze consumption, turning much of the genre into a series of date-rape ballads. Jamie Foxx’s loathsome “Blame It on the Alcohol” is the blueprint.
As a result, R&B actually has become much more offensive than rap. Mysterious Toronto group the Weeknd have made a name for themselves recently by focusing on the ickier aspects of R&B. Their mixtape, House Of Balloons, is a nine-song collection of stretched-out electronic grooves that’s just a bit more ominous than what’s on the radio at the moment; content-wise, though, House Of Balloons seems intent on taking the models-and-bottles, all-night-party creepiness of radio R&B to new levels. “High For This” walks a partner through a dangerous escapade, while warning her that she’ll “want to be high for this.” Much of the Weeknd’s output concerns itself with the idea of club-hopping and anonymous sex as one big ugly hate-fuck.
Maybe these Canadians are conducting some sort of deconstructionist project, trying to bring shame back to the game, but their mixtape is proudly dark and nihilistic. This couplet from “Wicked Games” is, like most of the album, sung with a smirk: “Bring your love, baby / I can bring my shame / Bring the drugs, baby / I can bring my pain.” The group’s lightning-fast hype and strangely on-the-mark “indie” approach to mainstream R&B has left many suspicious. Whether it’s cool or totally bullshit to dig them is a pretty boring debate. But when the same people who are up-in-arms about Odd Future’s rape-referencing raps gloss over the Weeknd’s lyrics — which are mostly about drinking with, or drugging, women past the point of consciousness — that’s particularly fascinating.
The controversy over Odd Future actually has a lot to do with how rare the group’s type of dark humor has become within hip-hop, and illustrates just how tame the genre is right now by comparison, especially when you focus on R&B’s drug-and-alcohol-fueled scenarios. Plus, the Weeknd’s brand of sexual violation is far closer to real life than Tyler, the Creator’s Ted Bundy fantasies. When critics and commenters scrutinize the latter and not the former, we help create or reaffirm simplistic notions of what rape actually is, and how it occurs. Rarely is the rapist a stranger in an alley wearing a ski mask. He’s the mildly charming douche handing you drinks all night.
A scan through R&B radio for something a bit less nefarious leaves one with very few options. Indeed, some of the only bonafide love songs these days are rap-informed R&B or just straight-up hip-hop. Miguel, a newcomer with a lot of potential and two great singles, is perhaps the only sincerely nice guy singing on black pop radio. His “All I Want Is You,” as simple and direct as that title suggests, is produced by Salaam Remi (known for his work Nas, the Fugees, and Amy Winehouse) and has a guest rhyme from J. Cole. “Sure Thing,” a ride-or-die guy song, features a slowed-down vocal hook swiped from the sounds of Houston rap innovator DJ Screw.
Fabolous’ “You Be Killin’ Em” is a clever twist on New York punch-line rap, with Fab employing his talent for turns of phrase to praise a female (“Louis Vuitton shoes, she got too much pride / Her feet are killin’ her / I call it shoe-a-cide”). A recently announced sequel to the song features R&B nice guys Ne-Yo and Ryan Leslie. Late last week, Jay-Z appeared on a remix of Sade’s “Moon & the Stars” for an upcoming greatest-hits collection, and though his verse is one of Jay’s do-this-for-the-culture type deals, it is nonetheless a mature look into post-break-up mistakes. And that’s more than you can say for most contemporary R&B singers.
Kanye West’s “All Of The Lights,” meanwhile, is an empathetic, though still devastating, portrayal of an abusive husband suffering the consequences of his actions. “I slapped my girl, she called the Feds,” he whines in the first verse; afterwards, he’s saddled with a restraining order and public visitations with his kids. It’s a song about consequences. Rihanna sings the hook.
And there was Rihanna last year on Eminem’s pop smash “Love The Way You Lie,” another abuse slow-burner. Perhaps the obvious problem is really just the state of R&B’s men? Though in the end, Em rapping “I’m a liar / If she ever fuckin’ tries to leave again / I’ma tie her to the bed / And set this house on fire” isn’t exactly a step forward, it does feel like an honest attempt to describe the dangerous arc of co-dependence and doesnt sugarcoat or sidestep issues of abuse. Chris Brown and, well, much of the R&B world should listen and take notes. Much the same way R&B regained some measure of realness and callow fun by co-opting hip-hop, it seems that now, ironically, it could regain some of its maturity from rap as well.