Suddenly, our pop world is a place where rap thugs and r&b crooners live, breed, and spread together en masse. The Billboard charts are patchwork—Fat Joe and Ashanti, Ja Rule and Ashanti, P. Diddy and Usher, Jennifer Lopez and Nas, Mary J. Blige and Ja Rule. P. Diddy, marketer extraordinaire, has already followed up his sensitive-dude hit “I Need a Girl” with “I Need a Girl Part II,” a genius title that this time calls on Ginuwine instead of Usher. A hook isn’t just a hook anymore—it is a free-agency bonanza. These days, Ashanti can walk into female-superstar sales of 500,000 copies simply by making a 300-pound-plus Bronx Boricua like Fat Joe seem sexy.
Who knows where this thug-crooner marriage really comes from. Times critic Kelefa Sanneh has theorized that some of it marks a blurring of lines, as a new generation switches between singing and rapping without much thought (Ja Rule and Nelly stand as examples). I see the trend more bluntly—to me, it’s pure greed. The Internet boom taught us that an ungodly pile of money can turn anything into cross-marketing. So hey, let’s put Gwen Stefani in the studio with Eve, or Ja Rule with J.Lo, and see what happens. Two stars are better than one.
No matter how crass the new barrage of hits might be, this is the world we now live in. And these modern-day duets are certainly more fun than the Jennifer Warnes or Peabo Bryson collaborations of the ’80s, when singers overwhelmed each other with the universe’s corniest lines about the times of their lives. These days, two wildly varying points of view converge, one hardcore and the other either less or more hardcore. Which, depending on the performers, makes for hilarious, delicious, or disturbing results.
Jay-Z and R. Kelly attain the latter on The Best of Both Worlds, an entire album’s worth of thugcroonerness. The idea of the most cocksure performers in rap and r&b joining forces with production team Trackmasters is appealing, but instead of making party anthems, Jay-Z and R. Kelly descend into gross swill about their ability to sexually dominate women—and, in Kelly’s case, lesser male singers. The album is Kelly’s excuse to prove he’s not your average slow-jamming pussy (Sisqó is his target of choice), which Jay-Z, at his crudest since 1999’s Vol. 3 . . . Life and Times of S. Carter, enables with lines about kicking bitches out of bed to make grilled cheese sandwiches and tying them up to make “gangsta love,” because after all, he “ain’t no r&b dude.” Neither is Kelly, supposedly, and therein lies the album’s problem—too much creepy fucking and not enough sweet loving. It also doesn’t help that Kelly sings lines about how”everybody ain’t as horny as me” just as the cops are investigating allegations he videotaped himself having sex with minors. Nice timing, fellas.
The rest of summer’s thug-crooner fare put its own spin on romance and desire. Mostly, the women play innocent, while the guys remain shameless scumbags. Ashanti, on top of the mountain, sounds downright pristine. In her piano-tinkling “What’s Luv?,” Fat Joe gets all the dirtiest lines. The hottie can have the “it’s about us/it’s about trust, baby” part and the slightly more risky “I’m on it like that . . . put it on me” part; her bubbly voice and personality make Joe’s desire for a “chick with dick hips” who doesn’t mind “a little ménage” behind her man’s back passable for radio ears. You get the impression Ashanti has no clue what she’s dealing with. So she comes off as a misogynist’s dream, and the song comes off unintentionally funny.
On the flip side, Truth Hurts, a Dr. Dre protégé, knows exactly what she’s up against, and her stone-cold sexuality makes “Addictive” thrilling. She presumably wants trust and love, too, but for now, fucking a schmuck until her back aches will do. Against an uneasy wall of Middle Eastern rhythms and altered vocal samples, she writhes and coos—”He keeps me guessing/Spontaneous/He’s so persuasive.” The timidity here comes from Rakim, unearthed for surprisingly stock lines about quitting the drug game and living the whipped life. But if this girl likes it so rough, maybe any old thug, even a legend, can turn to mush.
In “Feels Good (Don’t Worry Bout a Thing),” though, Naughty by Nature and 3LW aren’t looking for sexual revolutions; they’re just making pop music for pop music’s sake. The little women aren’t out to screw Vinnie or Treach, nor do the rappers focus on 3LW specifically. They’re all just in the booth together, making bouncy, breezy licorice, a snack for party people. Vinnie’s verse recounts Naughty by Nature’s old two-hit-wonder success, and Treach spits general rhymes about his “baldy” and giving Mom goose pimples. At least they acknowledge their limitations. Meanwhile, 3LW just concentrate on harmonizing and enjoying the moment. It’s total beach music—it’s easy to picture Vinnie and Treach tearing their shirts off and celebrating. Better them, I suppose, than Fat Joe.