There’s just something about the cold steel CLANG! of slamming prison cell doors that’s music to the ears. Must be why r&b lothario Akon prefaces all the tracks on his filler-filled sophomore LP, Konvicted, with the noise. CLANG! His prison time, however brief, means to establish the thug cred he requires to trade verses with Styles P, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Fat Joe, and Papoose . . . even though he’s not a rapper. “You know my pedigree/Ex-dealer used to move ‘phetamines,” he boasts on “I Wanna Fuck You.” (!) Does Akon’s rapping really suck? Does it matter? There’s hardly any hardcore rapping—and few hardcore singers—on urban radio these days. What we hear now is watered-down sing-rap talk-sing from rappers and singers alike.
An earlier indication of this move toward sing-rap was the 2001 Jennifer Lopez–Ja Rule duet “I’m Real.” What folks could’ve asked—instead of whether or not J.Lo was down enough to call black guys “her niggas,” as she quite naturally rapped—was whether or not she was legit enough to trade verses with Ja Rule. It appears, in order to ensure longevity on urban radio, r&b singers must align themselves with rappers, drop in on mix tapes, and generally have some kind of “flow.” And that doesn’t just mean being able to rap a little; it’s synonymous with game, hardness, street smarts, and the smooth, even callous way an artist presents and handles him- or herself in front of the competition and the opposite sex. Akon’s gotten his flow by being an ex-con and flaunting his unparalleled ability to “smack that, all on the floor.” But do my ladies run this motherfucker?
Beyoncé: Her version of “In Da Club” outed 50 Cent as a singing-ass rapper with lines like “Don’t wanna be your girl/ I ain’t lookin’ for no love/So come give me a hug/You a sexy little thug.” Even her Destiny’s Child stuff, though, had more flow than her B’Day raps—wack lines reveal faltering confidence and a bewildered, dick-whipped view. Should’ve called it J’Day. Despite facilitating some top-notch production, here’s what Jay-Z didn’t tell his girl: Flow is about attitude. A conceited attitude. A chick with real flow is just not gonna record an entire LP sweating a dude, and those hollow threats about jetting (“Irreplaceable,” “Kitty Kat”) don’t count. Step up and spit real game, B: “When he acts wrong” is not when you “put your freakum dress on”—that’s only for when he acts right.
Amerie: No longer Ms. Congeniality, she’s going for the crown by starting more beef than Cam’ron on her new mix tape Because I Love It, Vol. 1, hinting that Beyoncé (among others) has been trying to “bag her swag.” Furthermore, “Chicas try to bite it/But they can’t cop my delivery/My style/My aggression on the track/’Cause y’all chicks know you wasn’t singing like that.” She’s kinda right, but she’s not exactly singing. Amerie yells her way through tracks and her intonation is hit or miss, but she gets flow points for her jazzy, polyrhythmic phrasing, along with her rapper-chick audacity and breezy demeanor with the guys. In her version of Ludacris’s “Money Maker” she turns the tables and breaks it down, albeit somewhat disjointedly: “I don’t need your cash for elevation/Hold myself down every occasion . . . Drinks for my girls when they get thirsty/But the men just get some water with a cherry in it.”
Kelis: She changed “beat that pussy up” to “eat this pussy up” in her version of “Wait (The Whisper Song).” And for the past few years she’s had modest success, but stayed competitive and self-assured. Now Kelis Was Here, alright. “Bossy”—on which she brags about her naked-body tattoo on hubby Nas’s arm—is the all-new flow-focused r&b-chick anthem. (Now she’s claiming she’s the first girl to scream on a track. Ever hear Grace Jones’s “Sex Drive”?) “Let’s just say/I like to take chances” she adds flirtatiously on the sex-tape of a song “Blindfold Me.” Is Kelis singing or rapping “When he want it/He blindfolds me/Then I get sexy on him/Get sexy on him”? She’s actually talking most of the time, but sounds hella good.
Still, as Cash Money Millionaire Teena “Lady T” Marie—who hipped us to the “T” in her seminal rap on 1981’s “Square Biz”—put it, “I’ve heard a boatload of other ladies’ raps/But they ain’t got nothing on me.” CLANG!