Yeah, so this probably won’t be happening again
These are rough times for established R&B artists because nobody knows what R&B is even supposed to sound like anymore. Since the big Akon/T-Pain invasion jumped off, commercial R&B has gotten itself all tangled up with dancehall and synthpop and mid-90s Euro-techno, and it’s getting increasingly hard to tell where any of those genres start or end. And so any R&B star hoping to stay relevant is faced with the twin extremes of the T-Pain vocal-filter pop and neo-neo-soul uber-sincere revivalism. Someone like Alicia Keys can pull off the latter just fine, and she’ll continue to get Grammy love for as long as she can remember how to play a piano. But that’s not so much an option for longer-standing pop behemoths, figures who have spent years balancing out clubby uptempo precision with florid devotional love-balladry. The club stuff has become something like alien territory for a lot of these guys, and when you factor in the reality that plenty of them are coming off bajillion-selling albums and wandering into a marketplace where nobody’s making money, things start to look dire. Mariah Carey, for one, anticipated the minimal club-pop trend with her leviathan comeback album three years ago, keeping her ridiculous technical skills in check by working with tighter, crisper songs that don’t offer her as much opportunity to wild out vocally. In my Pazz & Jop piece on T-Pain, I wrote this of Carey: “If current trends hold, by the time she releases her 2008 album, she’ll sound like Vickie from Small Wonder. Maybe she can make that work, and maybe she can’t.” I wasn’t that far off. “Touch My Body,” the first single, is a supremely awkward bit of attempted zeitgeist. The song’s production is just incredibly antiseptic and controlled. The plonking keyboards remind me of Hot Chip filler-tracks, and the guitars and pianos somehow sound more synthetic than the synths. Carey’s intonation is all whispery and staccato, and it doesn’t even sound like she’s intentionally holding back anymore; it’s like she’s afraid to let loose; the few controlled runs she gets near the end are just as mechanical as the rest. Lyrically, the song is a perplexing internet-age collision of horniness and paranoia: she wants to have sex with you, but she doesn’t want you to put the sex tape up on YouTube. Finger on the pulse there!
Unlike Mariah, onetime rival Janet Jackson has dropped a few straight bricks already, so she has less to lose. Still, “Feedback,” the first single off her forthcoming Discipline, proved a slick miscalculation: a sexually voracious bit of breathy Britney-pop that flattened out her vocals even more than usual and dropped in an off-putting line about she’s heavy like a first-day period. But “Rock With U,” the possible next single, interpolates that Euroclub trend way more smoothly. Given that Janet was releasing actual house tracks as singles as far back as the mid-90s, this really shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for her, and indeed “Rock With U” sounds like the most natural thing in the world. Her voice goes through so many filters that it becomes near-unrecognizable, but the comfortable ease of her delivery hasn’t changed; as a singer, she has no problem with ratcheted-up tempos. And the sexy languor she shoots for here suits her way better than the martial urgency of “Feedback.” I’m not sure who produced the track, but the beat here is a thing of beauty: florid rippling synths, uber-processed guitar skank, breezy clipped 4/4 drums. Musically, it doesn’t draw from French house; it basically is French house of the non-filter-metal variety. If I didn’t already know it was the new Janet track, I wouldn’t have any trouble believing it was an unearthed Stardust single or something. I’m not saying “Rock With U” will turn Janet back into a megastar, but it sure goes down smoothly right about now.
Voice review: Miles Marshall Lewis on Janet Jackson’s 20 Y.O.
Voice review: Robert Christgau on Janet Jackson’s Damita Jo
Voice review: Rich Juzwiak on Janet Jackson’s “Just a Little While”
Usher, meanwhile, has a whole lot to lose given the worldbreaking sales of his last album, but he’s always been a canny interpreter of trends. Way back on “Yeah,” he rode the crunk bandwagon for all it was worth, and these days it’s about the only Lil Jon track that still gets pop radio burn. So I have to commend Ursh for leaking the commendably batshit track “Dat Girl Right There” before we heard anything else from the upcoming album. “Dat Girl Right There” has basically nothing to do with any musical trend that ever happened. The dominant sound on the track isn’t Usher’s voice; it’s Rich Harrison’s deranged pinging synth noise, which pans back and forth between speakers and generally flattens everything in its path. And so Usher darts in and out of it like he was dodging boulders in Super Mario Galaxy, somehow managing to sound smooth in the process. Ludacris, meanwhile, pops in for an obligatory guest-verse only to find his voice getting subjected to the Prefuse 73 treatment, all distended and chopped-up. Months after the leak, I still have no idea how to wrap my head around “Dat Girl Right There.” But “Love in the Club,” which seems to be the album’s actual first single, plays things safer and turns out even better. “Dat Girl Right There” synthesizes way too many current trends to count: snap-music drums, candy-rave strobe-synths, Young Jeezy ad-libs buried in the mix. Usher even murmurs “crank that” super-emotively over the outro. Polow da Don’s track pushes the T-Pain club-pop formula to absurdly triumphant heights, and Usher just chews this thing up, sounding effortless and energized over it. Jeezy, meanwhile, comes off likably awkward on his verse; at moments, his voice even sounds melodic, which may be a first. In a musical climate where nothing makes sense, “Love in the Club” is about the closest we’ve heard to a sure thing since Kanye’s “The Good Life,” and the ease with which Usher manipulates it exhilarates.
Voice review: Amy Linden on Usher’s Confessions
As great as it may be, “Love in the Club” still isn’t my R&B jam of choice at the moment; not while the Swizz Beatz remix of Mary J. Blige’s “Just Fine” is out there. The original “Just Fine” is a perfectly acceptable bit of streamlined uptempo dance-pop, and Blige’s relentless message of self-affirmation assures that she won’t have to keep up with the pop mainstream to maintain her base. But that original track has nothing on its monster remix, which flies beautifully in the face of conventional wisdom. It’s not that the remix ignores current trends altogether; there’s a Lil Wayne guest-verse, after all, a notably fierce one at that. Additional guest-rapper Precise sounds just like Kid Sister, which should help the song out with the Discobelle crowd. And Swizz’s brand of hammering insanity is sort of a trend unto itself. But Lil Wayne guest-verses, goofy club-rap hipster-catering, and Swizz tracks are rap trends, not R&B ones. And Swizz’s great trick on the remix is basically just to throw Blige’s vocals over the pounding, muscular beat to Chubb Rock’s “Treat Em Right,” a track that may sound even better now than it did two decades ago. Over the jittery breakbeat and go-go-go chants, Mary sounds ecstatically out of time, like none of the vagaries of the moment could ever stall her momentum. There’s something inspirational about that.
Voice review: Alfred Soto on Mary J. Blige’s Growing Pains
Voice review: Jason King on Mary J. Blige’s The Breakthrough
Voice review: Robert Christgau on Mary J. Blige’s Love & Life
Voice review: Barry Walters on Mary J. Blige’s No More Drama
Voice review: Arion Berger on Mary J. Blige’s Mary