Who Will Save R&B?

neyoandsaadiq Who Will Save R&B?If we’re lucky, R&B is in a state of flux; if we’re not, it’s dying slowly. Since the 90′s, the genre (especially its male component) has rewarded banality, whether in the form of sexist histrionics dressed up as seduction, the sort of stuff that gets Chris Brown and Akon hits, or the too-often bloodless smoothness of Usher, Anthony Hamilton, and, maybe best of the bunch, John Legend. And then there’s R. Kelly, who is, for reasons too complex to address here, unassailable. Club bangers and crooner crap are great, and everybody needs a little stupid fun, and that Usher sure can dance, but the alarmist tends to wonder whither the thoughtful, sensitive, passionate R&B of yore, the genre that brought us everything from the Temptations to the Jackson 5 to Jodeci? When did the beat start to eclipse, well, everything?

Two very different artists, Ne-Yo and Raphael Saadiq, both veteran songwriters, producers and singers, offer different answers to such sky-is-falling questions with albums out this week.If we’re lucky, R&B is in a state of flux; if we’re not, it’s dying slowly. Since the 90′s, the genre (especially its male component) has rewarded banality, whether in the form of sexist histrionics dressed up as seduction, the sort of stuff that gets Chris Brown and Akon hits, or the too-often bloodless smoothness of Usher, Anthony Hamilton, and, maybe best of the bunch, John Legend. And then there’s R. Kelly, who is, for reasons too complex to address here, unassailable. Club bangers and crooner crap are great, and everybody needs a little stupid fun, and that Usher sure can dance, but the alarmist tends to wonder whither the thoughtful, sensitive, passionate R&B of yore, the genre that brought us everything from the Temptations to the Jackson 5 to Jodeci? When did the beat start to eclipse, well, everything?

Two very different artists, Ne-Yo and Raphael Saadiq, both veteran songwriters, producers and singers, offer different answers to such sky-is-falling questions with albums out this week. Ne-Yo offers sincerity, maturity, and respect, a sound where hit-machine slickness is spiked with nods to the past. Saadiq embraces the past and little else, as he’s been doing for years, asking why classic soul need be labeled “retro” if it can still represent the world we inhabit.

“Me, I have a very short attention span, always have,” Ne-Yo explained on his blog-cum-marketing-Web site, “so I get bored EXTRA easy. So with everybody doin’ the same ol’ thing, wearing the same ol’ thing, sounding the same, my question is, how is everybody else NOT bored??” Tough talk, Ne-Yo, but that kind of rhetoric sort of demands you actually supersede convention. Year of the Gentleman, out today, does not reinvent the wheel, or even reinvent Ne-Yo. It differs little from his 2006 multi-platinum In My Own Words or last year’s Because of You, which won a Grammy. But across its twelve tracks, Year of the Gentleman conveys, mainly in straight-ahead narratives, the challenges and thrills of a mature love life, and does so seriously and, on occasion, inventively. There’s heartbreak, lies, and lust aplenty, but Ne-Yo strives for virtue where most court only vice. He’s said the album is his attempt to convey Rat Pack style and sophistication. But it’s not the musical style of Sinatra, Sammy, or Dino that he’s quoting—it’s the image Ne-Yo is selling, of door-holding respect, suaveness, and nice hats. Aided by production duo StarGate (Erik Hermansen and Mikkel S. Eriksen), the album’s sound owes much to the template Michael Jackson crafted with Rod Temperton and Quincy Jones in his golden era. Year of the Gentleman eschews the blustery basslines of most R&B for popping disco tempos, tinny guitars and horns, and clubby synth sweeps. He pulls off the heavy reference, in part because of his considerable talent as a writer.

Now 28, Ne-Yo first made a name for himself barely out of his teens, penning hits for Janet Jackson, Enrique Iglesias, and Celine Dion. More recent clients include Rihanna (“Unfaithful,” “Take a Bow”) and Beyoncé (“Irreplaceable”). Those earlier collaborations help explain Ne-Yo’s sort of automatic high profile, but they also explain his comfort with schmaltz, and why his songs often wander into epic cheese land (think “I Believe I Can Fly). Of course heartbroken keening and larger than life drama are almost requirements for R&B, but Ne-Yo is best his when anguish is couched in a peppy groove rather than a sluggish weeper.

The album’s got a few hits already. There’s the hooky, sorta feminist “Miss Independent,” which idolizes women’s success in the workplace over a clappy, stutter-step beat. It’s kind of the reverse of Kanye’s “Gold Digger,” but getting revved up because “her bills are paid on time” is, as explained here last week, an oddly fiscal kind of sex-drive. Lead-in “Closer” stars another dominant female, this time an irresistible temptress: “I can feel her on my skin / I can taste her on my tongue / she’s the sweetest taste of sin / the more I get the more I want! / She wants to own me / come closer, she says come closer” and the chorus explains, “I just can’t stop.” The high-range vocals and gentle disco of the track are the first taste of Michael Jackson homage, which continues throughout (“I always do at least one, every album”). Another potential hit, “Single,” gets clever with the double meaning of that word, with Ne-Yo reaching out of the song (or single) to satisfy (single) ladies (“baby I’ll be your boyfriend / be your boyfriend ’til the song goes off,”). Though Ne-Yo rarely trots out guest stars (to his great credit), this track features the backing harmonies, finger snaps, grunts, and, um, rapping of New Kids on the Block. “You are a Billboard, and the product you’re advertising is YOU,” he advises his blog readers, so why invite some other billboards to distract the customer?

The album misfires, at least lyrically, when it takes gentlemanly virtue and crams it down your throat. Ne-Yo finger-wags against going to bed angry (“Mad”) and rattles off treacly, groan-inducing superlatives about his lady atop an over-programmed wall-of-digi (“Part of the List”). “Why Does She Stay” finds the balance, as Ne-Yo plays the bad boyfriend over a snaking piano line and some spacey effects: “she’s so much better than me / I’m so unworthy of her!” It’s a great tune, but tragically there’s a follow-up, wherein the bad boyfriend (still unworthy Garth!) vows to change his ways and turn it all around (“Stop This World”). The only moment on the album where Ne-Yo truly cuts loose, and brings more to the game than just good manners is “So You Can Cry,” which admits its debt to influence with affected pops and clicks, like a scratchy old record, while Stevie Wonder woodwinds and harpsichord are underpinned by a rock beat. Ne-Yo claims Billy Joel is an influence, so who knows what the future holds?

Raphael Saadiq has made a career traversing the history of soul music. His first band, Tony! Toni! Toné!, helped invent New Jack Swing and, to a degree, the wet-hankie R&B that presaged Usher and his ilk. When that band broke up, Saadiq formed short-lived Lucy Pearl with En Vogue’s Dawn Robinson and Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest, then went solo, releasing his debut in 2002. The Grammy-nominated Instant Vintage was a sort of unashamed mission statement, focused on soul-drenched revivalism. In 2004 he released Raphael Saadiq as Ray Ray, a blaxploitation-inspired album. Along the way he’s produced artists including Macy Gray, the Roots, D’Angelo, John Legend, Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, and more. With all of them he’s pushed a classic aesthetic, heavy on organic sounds and light on studio magic, deeply indebted to the past and distrustful of easy formulas.
Yet never has Saadiq played on the past so heavily, so insistently, as on his latest, The Way I See It.

Recorded with no samplers or sequencers in sight, on vintage gear and with contributions from like-minded revivalists (Joss Stone appears on “Just One Kiss,”) and icons of the past (Ne-Yo may channel Stevie Wonder, but Stevie’s actually on this album, playing harmonica on “Never Give You Up”). Saadiq’s currently touring with a nine-piece band, complete with muscular horn section and backup singers, and his style reflects his content, as he’s taken to donning the slim suits and slimmer ties of young Marvin Gaye and pulling off reserved spins onstage like all the Four Tops rolled into one. In interviews, Saadiq is defensive about being reduced to a mere mimic. Lucky for him he’s a hell of a songwriter, and a talented producer, so the heavy reverb effects and blown-out sounding vocals sound vibrant, even fresh, while smart lyricism shouts out clearly from the present day.

“Let’s Take a Walk” is a good example; over a bluesy boogie Saadiq lays down some pretty contemporary frankness: “This place is crowded / Don’t know bout’ you / I need some sex / Some sex with you.” It can be fun to pick Saadiq’s influences. Here’s Curtis Mayfield (“Keep Marchin’ “), there’s Smokey (“Love That Girl”), and here come the Stylistics (“Oh Girl”). Yet while the album’s best track, “Sometimes,” borrows heavily from Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” it tells a stirring tale, apparently inspired by Saadiq’s mother, of the exhaustion encountered when universal hardships are compounded by the weight of racism. There’s a fine balance on the album between innocent love tunes, raging soul burners, and message songs. “Callin,” presents a bilingual doo-wop style, while “Staying In Love” is a great bit of dancefloor fire and funky “Big Easy” manages to cast Hurricane Katrina as the villain in a romance, tearing lovers apart.

What both of these artists summon is a sense of how traditions can be encountered without sacrificing an insistent cultural currency. Ne-Yo doesn’t take the kind of chances that yield music for the ages, but in such a stifled climate his reserved boundary-pushing is notable. Saadiq, though he’s clearly haunted by music-for-the-ages, or perhaps because he is, manages to create fresh sounds outside the prevailing trends of today. What they share is confidence—the confidence to say they’re bored and do something about it; the confidence to resist the constant imperative to drive on when you steer just as well in the rearview.