The calendar’s arrival at June 1st means that we’ve made it to another Black Music Month and all forms of media will be commemorating it with television specials, articles, music tributes, blocks of classic soul videos, concerts, etc. But after hearing Ne-Yo’s new single “Beautiful Monster” and subsequently listening to the radio for 45 minutes, I’m confused about the state of Black music and asking myself (and now you), who stole the soul?
Later this month we’ll celebrate the one year passing of Michael Jackson, who is largely responsible for the soulless music we’re hearing these days (don’t get it twisted, I loved the man too). Everyone who picks up a microphone these days is aiming for the ghost of Thriller and the iconic status “The King of Pop” achieved. Michael Jackson was a once in a lifetime talent, whose career trajectory was extraordinary and unique, as were the consequences he suffered due to his fame. What he gained in wealth, popularity and stature was at a cost not many will be willing to pay, his soul, literally and figuratively, which is partially why his sound didn’t translate to the times as he got older and we became lost in the sideshow of his life and weren’t really checking for album release dates.
Music sales as a whole have lagged since the digital revolution, but Black music has seen the sharpest decline, most likely because we love the bootleg man so much. To offset the wages lost due to the decrease in sales, artists have had to make their music more appealing to a wider audience, hence taking the funk and the soul out of their records making them more palatable to Top 40 radio. Take a listen to Beyonce’s debut album Dangerously in Love, then listen to I am…Sasha Fierce immediately afterwards and note the change as she went from a sultry 21-year-old to middle-of-the-road sexpot. Compare and contrast albums by Ne-Yo, John Legend, Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys and Usher as evidence of other artists chasing that crossover success minus the formula of what was first loved.
The way I see it, we’re in need of the third soul music revolution of my lifetime. The first was in the 80’s after Michael Jackson wrote the blueprint, Whitney Houston and Prince shot to the top of the charts from the middle of the road, Luther toed the line and many artists were left unsure of what direction to take their music. Then the sound of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Teddy Riley and Babyface ushered a new wave of R&B that was wildly popular and paid homage to its soul roots with a new jack swing. R&B lost its way again in the 90’s, this time to the global emergence of hip-hop, but was rescued by the burgeoning neo-soul sounds of D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Angie Stone and Maxwell and others.
Fast forward nearly 15 years and R&B music has become as commercialized, compartmentalized and manufactured as its hip-hop offspring, as much of what you will hear on your ride to work or when your remote rests on a video station lacks the passion of the music you grew up on and what your parents conceived you to. It seems as if men and women don’t even like one another these days, like we’re mere sex toys or the source of resentment. Most of what we hear these days echoes the oversexed, materialistic, tunnel vision view of hip-hop, except over slightly smoother grooves. It’s not all bad, but a quick listen to Trey Songz’ early work and you’ll hear remnants of the soulful 70’s, listen to “Neighbors Know My Name” and you’ll hear a tired R. Kelly retread. Speaking of the R, he is a classic example of what’s happening with R&B these days and the reluctance to grow with your audience. Of R. Kelly’s last five albums, two (Chocolate Factory and Happy People/You Saved Me) have had a mature sound to match his initial audience, instead he’s tried to continue to woo the teenyboppers by making grooves to their liking and his sales have suffered as a result (Dude you’re 40!).
I listened to Mary J. Blige’s duet with Trey Songz “We Got Hood Love” and thought it was uninspired attempt at a love song as it lacked chemistry, which is par for the course these days, most duets lack the fervor exhibited on such classics like “Fire & Desire” or “If This World Were Mine” (either version) and even “You Don’t Have to Cry”. It almost seems as if two people are thrown on the songs together by the record company in hopes of making a buck, hell, they probably aren’t even in the same country these days.
Another aspect of music that’s missing is the group. Whatever happened to trio, quartet and quintet? I hope you’re not counting Pretty Ricky or Day 26, I’m talking about real singing groups that matched in harmony, outfits and choreography, not those talent show winners we’ve been getting over the last few years. The group has always been a staple in Black music and for a time, outshone solo acts as their synchronized choreography and layered vocals were stars in their own right. The public’s fixation on particular group members seems to drive a wedge between the members, plus the attraction of not splitting the take three, four, or five ways doesn’t help either. How have we gotten to a point when there’s no room for New Edition, En Vogue and Boyz II Men?
So, we lose out again, as we’re receiving an inferior product and yearning for yesteryear when Stevie, Marvin, Curtis, Chaka, Donny, Rose Royce, Minnie Riperton, Al Green, Teddy P., The O’Jays, and Aretha Franklin dug deep into their bellies to touch us in our souls like a preacher on Sunday morning. Soul music isn’t entirely dead, as Musiq Soulchild, Anthony Hamilton, Leela James Angie Stone and others have all done their best alongside lesser known artists to maintain the legacy, but none of these artists have been huge stars, though a few have enjoyed great successes. Last year’s release by Maxwell breathed life into the genre, coupled with a new release from Erykah Badu, the impending album from Marsha Ambrosius (formerly of Floetry) and we actually have hope, now if D’Angelo can overcome his demons and return, we may have something. Until then, I’m digging in the crates…
About the writer
Between rhetoric and reality is where you’ll find The World According to Teef. Plainfield, NJ native Al-Lateef Farmer is a self-styled social documentarian that tackles everything from politics to pop culture, Reality TV to relationships with a brand of social commentary rooted in independent thought that is unfiltered, uncensored, unforgiving, but never unreal! Take a trip to his world at http://worldaccording2teef.blogspot.com/