To say LeToya's self-titled debut is perfect pop does the album a disservice. It's packed with distorted beats, oceanic harmonies, and miraculous songwriting--and the production makes it feel like the music is being broadcast from the precise center of your skull. "Tear da Club Up" combines an OutKast sample, a propulsive stuttered opening, and skittering beats worthy of Aphex Twin. "All Eyes on Me" features a titanic pseudo-Bollywood loop that pretty much defines "fat." Even the tossed-off bits--like a gorgeous, easygoing duet with a recording of Yolanda Adams on the outro--are spectacular. In other words, this album struts. It's one of the most accomplished and creative recordings I've ever heard, in any genre.
Alas, this is a minority opinion. LeToya's album, which came out this summer, generated huge popular excitement--in part because it was her first release since her split from Destiny's Child six years ago--and last month it was certified platinum. But critical response has been, um, reserved. Most outlets didn't even bother to review it. Those that did had little to say, and even less that was laudatory--RollingStone.com called the arrangements "tepid" and pronounced "Torn," the disc's first single, "passable."
Not that this was a big surprise. Few genres are as despised by critics as contemporary R & B. Pick a review of an urban diva at random and you'll likely be informed that her street posturing is laughable, her lyrics are monotonous, and her voice is an embarrassment. Even positive assessments often feel backhanded. A write-up of Kelis Was Here on PopMatters provides the singer's fans with talking points so they can counter their friends' inevitable skepticism. And last week in this paper, Jessica Hopper praised Ciara's latest . . . because it wasn't quite as bad as Gwen Stefani's.
Different strokes for different folks, of course. But only to a point. Many of the criticisms leveled against contemporary R & B are confused enough to be misleading. Take one of the most common contentions--that the performers' voices are lousy. I've heard this said of Ashanti, Ciara, Kelis, Teairra Mari--even, bizarrely, Mariah Carey. It's true that few current R & B performers can belt out a tune like Aretha. But the thing is, they don't need to and probably shouldn't try. Contemporary R & B has very little to do with classic 60s southern soul. Rather it's rooted in the high-gloss production and intensive harmonies of Motown and Gamble & Huff. There are a few exceptions: on her recent debut, Point of No Return, Shareefa deftly combines an old-school soul singer's grit with new-school studio sheen, and Faith Evans's unbelievable "Mesmerized" sounds like Stax on steroids. But in general, adding a big voice to giant production makes for a faux-Broadway disaster (hello, Christina Aguilera). Contemporary R & B just works better with less dramatic singers.
Tweet and Monica, for example, both have smooth, creamy voices that swirl languidly into the backing tracks. And Cassie's vocals might be kindly described as wispy. That doesn't hinder her a bit, though. On her self-titled debut she's so processed and multitracked she becomes just one more electronic element among many--part of a robotically flawless glucose-delivery system that makes Pizzicato Five sound clumsily robust.
Even if every singer in the genre could holler like Marion Williams, though, I doubt it would convert the music press. Critics want scrappy, they want subversive--or at the very least they don't want ingratiating. As Jim DeRogatis puts it in his chronicle of 90s music, Milk It!, "Rock 'n' roll is a spontaneous explosion of personality and it is an attitude." That just doesn't describe R & B at all. Misogyny is still the easiest way for rock, hip-hop, and country artists to demonstrate their edginess, but contemporary R & B is a female-dominated world--as such it doesn't really do that kind of "attitude." And it's impossible to pretend that a prepackaged product of reality TV like Danity Kane is in any way scrappy.
Though divas do occasionally talk about "keeping it real," the ambivalence about selling out that's used to signal authenticity in hip-hop and alternative barely exists in R & B. On the contrary, performers tend to cultivate a girly, XXXOOO relationship with their fans. This is why Beyonce can cheerfully shill for her latest Hollywood movie, Dreamgirls, on B'day and present it as an extraspecial bonus moment for her listeners. And it's why she and so many of her rivals use only their first names: it's both more intimate and more suggestive of a corporate brand.
Personally, I find this straightforward embrace of commercialism refreshing. Even if you insist on the dubious proposition that mass entertainment ought to be subversive, though, contemporary R & B does have something to offer. It's largely performed by lower-class women of color, many of them still teenagers--in fact it's one of the only ways any lower-class teenager can reach such a large audience. Sure, sometimes what they have to say isn't any more thoughtful than "this junk in the trunk'll put a bump in your pants," as Brooke Valentine quips in "Taste of Dis." But you don't have to listen to too many tracks to find more substantial material.
The common thread running through contemporary R & B isn't drippy sentiment or party-girl mindlessness. Instead the performers emphasize self-worth, independence, and strength, even as they acknowledge the importance of close relationships. Like classic country (or classic R & B for that matter) the music is about love, joy, loss, and--most of all--dignity. In "No Daddy," Teairra Mari expresses sympathy for and solidarity with sex workers without lapsing into moralism or pity--no mean feat. ("No I don't strip in the club / Nor trick in the club / But I got friends that do / So my girls that's getting the dough / The best way they know / No hate girl, I got you.") Mya's "Late" is a smart and funny account of an accidental pregnancy--with some tips on proper condom care thrown in. Cherish's "Oooh" is about teen abstinence. Kelis's "Ghetto Children" has a heartbreaking refrain--"No matter what teacher say to you / Ghetto children are beautiful"--that's just about the best two-line condemnation of our educational system you're likely to hear.
The best thing about contemporary R & B isn't the lyrics, though. It's the music. Sometime in the late 90s, R & B moved from the groove-based vibe of TLC and early Timbaland toward extremely complex song structures. Production capabilities, already phenomenal, climbed into the stratosphere. The result is music of painstaking craft: layers of sound morph and twist through multiple bridges and intricate arrangements while a multitracked vocalist sings rings around herself. Often it's impossible to tell which real instruments are involved, if any, just as it's difficult to know who's ultimately responsible for the final product--most songs seem to have three to five writers, not to mention the producers and executive producers.
Contemporary R & B is a bit like the shoegazer pop of the 90s and a bit like the most polished Philly soul, though in many ways it's more intense than either. Certainly it can sink into bombast or undifferentiated mush. At its best, though, it's unearthly. LeToya and her peers are stretching the boundaries of how music can be made and what it can sound like even as they remain firmly in a popular idiom. In this, they're not unlike the first great swing or rap performers--and just as in those cases, it may take a decade or two before critics start to appreciate them. In the meantime, everybody else has the opportunity to listen to some of the best American music ever made. And it's right on the Top 40 station of your choice.
For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dusan Reljin, Mark Seliger, Tony Duran.