Crisis and controversy in R&B: sifting through songs for the man underneath
The Rihanna attack remains a cloud over Chris Brown. Photo: Getty Images
It's there, fat and juicy, right on the track listing of the new Chris Brown album, Fortune - a song called Don't Judge Me. Since pleading guilty in 2009 to assaulting Rihanna, his girlfriend at the time, Brown has released three good to very good albums, each an opportunity for listeners to scavenge closely for hints about his inner life. A song called Don't Judge Me screams out for deeper consideration. Maybe Brown is finally ready to share.
No genre seems to demand this sort of magnifying glass as frequently as R&B these days. Brown, Usher and R. Kelly, the three biggest male stars in R&B, each of whom has a new album out, have each grappled with a major moral crisis in recent years that has shaped the direction of their careers. Their travails have left stains on their images, usually in inverse proportion to the amount of impact on their music.
For Brown, the Rihanna attack remains a cloud over him, even as his popularity has continued to grow. R. Kelly has largely changed tacks since he was acquitted in 2008 of child-pornography charges, emphasising neutered classic soul over the more salacious music he specialized in previously. Only Usher has faced his controversies — allegations of infidelity, a nasty divorce — head on, though to be fair, they were moral and personal, not criminal.
Usher's vocals betray the smallest amount of trouble. Photo: Phil Hearne
All three artists, though, highlight the seeming impossibility of listening at a remove. Assessing their work becomes a complicated, many-layered task with judgments not just for the artist but the critic too. The temptation to parse lyrics down to the smallest particle, searching for nuggets of intentions unspoken, for clues to alleged crimes, is overwhelming. Can a conversation ever truly be solely about the music?
Of these three, only Usher even offers that possibility. Over the years Usher's voice has congealed into one of the most soothing in R&B, and on his often-great new album Looking 4 Myself, he puts it in service of a range of styles, from high-energy dance anthems to post-Weeknd narcotic falsetto soul to skeletal faux-Gotye pop to a song that interpolates Billy Joel's Uptown Girl. Usher's vocals betray the smallest amount of trouble, even as his lyrics convey the most, though this is probably his least intimate record since his 2004 smash Confessions. He's the most malleable R&B star, and also the most at ease. Climax, the first single from this album, is pure unflustered seduction in the singing, but the lyric is tragic. "I gave my best/it wasn't enough," he coos. "We made a mess of what used to be love/so why do I care at all?"
Wounds have become a permanent part of Usher's repertory; he's the rare artist emboldened by his missteps. R. Kelly, on the other hand, seems to have been cowed by his experience. Kelly's implicit response to this issue has been to cleanse his music altogether, making it clear that if you're judging the music, you're really judging the man (and doing so more harshly than a jury did). Usher has done the opposite, cleansing himself through confession.
R Kelly's album Write Me Back.
Write Me Back, Kelly's new album, is for him tepid - which is to say, completely technically accomplished, but lacking the snake-like vocal slither and moist subject matter that mark him at his most virtuosic. On this album, maybe his least ambitious, he's like a boxer with one arm tied to his side.
Like his last album, which came as close as Kelly can get to releasing a gospel record without actually singing songs about God, this one is a genre exercise, in which Kelly displays a fluency in the sound of Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra, the music of Chicago's steppers and other vintage soul styles. His legal issues, though resolved, seem to have taken away Kelly's ability to be romantically forceful or to use any of the various unfortunate metaphors that link sex to violence. Even if he is expressing naughty sentiments, he's cloaking them with the good will of throwback soul, a style people treat as neutral.
The moment that pulses the most intensely on this album - Green Light, in which Kelly attempts to save the day for a dissatisfied woman ("What was you saying he don't do for you?") — is flattened by the fact that Kelly employs his most Sam Cooke-like voice, cutting the heat with a dose of integrity.
In part these choices may be the result of old age, though in concert last year Kelly didn't shy away from his baser impulses. For another singer an album like this might be an experiment, but for Kelly it looks like the beginning of a long cold winter.
No matter how closely you listen to Kelly's albums, you'll almost certainly never divine any of his feelings about the trials he went through. That's one form of inarticulateness. Brown, for his part, has tried another way. He's been the least articulate in response, sneaking resentful lyrics onto his albums while still largely failing to address in public the events that almost made him a pariah.
The slick and energetic Fortune continues that trend, and no, Don't Judge Me is not about his public image. At least not that part of his public image. "You're hearing rumors about me," he sings, "and you can't stomach the thought/ of someone touching my body/ when you're so close to my heart." Even Brown's confessions are boasts of his sexual prowess.
Listening to Brown at the deepest level balances aesthetic pleasures, when they happen, with superego-like self-protection against aligning oneself too closely with someone who's done such heinous things. To say nothing of reconciling with the titillation that goes hand in hand with watching someone operate flamboyantly and with nerve at the margins of accepted behavior — not his crime, which is inexcusable, but his brazenness.
This year Brown and Rihanna released a pair of remixes in which each appeared on the other's song. It was a shocking and troubling moment. And as the highly sexually charged remix of Rihanna's Birthday Cake became something of a hit, with heavy radio play, it became even more so — no longer a fleeting phenomenon to be commented on, but a part of R&B's fabric that had to be lived with.
There's a moment near the end of the song where Brown starts rapping, beginning his verse with the lecherous come-on, "Doggy want the kitty." It's a jolt, to be sure, not just for the naked lust on display, but also because it's one of the most textured and, yes, exciting moments in pop this year. It's effective, and also deeply wrong, a pseudo-sexual reconciliation of an abuser with his victim, played out in an arena of presumed truth, but actual fiction, rendered numb by the familiar power of repetition. Whatever frisson the moment offers is fleeting, but it is a frisson nonetheless.
It's impossible to listen to without, first, hearing the craft on display, and then, leaning in closely to check for subtext, and, finally, recoiling a bit after thinking about why this great moment should probably never have happened at all. If we stop listening, it might be easier to forget.
NEW YORK TIMES