To say that the way we experience music has changed dramatically over the last 20 years would be a profound understatement. Just in my lifetime, we’ve gone from records to cassette tapes to CDs to MP3s and YouTube clips. We’ve gone from radio to satellite radio to Pandora. Professional recording equipment has become available at commercial prices, and as a result there has never been more music produced annually than is being produced right now. So how have all of these changes affected the music being written and recorded today? Before I go willy-nilly into my own judgments of the current R&B music landscape, I will try to map out the scene as best I can into distinct categories.
Soul. Soul is still alive, barely. Thank god. In my opinion, the greatest music ever recorded is soul music. Ray Charles, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Temptations, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke. I don’t need to continue. Two men are keeping classic soul alive: Raphael Saadiq and Mayer Hawthorne. Saadiq has made his mark in R&B over the course of 20 years or so, from Tony! Toni! Tone! to Lucy Pearl to his solo works of the last decade. If you are familiar with these acts, you know that Saadiq has explored the entire realm of R&B – new jack swing, funk, neo soul, the whole deal. His latest album, The Way I See It, sounds like it came from the 1960s, and that’s why I classify it as soul rather than neo-soul. My favorite tracks include “Love That Girl,” “100 Yard Dash,” and “Never Give You Up.” I hope Saadiq continues on his soul jones. We need it.
Mayer Hawthorne, the other soul evangelist, has little in common with Saadiq. Hawthorne is a newcomer on the music scene. He is white. He used to be a rapper. On the other hand, the two artists’ respective wardrobes show signs of similarity. Mayer Hawthorne’s debut album, A Strange Arrangement, shines from start to finish with its signature soul sound. Its producer deserved a Grammy. My three favorite songs are “One Track Mind,” “A Strange Arrangement,” and “When I Said Goodbye.” There are other artists that dabble in soul, but not enough. Most R&B artists fall under the contemporary R&B/Neo Soul category.
Contemporary R&B basically means any R&B produced in the last 15 years. In the 1990s Neo Soul was a flourishing subcategory thanks to D’Angelo, Badu, and Lauryn Hill, but today Neo Soul tracks are not significant enough/numerous enough to be distinguished as a category. Neo Soul is dead. John Legend has gone poppy, D’Angelo is MIA, Musiq Soulchild has gone techno & b, and Anthony Hamilton hasn’t released anything in a while. Even Maxwell’s latest release has a more contemporary sound than a soul sound. Thus, we have contemporary R&B, which consists of mainstream radio hits like Jaheim’s “Finding My Way Back” and Jasmine Sullivan’s “Lions, Tigers, and Bears,” as well as lesser known tracks like Raheem Devaughn’s “I Don’t Care” and Kem’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Other artists include Dwele, Alicia Keys, Eric Benet, Ginuwine, Tank, Will Downing, Chrisette Michelle, and India Arie. Lots of artists that have produced great material in the past, but are struggling to come up with the goods in this decade.
With every ending there is a new beginning. Neo Soul has been replaced with Techno & B, as best evidenced by the recent songs from Musiq Soulchild and Usher. As we say in twitterspeak, Techno & B is trending bigtime. I use the term techno generally to mean computerized sounds, which may or may not explicitly resemble “techno” music. Essentially, it is dance and/or pop electronica elements infused into R&B. Think Usher’s DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love and Rihanna’s Rude Boys, songs designed solely to be played at nightclubs. Maybe Club & B is a better term. Either way, at some point we have to consider if this music can fall under the R&B headline at all. Another question to wrestle with is that since contemporary R&B has relied on produced beats and instruments instead of real instruments since the 1980s, is Techno & B unique enough to deserve its own subcategory? I say yes.
I would say artists such as Chris Brown, Ne-Yo, Trey Songs, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Ryan Leslie, and The-Dream comprise this category. For the most part, I find Techno & B nauseating, but there are actually a few gems here. Jamie Foxx’s “Fall For Your Type” and Miguel’s “Teach Me” stand out for different reasons but are both brilliant in their own way. Listen to Teach Me a few times, and then check out Me’shell Ndegeocello’s “Love Song #3.” Gotta love the R&B electric guitar…thank you Prince.
Perhaps the real challenge for R&B is more a matter of access than of a degrading product. In general, the music being provided to us just doesn’t quite cut it. With all of the technological developments, music is more widely available but good songs are also more difficult to track down. We have to agressively seek them out. This requires a significant amount of time and effort. So, what can we do? My advice is, when you find a new R&B song you love, share it! Word spreads pretty quickly nowadays.
I discovered a new music venue in the East Bay on Friday night called The New Parish. It’s a gem of a place tucked away on 18th street just peripheral to the heart of downtown Oakland. I got lost trying to find it, and ended up driving in circles a few times before I realized where it was. As nondescript of an entrance as you could imagine, I walked up and it felt like I was about to enter a secret society meeting. Based on their typical lineups, it’s no wonder I hadn’t heard of the place. From what I can tell, they present an eclectic variety of pop, hip hop, indie rock, and alternative performers, but Friday it was a playbill made for me.
I arrived just as soul singer Martin Luther was stepping on stage with his band to perform Beatles covers. Sounds like an unusual combination, but my friend informed me that Luther played one of the main roles in the film “Across the Universe,” a story loosely based around 34 different songs by the British sensations. What struck me most about the performance was the transferability of the Beatles’ old rock songs to a more soulful and more modern genre. While My Guitar Gently Weeps was the highlight for me. After striking up a conversation with the woman next to me, I asked her if she was a fan of the Beatles. She replied not really, but admitted that she probably would not have known that the songs Luther sang were not his own R&B compositions. The point of this discussion is simple: a good tune can conform to any genre and grab its listeners.
Martin Luther has a likable voice, and one I could not quite pin down. Slightly nasally, slightly raspy, but each time I was ready to underestimate him he would bust out a high note and leave me in quiet admiration. I would not say the same for his band. Guitar, bass, bassoon, piano, cello, and percussion musicians all shared the stage, but none were quite up to the level of their maestro. As they jumped into a version of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s In Need of Love Today,” I picked up a few bum notes in the song’s four part harmony intro. Okay, I’m a hard ass, I know, but I go to performances because I want to hear better musicians than myself, and with the exception of Luther that was not the case. Fortunately for me, Martin Luther was only the opening act. Headlining the show was none other than the transcendent Me’shell Ndegeocello.
I had pleasuring of attending Me’shell’s concert at Yoshi’s last summer, which only heightened my already high opinion of her as a musician and an artist. In June, the theme of her show was Gil Scott Heron covers. If you don’t know who Heron is, especially if you love hip hop and/or spoken word poetry, go look him up. I’ve only heard recordings of Gil, but Me’shell’s live version of “The Bottle” was phenomenal. Me’shell is an expert at putting her own spin on existing songs. She also did a knockout version of Ready for the World’s “Love You Down.” As before, this show was based upon covers of another significant musical figure – Prince.
Whereas Luther instilled an introspective vibe with his slower renditions of 1960s music, Me’shell brought the noise on some of Prince’s older and more obscure tracks. Basically, she rocked out. Which brings me back to my discussion of The New Parish. The club is constructed in what I would call a Fillmore style, with limited seating areas along the walls and a large dance floor in front of the stage. It also boasts a nice second level with a balcony and more seating areas. I give it an A for design. The atmosphere was very positive, and because the show was sold out there were quite a lot of people in the house.
Besides listening to the music, obviously, I spent a good deal of time trying to gauge the crowd. Everyone seemed attentive, but I couldn’t tell if they liked the music or not, despite their considerable applause after each song. Me’shell (herself a singer and bassist), guitarist Chris Bruce, and drummer Deantoni Parks moved as a unit through the rhythms of each piece, with no shortage of funk. This was the kind of show during which at the very least your feet can’t help but tap along. And with the dance floor to boot, I expected to see dudes gettin’ down on it. I was wrong.
Probably three or four folks were actually dancing, and I tried to figure out why this was the case. Maybe the beat was too quick. Maybe they couldn’t figure out some of the time changes that Deantoni was throwing in. Maybe they didn’t care for that rendition of Prince. But after every song they clapped enthusiastically, and during the next song barely moved. I wanted to dance, and I did a little bit, but I had half a mind to shove my wave into the front of the crowd, grab a mike, and tell everyone to get their ass moving. It was befuddling. I asked the woman next to me why no one was dancing. She had no idea. She was kind of at a loss for words the whole night, but that’s a different blog…
I will admit not all of the songs she played were to my liking, but they were sure as hell danceable. I love the way that Me’shell loses herself in the music sometimes, and I only wish her audience could have reciprocated. Two other items are worth mentioning. First, while I give Parish an A on design, I give it a C on sound tech. They took almost an hour to break down Luther’s set and set up Me’shell’s. Me’shell probably asked the sound guy to fix x, y, or z every other song. At a professional venue, that is unacceptable, not only for the performers’ sake but for the audience’s. And secondly, back to the audience’s reception of the music, I never found out how they could exhibit such an appreciation for it and yet display no visible enthusiasm while listening. I’ll have to think about this a bit more.
I just got back from a weekend in Las Vegas, which got me thinking about the history of music in that somewhat fabled town. What kind of musical history does Vegas have? Which performers do we associate with Vegas? Frank Sinatra, Wayne Newton, Celine Dion are names that come to mind. I credit those connotations in large part to the motion picture industry. Think of all the films that juxtapose scenes in Las Vegas with tunes such as “I’ve Got the World On a String,” or “Come Fly With Me,” songs made popular by Frank. There must be at least 10, although I can’t think of any off the top of my head. “Las Vegas” the television show definitely conforms to this theory. I’ve gotten hooked on that program, which I suppose is preferable to getting hooked on the real thing.
That I think of Wayne Newton is due in full to one of the memorable movies of my childhood, Vegas Vacation. Though not quite the classic that is Christmas Vacation, Vegas Vacation nonetheless provides high quality entertainment for 95 minutes or so. If you’ve seen it, you’ll know the scene I’m talking about – during which Newton serenades Ellen perhaps a bit too seductively. In fact, this portion of the movie is not exactly fictional. It turns out that Wayne Newton made his career in Las Vegas and is a Vegas performer through and through. Believe it or not, his nickname is Mr. Las Vegas and he has performed over 30,000 solo shows during the course of his 40 year career, according to Wikipedia. Can you name a Wayne Newton song? Don’t worry, neither can I.
Now, Celine I vaguely remember as appearing for a stint in Las Vegas after having already reached the pinnacle of the music industry with that sappy song from Titanic. Well, apparently Celine’s little Vegas stint lasted for 5 years, during which she played at Caesar’s Palace 5 nights a week. Dion’s act was insanely popular, as it grossed a ridiculous $400 million dollars when all said and done. Jeeezus. I’m going back to Vegas…
I sang in public last week for the first time in nine months. It went fine. If anything was wrong, it was psychological. It’s no easy thing to leave campus as a well-established singer and find yourself a nobody in the real world. At Wesleyan, I was in an a cappella group, a hip-hop band, a chamber choir, and I produced my own solo show a la senior recital style. In the bay, well, I got nothin’. Not that I don’t have options. There are several choirs around, as well as a cappella groups, but for some reason I have not taken the plunge on either endeavor.
I’ve realized how reliant I was upon my friends and musical community at Wes, and how easy it was to get involved in music. Plus, how much free time I had. In fact, sometimes when I reminisce I valorize my education in temporal terms. Talk about paying for freedom! All of you who hate schoolwork may dispute that angle, but this is my blog so you can go to hell. Just kidding
When you work a full time job, most nights you just want to come home and relax. So reality has set in, and I’ve found myself asking, what can I actually do alone, all by myself? Enter my parents’ old Kawai upright.
Like many children, I was subjected to the torture of piano lessons many years ago. Well, it wasn’t torture, but I never exactly found myself wanting to practice. Too many scales, finger exercises, and ancient compositions for my taste. But now the rules have changed. I can play what I want to play! Over the past couple months, I have been learning how to play r&b tunes like “Drown In My Own Tears,” “Ordinary People,” “Ribbon In the Sky”, etc. It’s been fun and I have improved drastically. Naturally, my goal is to learn songs that I could and would sing, as Ray Charles, John Legend, and Stevie Wonder have done. Sounds simple, right? Nooo
If you’ve never tried to sing and play at the same time, let me break the news to you: it’s friggin’ difficult! First, there is the problem of mastering both aspects separately, which is hard enough. But on top of that, trying to combine the two while perfectly syncing the rhythm…well, that’s a whole ‘nother story.
I could go on but I’ll summarize: I’m on the lookout for a piano player…
Let’s get it started in here. I know, I know. I’m actually not a Black Eyed Peas fan, but the phrase seemed apropos. Okay, that’s the second time I’ve used apropos in 24 hours, probably not a good thing. Anyways, welcome to my blog! Tag along as I prepare for a fun musical adventure in Sweden this fall!