I managed to catch a ride back to Brooklyn in a car Friday morning, and as a result got to spend some quality time switching back and forth between Hot 97 and Power 105, the nearly identical Hip Hop radio stations in New York. There’s actually some pretty great songs making the rotations right now, as there tends to be around this time of year, but for this post I’d like to focus on a subject I feel gets neglected far too often: Writing in R&B. It exists, and in my opinion some people are still quite good at it. Let’s go.
Ne-yo- When you’re Mad
Ne-yo is not a great R&B singer in many of the classic senses. He’s not really a stylist, doesn’t have a great voice and I get very little presence from him. Still my favorite working R&B artist not named R. Kelly. This is a fairly old song, (off his debut In my own Words from 2006) but I include it because for me this is the standard for what R&B should aspire to. Ne-yo has plenty of better songs from an aesthetic standpoint but in terms of concept and content this is his best work. As a result of this song at one point or another I’ve been convinced he’s written every song posted below. In general, R&B takes a very wide lens approach to a standard set of relationship situations. Ne-yo breaks the mold here. On the surface it’s a song about a fight with your girl, but specifically it’s about a moment in the course of the fight when she looks extremely cute mid-rage. There are a number of ways in which this is remarkable to me, for one it’s a great way to diffuse a fight. More importantly, Ne-yo writes an entire song around a small moment in the course of his relationship that anyone can relate to. It’s Annie Hall vs. the schlock that calls itself romantic comedy 30 years later.
Rihanna- Take a Bow
Probably my favorite Rihanna song. (not a difficult title to attain) Ne-Yo actually wrote this one. It’s based on the concept of performance in a relationship. It works in terms of a metaphor for the song to work around as Rihanna tells this dude off, and as a scathing critique of how this apparently dishonest, adulterous partner approached the relationship. What sets it apart from the standard break-up track is how viciously this dude gets clowned by Rihanna. Not to be a dick but when I found out it was written by a guy it made sense.
Jazmine Sullivan- Bust Your Windows
Broke the windows out your car
I heard this song for the first time Friday. I know next to nothing about Jazmine Sullivan other then the fact that she has a hit on her hands. This song has that old school, Winehouse-Ronson, Sean Kingston “Suicidal” vibe. The whole song is about……busting the windows out a dude’s car. Once again, a break-up song but focusing on a specific action, which becomes the embodiment of her feelings and a means of empowerment.
T-Pain (ft. Ludacris)- Chopped & Screwed
This song will sicken some purists who would have you believe DJ Screw turns in his grave every time this shit is on the radio. A friend and I had that very discussion on our ride home and decided Screw would be amused/honored. The song is built around “Chopped & Screwed”, the technique the Houston DJ pioneered in terms of physically chopping and screwing throughout, and as a term meaning getting played by a chick. They easily could’ve taken the obvious route on this song because both chopped and screwed are stand-ins for getting fucked, but they didn’t and as a result this is one of the funniest songs I’ve heard in a long time. T-Pain sets up two hypotheticals in which he believes he’s got a chick ready to go until she pulls out at the last moment. The second verse in particular is hilarious. It’s such a light hearted affair but sung with utter conviction, it’s like great dead pan humor. Ludacris comes with a more general take on the concept and more than anything he says specifically it’s always great to hear him ride a beat. I’ve always thought of Luda as a Southern Busta Rhymes, now you can add longevity to the parallels, still haven’t heard his new album yet but it’s at the top of my list. What I really like about this song is it’s a step away from Superman lover narratives or being a whiny bitch, the R&B dichotomy for male protagonists as I see it. It’s a great human moment, perfect for a fruitless late night walk home from the bar when you just have to smile and laugh at yourself.