Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Rhythm & Snooze

I get peeved at this R & B
With its musical illiteracy
Just packed full of gimmicry
No originality
I'm goin' outta my mind ...

(To be sung to the tune of "Suffocate" by J. Holiday)

THERE'S THIS HORRIBLE R & B song, currently seeing endless radio rotation, that's emblematic of what's so wrong with the genre these days -- and its listening audience, assuming that this is the stuff they actually prefer. This purported love song, "Suffocate," suffers from many of the problems that plague most of its recent counterparts: the copycat beat and sound, the four-chord monotony, the plodding dreariness, the constricted melodic range. Most of the melody consists of a single note; in its more adventurous phrases the singer might actually cover three or even four notes).

The vocals present the annoying whiny-boy persona that has become cliche. And then, on top of the insipid tone are the inane lyrics:

I can’t breathe when you talk to me
I can’t breathe when you’re touching me
I suffocate when you’re away from me
So much love you take from me
I’m going outta my mind ...

I don't care how caught up you may be in the throes of teenage infatuation: If you are literally having problems breathing when your crush talks to you, you'd better either get yourself checked for asthma or allergies -- or give her a mint and tell her to get that halitosis looked at.
More than ever, R & B is dumbed down -- even if one accounts for the fact that its audience has been dumbed down as well. The bright spots, such as Keiysha Cole and old-timers like R. Kelly, are the exception to the rule. When I grew up in the '80s and '90s music was performed not always by adults, but at an adult level, in the sense that it was mature and well-crafted.

While cleaning and trying to organize my stuff recently, I rediscovered my cache of old music tapes. You know, the mix tapes of your favorite songs that you taped off the radio or from library-borrowed LPs back in the day. With the rare exception -- including some dance mixes from Q101 -- I stopped caring enough to tape stuff off the radio around 1998. Going through my eclectic collection (Tears for Fears here, the Gap Band there, Common, SOS Band, Led Zeppelin, and here's a little Mos Def!) was like a trip back in time. How strange and different were the radio stations of then and now, especially the urban formats such as WCGI. In just over 10 years, it's as if someone pulled a plug and let out all the soul -- not to mention the music -- out of the stuff that we still call rhythm and blues.

Listening to this stuff, I found myself wondering: Where have they locked up all the real artists, writers, arrangers, producers? The ones who came up in the '70s and '80s, even early '90s -- who knew their way around an instrument or two, maybe more? (In addition to singing, Stevie Wonder and Prince often played all of the parts on their records.) How did commercial R & B go, within the space of just a few years, from the sophisticated sounds of Angela Winbush, Quincy Jones, Jam & Lewis, Teddy Riley, Tony! Toni! Tone!, Bell Biv Devoe, Al B. Sure, early Puffy, early R. Kelly, to the faux-soul whining and hollow vocal acrobatics that dominate today? 

How did we go from masterfully melded rhythm and skillfully crafted, intricate melodies and harmonies, to hollow, mindless chants where entire songs get by on barely five notes and three, two or no chords? To high digital sheen but no emotional content? To subsonic bass, yet in every other respect, complete shallowness?

Why have even those who used to produce good music -- hello, Diddy? -- now selling bottom-of-the-barrel shlock? (Well I know the answer in P. Diddy's case -- "because he can" and because the music marketing machine as it exists today rewards image, hype and payola, not art.)

And I'm not even getting into the lyrics yet.

Nowadays, "producers" (are there any songwriters still working, let alone arrangers?) seem to think technology can do everything. Computers can do a lot, but they can't compose or arrange or emote; they can only help those who have those skills. There's more processing power and speed, more features, more plug-ins, more effects, vaster digital sound libraries than ever in the history of man; and less artistry.

Yeah, I'm getting old, but what's that got to do with it? I also like new music that's good and creative. It's just that you can't find it that easily any more.