I think it was romance.
In several senses of the word, there is something romantic about the 6 R&B songs in my top 10 most listened songs on iTunes. Romantic in that they are all love songs, but moreover, romantic in how they evoke a yearning and fantasy that is aural as well as lyrical.
Some people don’t like to listen to music that talks too directly about romance or worst yet sex. Singing about it, conjuring up relatively stock, conventional, even old-fashioned scenarios of romance and courtship, as some R&B does, can be unappealing. It’s “corny” to do that, or somehow unattractive to be so unabashed, so smoothly embodied, so slick and “sexy.” Some prefer love songs that are “poetic” lyrically, or evoke courtship more abstractly, or better yet, would never evoke anything that could be earnestly described as “courtship.” Life is too messy to be captured by a slickly produced R&B song.
But I think it is precisely that starry-eyed, perhaps corny, perhaps overly earnest quality in R&B that I enjoy so much. And whatever one might think of the lyrics, modern R&B is not old-fashioned musically. The new vogue in sound for R&B is synth-heavy, dancey, futuristic, a melding of many decades’ worth of sounds. It’s night music.
One of my most listened songs is “Spotlight” by Gucci Mane featuring Usher, which is archetypical of the popular “surging synths” sound, which usually comes paired with hip-hop-style drums. “Spotlight” is technically a rap/R&B song, but it is indicative of the extent to which the two genres have intermarried that this rap song by Gucci Mane sounds much like a R&B song by Usher, “Love in this Club.” This is also due to both songs being produced by Polow da Don. Polow seems to take cues from the very influential producer, Timbaland, who, as far as I can tell, helped to innovate a very popular practice of pairing frenetic, up-tempo elements, synths/snare/hi-hat, with a slow, thumping bass drum. The effect is to make a song simultaneously bumpin’, sinister, and pretty.
Another reason why I dig R&B music to the extent that I would play it more than other things is that artists like The-Dream exist. The-Dream, with his producing partner, Tricky Stewart, has created a sound that is relentlessly hooky. A typical song by The-Dream seems to consist of nothing but hooks, from his vocal phrasings to the drums to the melodies to the adlibs. The effect is intoxicating and very addictive for me.
I attended a class in black music and African-American history at the University of Wisconsin, and one of the things the professor brought up was that certain artists, certain styles of music (he gave Luther Vandross and his “smooth-as-butter”-style R&B as an example) mean more to segments of the black community than they do to the culture at large. A white suburbanite might be into Kanye West, but is less likely to be up on Vandross.
I’d make the case that the R&B genre in general has yet to cross over to white audiences to the same extent as hip-hop/rap. I’m not a historian or a sociologist, so I’m not going to try and explain it, but it’s something I’ve observed. White males, in particular, seem less likely to earnestly listen to R&B of their own accord.
So why do I, unmistakably a white male, listen to it? My theory is that R&B, which can be traced (so says the black music professor) back to gospel, reminds me of growing up and going to a church with a mostly black congregation and a gospel choir. The gospel impulse – the arc of despair, faith, and redemption – is an optimistic one. And it could also be called a romantic one. That may sound dismissive to call it romantic, but I don’t mean it that way. Gospel and R&B, particularly R&B music that can be heard by a crowd in a club or by two people alone in a room, is a music of ephemeral unity. If that’s too earnest, corny, romantic, I am happy. What music do you listen to over and over?