The purpose of this editorial is to reach an agreement on this website’s relationship with the genre known as R&B, to reflect on our past and future coverage of R&B and to inform our readership that although we estimate its existence, our allegiance lies with rap and hip-hop music. For our readers to understand what exactly the problem is, I will have to go into detail, so your patience is appreciated.
From my personal point of view it’s quite simple – I like some R&B in my life, but I can’t get enough of hip-hop. When it comes to my listening habits, R&B has to compete with a handful of other genres, and they all have to compete with hip-hop. If pressed, I could probably come up with a knowledgeable R&B review every now and then. But take a look at the name of our website. There’s rarely been a publication with a name as self-explanatory as www.RapReviews.com. This is what we do, we review rap records. What you see is what you get. If I was in charge of promoting the latest crooning hopeful, the thought of wasting promo material on RapReviews.com wouldn’t cross my mind. But that’s exactly what happens, we increasingly receive R&B records. We get those albums and singles in the mail whether we want them or not because it is the industry’s long-standing intent to sell two different genres – rap and R&B – to the same audience. These days, when the artists themselves are among the keenest advocates of this cross-promotion with their endless featurings, it’s not easy to realize that there could be something wrong with that.
You see, I’m anxious to protect the legacy of hip-hop. I’m proud of the place it secured for itself in history. As a genre, as a musical language, rap was and is a fairly new and unique phenomenon in the history of popular music. Anybody who takes the time to study hip-hop’s genesis will realize that it didn’t appear out of nowhere. But what happened in the Bronx in the later ’70s was the birth of something greater, of a movement, of a different approach to musical and verbal expression. I would hate to see it dissolve into some bastard child of R&B and rap that bears the dubious name ‘urban music’. There used to be a time when record stores stacked hip-hop records as a subset of R&B out of convenience or ignorance. Nowadays they do it because the media and the market tell them to. As a fan, I want hip-hop to be more. I want it to be acknowledged as a genre of its own. I get upset when people refer to rappers as singers because they don’t realize or care that these are two different things. Vice versa, it angers me when Bobby Brown, when in a report introduced as Whitney Houston’s husband, is called a rapper, which is just one of many instances where skewed semantics hint at a lack of understanding of the language of rap and the culture of hip-hop. The media is already inconsiderate enough, at RapReviews.com we insist that there is a difference between a rapper and a singer.
The irony is that I myself fell many times for what I now object against. Yes, I own records by Mary J. Blige, Usher, Monica, R. Kelly, TLC, Aaliyah, Blackstreet, Ashanti, SWV, Kelis, Destiny’s Child, Amerie, etc. I don’t regret at all buying them. But I realize that I might have purchased them because they decided to add a little hip-hop to their R&B. It’s even more ironic to remind myself of the fact that a few of my adored old school crews had singing routines in their repertoire. The Furious Five. The Fantastic Five. The Force MC’s. They harmonized in every sense of the word, before some industry type could tell them to try singing instead of rapping because this rap thing was a fad anyway. So in no way am I trying to be disrespectful towards soul music or even just contemporary R&B. But MC’s, DJ’s and beatmakers had to fight hard to get where they’re at. Often facing adversity from other musicians who flat out denied their musicianship, radio stations who refused to offer them airtime, record labels who didn’t know how to produce nor promote them. Musically, hip-hop was for a long time anti-establishment, and the feeling was mutual.
If that sounds like I’m holding grudges from yesteryear, then that may very well be the case. I realize, however, that rap not only needed inner strength to persevere, it also needed outside help to escape the musical ghetto it both created for itself and was pushed into. When it came to crossing over and expanding beyond the core audience, R&B offered itself as a natural companion. Melle Mel was a pioneer in that regard as well, as his 1984 duet with Chaka Khan (“I Feel For You”) was the first guest appearance of a rapper on a soul singer’s record. Years later Rakim and Big Daddy Kane joined Jody Watley (“Friends”) and Patti Labelle (“Feels Like Another One”), respectively. And if you think Sean Combs was the first to produce rap and R&B under the same umbrella, think again, because Russell Simmons thought of it first, scoring considerable success with singers such as Alyson Williams and Oran ‘Juice’ Jones on his Def Jam label in the late ’80s. Around the same time N.W.A put on Michel’le, foreshadowing the liberal use of singing at Death Row. Since then, Bad Boy has built an empire on the successful juxtaposition of acts like Total, The Notorious BIG, Faith Evans, The LOX, 112, Black Rob, Carl Thomas and Mase. What’s more, many notable hip-hop dynasties can be associated with one or several singers. The Juice Crew and Cold Chillin’ had TJ Swan, the Wu-Tang Clan has Tekitah and Blue Raspberry, Tha Dogg Pound had Nate Dogg and Jewell, The Click and Sick Wid It have Levitti, South Central Cartel had LV, D-Block has Tre Williams, the Dungeon Fam has Sleepy Brown, No Limit had O’Dell, Murder Inc. has Ashanti, the Def Squad had Dave Hollister, the Terror Squad has Tony Sunshine, Masta Ace Inc. had Leshea, etc.
Maybe nothing speaks more of the proximity of rap and R&B than the celebrity couples that the past years have spawned – Erykah Badu and Andre 3000, Nas and Kelis, P. Diddy and J. Lo, etc. Even before today’s generation will give birth to a new breed of musicians who will take music to places unknown, we’ve had our Neptunes, our Fugees, our Missy Elliotts, our Timbalands, our Organized Noizes, our Rich Harrisons, who have pushed and continue to push the envelope, not only bringing rap and R&B closer together but often creating things unheard of in the process. What I strongly object to, however, is when R&B singers become hip-hop by association. True, many of them sport the same fashion, enlist the same producers, use the same lingo, probably at their own will, too. But a sampled break alone does not make you hip-hop. Baggy clothes alone don’t make you hip-hop. Explicit lyrics alone don’t make you hip-hop. While it’s flattering to see so many singers wanting to be down with hip-hop, I’m glad not everybody receives the same amount of hip-hop props. Jennifer Lopez was never on Mary J. Blige’s level, no matter how much she stressed she was “still Jenny from the block.”
It is feasible that R&B itself will eventually grow tired of playing second fiddle to a genre that has such different needs. What happened to R&B’s confidence? Can’t you get your message across without a couple of lame bars from the rapper du jour? You can be as self-sufficent as Alicia Keys, sooner or later that collab is going to happen. Of course there’s a common denominator, sharing the same cultural background rap and R&B have a lot of common ground, but in the long run there’s nothing to gain from lowering said denominator to a point that only pleases marketing experts and their target audience. What could be the perfect match too often has the makings of an arranged marriage. The ‘best of both worlds’ isn’t necessarily good. I support a friendly co-existence of these two worlds because it’s a reality in clubs, on the radio, and last but not least in my CD player. What I don’t support is putting everything into the blender, thinking as long as it contains a little bit of everything people are gonna eat it up. If you’re really into music, you don’t want to feel manipulated, you want to be personally addressed, genuinely surprised, deeply touched. You want the music to guide you, but you don’t want to feel like a puppet on a string because some guy in a suit has got you figured out.
Just like I personally draw the line somewhere and don’t buy into every expressive face telling me of heartbreaks and heartaches and every sexy body moving to an inviting beat, our site has to draw a line somewhere, and since we are and want to stay RapReviews.com, that line has to be drawn relatively close to hip-hop. There are already enough interesting projects that attempt a musical crossover for us to cover that don’t go about it in the supposedly natural but ultimately calculated way most contemporary R&B does. We will therefore continue to branch out, the judgement resting with the individual writer who thinks something merits being on the site. Expect more reviews that aim to deepen the readership’s understanding of the music we primarily cover. Expect to bump into everything from funk to nu-metal to spoken word, sometimes with more hip-hop relevance, sometimes with less. Knowing that hip-hop owes a lot to the genres that came before, we would never look down on them. But as the name suggests, we do RapReviews, last but not least because many others only do them half-assed and half-heartedly. As for R&B, we know that rap and R&B are close cousins. But we can only take care of one of them. If you’re looking for information and in-depth analysis on the former, you’ve come to right place, if it’s the latter you’re interested in, you’re cordially invited to look somewhere else.