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Are white people saving R&B?

As a young hip-hop fan back in the 1990s, I never would have guessed that one day I’d be saying this, but I’m beginning to enjoy a little R&B music every now and again. I used to think that R&B sucked balls, as a rule, but now I’m beginning to realize that it could just be the R&B made by black people that sucks balls. If you notice, most of the R&B singers on the radio these days are cracka-ass crackas, and damn it if they aren’t bringing the genre back.

The most critically acclaimed as well as the most popular R&B album released in the past year has been FutureSex/LoveSounds by Justin Timberlake. It’s sold about as well as any album out these days, and it’s about as good as any R&B album since forever. And Amy Winehouse, whose new Back to Black has been compared favorably to that one Lauryn Hill album, seems destined for fame and fortune herself, if she doesn’t drink herself to death first.

In the past, I haven’t been a huge fan of Robin Thicke, son of the daddy from Growing Pains, but with this latest song of his, “Lost Without You” or whatever, it sounds like he’s making a bid to become the next D’Angelo, but whiter and not as on crack. I mentioned the other day that I can hardly complete a self-medicating mission to McDonalds without hearing a song featuring that gotdamned Akon, but I’ve been hearing the Robin Thicke song quite a bit as well.

Of course it’s only a matter of time before there’s some sort of backlash and indeed it looks like one is beginning to mount. A story in the LA Times the other day suggests that Joss Stone might be laying on her sister girl routine a bit too thick these days, while a blog post by soul aficionado and self-appointed savior of the black race Oliver Wang suggests that middle aged black woman Sharon Jones would be as popular as Amy Winehouse if she was younger and whiter[1].

Noted race man that I am, normally I’d be right there with them in suggesting that this is yet another plot by the TIs to co-opt a black form of music – in this case by playing on the black man’s tragic but inevitable (let’s face it) preference for white women. But the truth of the matter is that a) I’m not even sure if that’s what’s going on here, and b) at least some of these cracka-ass crackas are genuinely outclassing their black counterparts.

Here’s the thing: a lot of these new cracka-ass cracka R&B records are being produced by black musicians like Timbaland and Sharon Jones’ backing group the Dap Kings anyway. But I think it’s the songwriting more so than the grooves themselves that sets cracka-ass cracka R&B music apart. Where as so much of black R&B these days has adopted similar themes as hip-hop, i.e. materialism, infidelity and what have you, cracka-ass cracka R&B doesn’t come off nearly as negative.

For example, here’s Amy Winehouse in the LA Times the other day on the failed relationship that inspired Back to Black:

“When I fell in love, I thought, ‘I’m gonna die with you,’ ” she says of the man who inspired “Back to Black.” “So much pop these days is like, ‘What can you do for me? I don’t need you. You don’t know me.’ Back in the ’60s it really was like, ‘I don’t care if you love me, I’m gonna lay down and die for you, because I’m in love with you.’ “

Somehow I find it hard to imagine anything like that coming from the lips of, say, Beyonce. [Insert obvious punchline having to do with Jay-Z's unit. Nullus.]

Of course a case can be made that the state of love and relationships in the black community is so fucked up that of course our music is going to reflect that. But you have to wonder to what extent life begins to imitate art rather than vice versa. Maybe black chicks act like chickenheads because they listen to too much chickenhead music, and maybe this current surge in popularity of soul-singing PT Cruisers is because people are getting tired of hearing that shit.

[1] You can tell Oliver Wang is full of shit because a) that Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings album isn’t very good, and b) Amy Winehouse isn’t very attractive.

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