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Vulgarity in Modern R&B: Keeping It Real or Too Much?

(Photo Sources: Rolling Stone & Billboard)

The gritty lyrical themes and hip hop influence in 2010s R&B spawns an disconnect between generations of listeners.

When thinking of R&B music, several thoughts come to mind. Maybe it evokes nostalgia of past loves, slow dances at dim-lit parties, sunsets at the beach and family barbecues. When thinking of traditional R&B, images of stylized choreography, silk suits, and neon stages capture the genre’s sense of grace. Whether you picture one or all of these images, it can’t be denied that R&B has been the soundtrack of romance and intimate memories for several decades. From Motown Records to Uptown and Laface, R&B has been built up as a presence at weddings and functions everywhere as families grow up to love the genre. In the past decade, however, R&B has evolved into a grittier and strongly hip hop-influenced form that possibly alienates older fans while sticking to the current generation.

In today’s state of R&B, we see artists such as Bryson Tiller, Brent Faiyaz and 6Lack professing their love for hip hop and their roots in it, with the latter professing on “Scripture”: “I’m an R&B n*gga with a hip hop core.” A number of elder artists in the industry have voiced their criticism on the genre’s current sound, specifically to its emotional power and class towards the opposite sex. On Twitter, Diddy claims that there isn't any R&B being made, with emphasis on the importance of showing vulnerability and sincerity to women in the music. Bryan Michael Cox, famous for writing and producing hits for the likes of Usher, echoes Diddy’s sentiment in his comments on Chris Brown’s hit “Back to Sleep”: “Sometimes, women want to be fucked sometimes. But for the most part, if you’re selling this shit, you got to sell the love. You’re a singer. Sell that. You rap, too. Talk that shit on your rap shit.” 1990s balladeer Brian Mcknight jumped in, creating a raunchy parody song called “If You’re Ready to Learn." These opinions on today’s R&B sound seems to have validity, as singers like SZA and Ty Dolla $ign have prominent hits on unashamed infidelity while Frank Ocean and The Weeknd narrate drug-fueled tales in their music. But the genre is no stranger to darker themes.

The 1970s, along with the 1980s to a lesser extent, is perceived as a golden era in R&B music. As described by Vox, the music of this period reflects the prosperity of black middle-class families in the United States after the Civil Rights era, with some political undertones and the emergence of the late night quiet storm radio format appealing to couples with its sultry feel. Motown Records, the industry giant at the time, maintained a standard of elegance in the public images of its artists through its director of artist development Maxine Powell. Speaking on the socially conscious and love-oriented songs he co-wrote with Leon Huff, Philadelphia International Records co-founder Kenny Gamble says “ the love songs and those with messages sprang from the same source, the belief that loving one another and your community was important." Nevertheless, there were songs released by artists that serve as precursors to modern r&b’s penchant for scandalous themes. Pusherman by Curtis Mayfield is a blueprint for today’s melodic wave of hardcore hip hop with its narrative centered around a drug dealer’s lifestyle. Some of Millie Jackson’s work, such as I’m Tired of Hiding, are noted for their tackling of infidelity, especially because she devoted an entire album to the subject. In the early 1980s, there were songs like Mary Jane by Rick James using females as a metaphor for drug use and Darling Nikki by Prince, which tells a story about a fling with a”sex fiend”. The latter was responsible for the creation of the Parental Advisory sticker on explicit CDs. Even Billie Jean by Michael Jackson has dirty undertones, inspired by his brothers’ experiences with groupies. This era was only just the start of R&B’s venture into grimier lyrical territory.

Starting in the late 1980s and into the 2000s, R&B fused with hip hop to form popular sub-genres such as new jack swing, hip hop soul, and neo soul. In this fusion, the genre adopted hip hop’s musical characteristics along with fashion. Songwriter/producer Teddy Riley describes how new jack swing spawned from the culture of Harlem: “Growing up in the hood in the projects, we were around hustlers, dope dealers and drug addicts and that definitely had an impact. If you’re from Harlem, around that time, you’ve tried some sort of street thing." Reflecting on the influence Harlem also had on his creative direction at 90s R&B powerhouse Uptown Records, Puff Daddy says: “A lot of my music is about pain. That’s why the masses relate to it. It’s attainable, people understand it. When Mary J Blige sings about looking for lost love, it’s fucked up, searching, you know? It’s realistic shit." Jermaine Dupri of the Atlanta based label So So Def explains his impact with his work on Monica’s Everytime tha Beat Drop: “Monica was an artist to me that was dripping with the sauce of Atlanta. And everything she did was hood, shit, go in the hood-club and partying and loving this hood type of music. So I took this chance to try to make her a record that felt like where she would go partying, felt like the things that she actually loved, right?" With the mentality of hip hop synced with R&B at this point, the genre took on a direct lyrical approach that persists today.

With legendary hip hop production team The Bomb Squad, ex-New Edition trio Bell Biv Devoe created their 1990 hit Poison, which shares the same pessimistic spirit on toxic relationships in the same fashion 6LACK would with Prblms. 1996’s You’re the One by SWV carries an aura of fun with promiscuity in the same fashion as much of SZA’s discography. Shit, Damn, Motherfucker by D’Angelo from 1995’s Brown Sugar takes the themes of a relationship scandal and flips it into murderous storytelling in the way Brent Faiyaz presents his stories with cinematic sleaze, as heard in a song like Rehab (Winter in Paris). Most prominently in regards to the topic of vulgarity, Nate Dogg’s rap-singing and LA gangsta bravado in 1994’s Regulate predates fellow Angeleno Jhene Aiko’s tough talk and repping of her roots in Never Call Me. Not to forget, T-Pain’s 2005 single I’m N Luv (Wit A Stripper) is like an upbeat cousin of Who Hurt You by Daniel Caesar.

The evolution to modern R&B’s lyrical threshold raises some interesting questions among listeners who grew up on previous eras and releases. Is the genre too vulgar today? Is there a lack of class and subtlety in the music? Or is it okay to say whatever you feel? Several of today’s R&B acts feel that transparency is the key to adapting to the times. Ty Dolla $ign, one of the most prominent faces of mainstream R&B, tells The Fader: “I’m not tryna promote being the best fuckin American man. I’m promoting partying and having fun and being that type of American. I don’t wanna hurt nobody’s feelings. I’m not gonna front and act like your boyfriend.” When describing his themes with CLASH Magazine, 6LACK says: “ A lot of the stuff that these people rap about-- whether it be street life, drug life-- all of it comes with pain, all of it comes with emotion, all of it comes with turmoil in relationships. I focus on these things and that’s my job, to be that therapist.” In a discussion between current female R&B stars on Billboard, Kehlani states: “The comparisons we get to the older artists won’t ever make sense because we’re living in a different time, experiencing different things at a different rate and in a different way. They didn’t have social media, so (our music) is a lot about how we interact with our thoughts. I might not be what you think I am-- let me take you into what I feel.” The Weeknd also claims to base his music off personal experiences, he provides a unique perspective on criticism of his lyrics: “It makes me feel good. How much is too much? Some people love PG horror movies and some people love R rated horror movies.” It can not be denied that there are artists whose music provide a cinematic type of entertainment and it is up to the listener to interpret whether it reflects their personal values.

Through the debates on modern R&B’s vulgarity, the genre is still recognized as the soundtrack of romance and love. Some argue R&B should remain wholesome and tender in nature, while others utilize the genre to depict both realities and narratives of drug use and sex. One thing that remains constant with R&B musicians is the importance of pouring your heart out and telling your story. Since the origin of R&B, the genre has evolved into many different facets and listeners’ relationship with the music is dependent upon where they resonate; some through the brutally honest promiscuity of today’s R&B and some with the idealistic prosperity of the Motown era.

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