This essay on Drake was posted on Rhapsody.com’s Music Stuff Place blog on June 15. It analyzes Thank Me Later‘s mix of hip-hop and R&B. Obviously there’s a lot more to be said about Drake’s rap and vocal performance, the production, and specific criticisms and praise. In the meantime, check this out.
Rap Is Not Pop: A Brief History Of Rap And B*llsh*t
Hip-hop and R&B share a history fraught with musical romance and cultural tension. There have been successful marriages — Diddy, Faith Evans and 112’s massive “I’ll Be Missing You” tribute to the late Notorious B.I.G. comes to mind — the two cultures remain suspicious of one another. R&B fans often claim that rappers are just entitled industry thugs that perpetuate noxious ghetto stereotypes about people of color. And hip-hoppers claim that R&B singers are just bougie careerists whose babymaker blandishments are far removed from the halcyon days of sweet, socially-relevant soul.
Drake’s new album, Thank Me Later, revisits those fault lines. Merging introspective lyrics and emotive (and, yes, occasionally Auto-Tuned) vocals, he has become something of an overnight superstar. But it has also led to accusations of being an industry product cynically designed for radio hits. Some rap fans complain that he’s more concerned with wooing teenage girls with lovey-dovey vocal hooks than spitting deft rhymes for the hardcore faithful. Or, to paraphrase as De La Soul once put it, it’s whether his mix of rap and R&B simply translates into “rap and b*llsh*t.”
The cultural divide dates back to the mid-80s, when the hip-hop sound evolved from freestyle, disco and electro to hardcore 808 drums and James Brown samples. Industry veterans argued that hip-hop was displacing musicians that played “real” instruments. On The Black Album, Prince mocked rappers with “Dead On It,” singing, “See the rapper’s problem usually stem from being tone deaf.” By 1988, Public Enemy was shouting, “Bring the Noise”: “Radio stations I question their blackness/ They call themselves black but we’ll see if they’ll play this.”
Some historians claim that rap music was shut out of urban radio in the late 80s, but that wasn’t necessarily the case. N.W.A.’s “Express Yourself” and got some spins, as did LL Cool J’s “I Need Love.” Hurby the Luv Bug’s crew (Salt N’ Pepa, Kid-N-Play), Heavy D. and the Boyz, Kool Moe Dee and, of course, MC Hammer were huge. These artists were part of “new jack swing.” Pioneered by New York producer Teddy Riley, “new jack swing” muted the hardcore 808 sensibility with daffy synths, light drum machine rhythms, and sometimes even hip-house beats. Urban radio, retailers, and even video channels like MTV and BET wanted party rap for shaking your rump. Fiery agit-pop statements like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back and X-Clan’s To the East, Blackwards didn’t fit.
Hence “rap and b*llsh*t.”
Not every merging of rap and R&B – a new term for soul music that emerged in the late 80s, and was codified when Billboard magazine changed its soul charts from “Black Music” to “R&B” in 1991 – aspired to The Arsenio Hall Show props and HBCU infamy. Everyone has a soft spot for New Edition and associated projects like Bell Biv Devoe. (Remember “S-C-H-O-O-L/ You’ve got to go to school and ring that bell”?) Mi’chelle’s singles with Dr. Dre, particularly “No Lies,” were funky excavations of post-electro gangsta funk. And the Jungle Brothers’ Done By the Forces of Nature presented Afrocentrism, UK soul and acid house as a revolutionary force. “Well my family sets all the trends/From Soul II Soul large to Loose Ends,” raps Afrika Baby Bam on “Doin’ Our Own Dang.” Then he adds, “Yeah, the industry’s filled with sloppy cats/ R&B mixed with sloppy raps.”
For the Jungle Brothers, there’s an aesthetic difference between Soul II Soul and “R&B mixed with sloppy raps.” Soul music is classic, the stuff of Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye, while R&B is trendy, just gimmicks made by Riley and his modern equivalent, Timbaland. And it’s not just intellectuals making that distinction: when interviewed, modern-day R&B stars like Ne-Yo and Trey Songz inevitably give props to Stevie Wonder, not Jodeci and R. Kelly, even though they sound more like the latter.
Fairly or unfairly, R&B has become a euphemism for mass-market gentrification. Urban radio programmers haven’t dispelled this perception, either. After all these years, they’re still more likely to play rap with an R&B vocal and/or dance element over a straight-up hip-hop gem. It’s been a winning combination for self-described D-boys, gangsters and thugs ever since Diddy paired the Notorious B.I.G. and Total for “Juicy,” and some rappers like Plies have built entire careers out of playing the sensitive thug looking for an R&B “hood” chick. The fact that Plies spends the rest of albums like Definition of Real pushing “weight” and busting shots at “n*gg*s” makes radio-pandering gimmicks like “Bust It, Baby” seem like a depressing charade.
However, R&B has also inspired challenging works of art. On 808 and Heartbreaks, Kanye West uses the genre to explore his breakup with a longtime girlfriend and the death of his mother. The production, full of quantized machines and Auto-Tuned vocals, turns the familiar babymaker sound of thrusting drum machines and eerie synth lines into a lonely crying jag. Although he mostly sings (the hit single “Heartless” being a notable exception), the tone merges R&B and hip-hop sensibilities (as well as electronic pop like Depeche Mode). It underlines the best of both (musically at least – West’s singing is another matter).
Even though he raps much more than West, Drake’s Thank Me Later follows in the 808s and Heartbreaks tradition. His lyrics are full of introspective thoughts, whether it’s fame and its aftereffects or the lack of a steady girlfriend. And his achingly light and melodic vocals exemplify R&B as a kind of aching need for love, companionship, and personal validation. Not surprisingly, he references the late Aaliyah Haughton, one of R&B’s undisputed queens, and her sublime “Let Me Know” on his “Unforgettable.”
If some regard Thank Me Later with suspicion, it’s only because we the audience have come to expect less. Rap should consist of hot bars and coke raps; R&B is supposed to re-invent sex, and their merger should be a pancake melding of the two. When the combination exceeds our expectations and sounds better than the sum of its parts, we’re reminded of how good it should be.