September late pass: Machinedrum, Jessy Lanza, Traxman

If your September was anywhere as batshit crazy as mine, the flurry of new albums saw a few winners slip through the cracks. Time for another update of Ye Old Late Pass series: September albums edition.

Continue reading “September late pass: Machinedrum, Jessy Lanza, Traxman”

Wot do u call it?

Wiley - Wot Do U Call It?

As the late, great Dennis Miller used to say, I don�t want to get off on a rant here. But this �hipster R&B� sobriquet being applied to The Weeknd and Frank Ocean is problematic enough that it deserves its own discussion, not the new and even more worrying front that The Awl�s Jozen Cummings covertly wants to open up. Somewhere in his race-baiting premise (�You say hipster R&B, I say nappy-headed pop. Either way, it�s offensive�) he sneaks a very shopworn theoretical pi�ata out of his Trojan horse, and proceeds to take a couple more swings at it. Shyeah, right, as Miller�s late, great fellow SNL alum Mike Myers used to say. As if we wouldn�t notice.

The Weeknd – What You Need by The_Weeknd

Cummings� argument has two parts as well as its secret third. The first two are helpfully summarized near the beginning:

�Calling [The Weeknd and Frank Ocean] “hipster R&B” is a nice way of saying it’s R&B that white people like (black hipsters notwithstanding), and here’s my problem with that: It’s myopic, lazy, and it sounds to me like a form of musical segregation that’s not entirely based on genre.�

So far, not too controversial. To be fair, as the inestimably great Tom Ewing points out in the Guardian, the album art is very Vice, and the samples are Pitchfork-approved (Siouxie and Beach House) so there might be more to the �hipster� tag than just white-people-acclaim. But I�m with Cummings on �myopic� and �lazy�. The word �hipster� itself is practically shorthand for both.

On the other hand, when someone uses a phrase like �R&B that white people like (black hipsters notwithstanding),� the house of cards is already starting to sway in the breeze. Cummings does at least acknowledge that R&B used to be a record industry term that supplanted �race music,� though he omits�or dodges�Alan Freed�s pivotal move, namely calling it rock �n� roll. There are whole sections of the library devoted to the racial implications of this name game, most of them filed under E for Elvis, but suffice it to say that R&B is such a slippery term that it really only seems to have one fixed meaning, and that�s as a marketing idea. Whether it�s being made by whites or blacks, whatever its musical characteristics, the record industry has almost always used R&B to refer to music being marketed primarily to black audiences.

Where Cummings loses the plot is when he tries to quietly suggest that at some point in the �90s, Timbaland and Prince somehow did what innovators from James Brown to Gamble & Huff to Roger Troutman to Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis did not: transcended the R&B label.

�R&B as a genre has evolved over the years, no question, but the artists we associate with R&B evolved as well, sometimes moving beyond the genre with which they were first associated.�

Cummings never explains why Timbo and Prince are his radical break, and the argument from there on in gets far shakier.

�Chris Brown’s new album F.A.M.E. is a prime example of this evolution. Listen closely: Are we really listening to R&B or are we listening to pop? Different ears, different opinions, I’m sure; but if we can’t all agree on it being R&B, then why would we categorize it as R&B or compare it to other R&B albums in the first place? My guess, probably because he’s black. But I’ll be damned if CB’s “Beautiful People” is an R&B song (it’s dance music) or “Look At Me Now” is R&B (it’s a rap song with moments of melody). Are we really going to debate who has the better R&B album between Chris Brown’s F.A.M.E. and Adele’s 21? I don’t think we should, simply because one album is not R&B (F.A.M.E.) and one album is (21).�

Ah hah, says the audience member who glimpses the compartment in the top hat from which the rabbit has been produced. Chris Brown is not R&B, but Adele is. Cummings never gives us a musical definition of R&B, but from this comparison, we can deduce via ye olde deductive reasoning that it�s very similar to that much-polished critical saw, �real� (acoustic instruments, no Auto-Tune) vs �pop� (assembly-line songwriting, slick production, deal with devil). Who stole the soul? Probably the person trying to have this conversation with you. Again.

Long story short: the history of pop music from roughly �Rocket 88� onwards is about miscegenation, and the term R&B is the least racially pure of them all. Whenever someone uses it to make some kind of essentialist argument about it�even one as ostensibly noble as trying to redefine R&B along mostly musical lines, as opposed to one having to do with roping off one audience from another�there�s usually a bill of goods attached. The really sneaky move in calling The Weeknd �hipster R&B� is that those who use it are trying to segregate people who listen to and sample from Beach House and Siouxsie and the Banshees from people who listen to The-Dream and Drake (notice how many times people have mentioned the Beach House and Siouxsie samples, and NOT ONCE have I read somebody mention that �What You Need� very clearly samples Aaliyah�s �Rock The Boat�), and there�s an agenda behind that, too, one that�s more sinister than whatever Cummings is clumsily getting up to: Somebody wants the white kids and the black kids to remember that Real Black People don�t fux wit Beach House. Whether that somebody is a critic who groans at the prospect of Beach House-loving audiences digging slow jams without doing the crate-digging due diligence that supposedly gives the critic their authority, or a conservative R&B fan who doesn�t want bands on Sub Pop infecting their Real Black People music and making it less authentically black, either way it�s a bunch of old bullshit that only sounds plausible if you imply it rather than stating it outright.

I�d like to propose a time-saving shorthand response to this kind of audience segregating, logic-defying, time-wasting nonsense: whenever someone tries to make the argument that R&B is this and hipster R&B is that, just remind them that Kanye loves Coldplay and leave it at that. It�s no Reductio Ad Hitlerum, but it�ll have to do.