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.
As the late, great Dennis Miller used to say, I donï¿½t want to get off on a rant here. But this ï¿½hipster R&Bï¿½ 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 Awlï¿½s Jozen Cummings covertly wants to open up. Somewhere in his race-baiting premise (ï¿½You say hipster R&B, I say nappy-headed pop. Either way, itï¿½s offensiveï¿½) he sneaks a very shopworn theoretical piï¿½ata out of his Trojan horse, and proceeds to take a couple more swings at it. Shyeah, right, as Millerï¿½s late, great fellow SNL alum Mike Myers used to say. As if we wouldnï¿½t notice.
Cummingsï¿½ argument has two parts as well as its secret third. The first two are helpfully summarized near the beginning:
ï¿½Calling [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.ï¿½
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 ï¿½hipsterï¿½ tag than just white-people-acclaim. But Iï¿½m with Cummings on ï¿½myopicï¿½ and ï¿½lazyï¿½. The word ï¿½hipsterï¿½ itself is practically shorthand for both.
On the other hand, when someone uses a phrase like ï¿½R&B that white people like (black hipsters notwithstanding),ï¿½ 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 ï¿½race music,ï¿½ though he omitsï¿½or dodgesï¿½Alan Freedï¿½s pivotal move, namely calling it rock ï¿½nï¿½ 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 thatï¿½s as a marketing idea. Whether itï¿½s 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 ï¿½90s, 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.
ï¿½R&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.ï¿½
Cummings never explains why Timbo and Prince are his radical break, and the argument from there on in gets far shakier.
ï¿½Chris 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).ï¿½
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 itï¿½s very similar to that much-polished critical saw, ï¿½realï¿½ (acoustic instruments, no Auto-Tune) vs ï¿½popï¿½ (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 ï¿½Rocket 88ï¿½ 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 itï¿½even 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 anotherï¿½thereï¿½s usually a bill of goods attached. The really sneaky move in calling The Weeknd ï¿½hipster R&Bï¿½ 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 ï¿½What You Needï¿½ very clearly samples Aaliyahï¿½s ï¿½Rock The Boatï¿½), and thereï¿½s an agenda behind that, too, one thatï¿½s 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 donï¿½t 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 doesnï¿½t want bands on Sub Pop infecting their Real Black People music and making it less authentically black, either way itï¿½s a bunch of old bullshit that only sounds plausible if you imply it rather than stating it outright.
Iï¿½d 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. Itï¿½s no Reductio Ad Hitlerum, but itï¿½ll have to do.