The two greatest songs of all time happen to both be mainstream R&B singles released between 1995 and 1996.
Some might claim such an opinion is slightly overstated, but those people obviously haven't listened Montell Jordan's "This is How We Do It" or Blackstreet's "No Diggity" nearly enough to get it.
These two pop masterpieces showed how R&B could rule the world, the radio and the club. If you still have reservations, look at what "No Diggity" dethroned to top the Billboard charts back in November 1996: "La Macarena." The Maca-fucking-rena! Even Al Gore was doing that. Need I say more?
Now, in our last issue, we addressed the murky future of mainstream hip-hop. It feels like the genre that has reigned supreme over pop music is about to lose most of its starting lineup to either AutoTune, pop punk circa Vans Warped Tour '99 or, well, a federal penitentiary in Atlanta. This could potentially leave a gaping hole in the musical landscape. And more than a decade after we all learned how to do it on a Friday night, the next generation of R&B stars seems to have channeled the sage wisdom of Jordan and Blackstreet mastermind Teddy Riley -- they feel primed to fill that void.
Ironically, much like Riley, two of the men at the center of the R&B renaissance also made their name in the studio before they ever went into a vocal booth. Riley had built a major name for himself in pop music as both a producer and songwriter, most notably on Michael Jackson's 30-times platinum Dangerous, before he ever lent his own vocal talent or creative genius to Guy or Blackstreet.
In this same vein, both The-Dream and Ryan Leslie built their careers producing and writing for (primarily) female pop stars. Leslie most notably wrote and produced Cassie's "Me & U" and Dream (real name Terius Nash) essentially wrote "Umbrella," "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" and just about every fifth song you hear on the radio right now. And now the two of them have taken the leap into solo work (The-Dream for the second time) and provided the foundation for the upstart year their genre is celebrating so far in 2009.
It seems only fitting that Dream's previous body of work more closely resembles Riley's, because "Rockin' That Shit" -- the lead single off his just-released album Love vs. Money -- certainly seems to be an alumnus of the "No Diggity" school of songwriting. Riley's concept is infamously simplistic: See infinitely fine girl. Take note. Write song in which you tell girl how fine she is and how impressed you are by her work, in so many words. Add Dr. Dre verse. Get laid in club bathroom to song once a week for next 10 years. Done and done.
Short of the Dre verse, Dream pretty much took this formula and ran with it, adding his own majestic touch to the vocals and giving himself a bit more of a direct role in the muse's "work." And while "Rockin' That Shit" lacks much of the New Jack hip-hop sensibilities of "No Diggity," the appeal is apparently still there: the joint has almost as many rap remixes as "Blame It." Even Freeway hopped on it.
Aside from "Rockin," Dream's Love vs. Money shows impressive versatility beyond 2007's Love/Hate that confirms this dude isn't going anywhere any time soon. His music is often pegged down as baby-making music, which to be fair, he certainly has on lock. But breaking it down that way feels like a disservice to Nash. The Lil Jon feature "Let Me See the Booty" is a bizarrely fascinating mess that might be the best fake-Bangladesh track to date, and "My Love" is romantic vocal duet with Mariah Carey years in the making that feels destined to become a pop smash.
Where Dream's output has solidified his claims as a "radio killa," Leslie is still flying a bit more under the radar. His forever-delayed self-titled debut was finally released in February, and though it was fairly critically acclaimed, it has already become one of the most overlooked albums of its genre within the past few years.
The album boasts two moderately successful singles ("Diamond Girl" and "Addiction"), but they were both released so long ago they had long left the forefront of the average radio listener's mind by the time the whole project finally dropped. And the album is made even more impressive by the grind Leslie put into it, producing it in its entirety and taking most of the songwriting credits as well, all of which are standout.
And these two are just part of the puzzle. While Leslie's album hasn't enjoyed the Billboard success it deserved, its mere release seemed like a moral victory.
The same could be said for Keri Hilson's In a Perfect World.... The album was originally slated for a 2007 release, but after label cuts and failed singles it will finally see the light of day on March 24. Such a delay seems particularly unfortunate for someone whose talent seems so primed for stardom. Hilson is most famous for lending the female vocals to Timbaland's "The Way I Are," and she has proved since then that her voice can reign supreme over both minimalist hip-hop beats and more traditional pop beats. Hopefully the recent success of her "Turnin' Me On" could mean she actually gets some notice. Either the song or the Polow da Don beat was enough to wake Lil Wayne up from a slough of mediocre guest verses, so maybe it'll be enough to cause people to stop sleeping on Keri, too.
On top of this, though the Jamie Foxx album as a whole was certainly nothing to even text home about, the aforementioned "Blame It" is serving as the quintessential dance-floor classic of 2009. If Dream took "No Diggity" and ran with it, Jamie went to that same South Central party Montell Jordan was grooving at, but he just happened to arrive three hours later with nicer alcohol and a rhyming dictionary. The 40s have been exchanged for Grey Goose and Patr—n, the buzz has been upgraded way beyond tipsy and the vibe is a little more aggressive than carefree, but the party still rages on as the shots pour out.
So while R&B still has enough generic sex-jam clones to fill up a self-parody album (when you call yourself Pleasure P do you actually want us to take you seriously?), and we'll probably hear a new, boring Usher album in the next year, the genre has surprised us with an impressive new number of reasons to tip up our cups and throw our hands up. And it's finally a party where we actually care what they have to say. Play on, R&B, play on.