Looking Back to 1999 When D’Angelo Said R&B Had Become ‘A Joke’, Let’s See If He Was Right
How many times have you heard the statement being made “They just don’t make music like they used to”? It’s quite possible you’ve even uttered those words yourself. It certainly seems that with every generation that progresses, they have strong negative feelings towards the younger music that is coming out. Music is constantly evolving, but the music fans aren’t always evolving along with it. Instead, we often see fans tied to the style of music they grew up on, and unwilling to accept any progression. Exceptions do exist, but this is typical.
For example, many fans consider 90’s r&b to be one of the golden eras of the genre. It certainly left us with some timeless songs, classic albums, and legendary artists. But depending on who you talk to, everyone didn’t share the same sentiments. There are those who grew up in generations prior to the 90’s, and to them, the music had become too commercialized, too edgy, and lacked the overall polish they had become familiar with.
Let’s flashback to the late 90’s when D’Angelo was preparing his second album “Voodoo” and made a famous statement about the quality of r&b music at the time. R&B music had become Pop, playing on a wide range of radio stations across the globe with its popularity as great as ever. Unimpressed to where the genre had evolved, D’Angelo found his influence from the likes of artists like James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and Marvin Gaye.
In the interview where the comments originated, D’Angelo made the following statement:
“(Contemporary R&B)’s a joke, and the funny thing about it is that the people making this s*** are dead serious about the stuff they’re making,” he says, laughing. “It’s sad, they’ve turned black music into a club thing.”
We could speculate all day about exactly who he was talking about or specifically what songs evoked this negative reaction from him. He never did clarify in the years to come, but he really didn’t need to. His “Voodoo” album released later that year in 2000 and was critically acclaimed. Led by the single “Untitled (How Does it Feel)” with its mesmerizing video, the album sounded like nothing else out at the time. His debut album “Brown Sugar” had helped establish the neo-soul sub genre alongside artists like Maxwell and Erykah Badu, and now “Voodoo” took his artistry to the next level.
Let’s get back to dissecting the comments he made. First, “Contemporary r&b is a joke”. For starters, here were some of the biggest r&b songs in 1999: Deborah Cox “Nobody’s Supposed to be Here”, Whitney Houston “Heartbreak Hotel”, TLC “No Scrubs”, Maxwell “Fortunate”, Destiny’s Child “Bills, Bills, Bills”, Faith Evans “Never Gonna Let You Go”, Eric Benet & Tamia “Spend My Life With You”, Deborah Cox & RL “We Can’t Be Friends”, and Donell Jones “U Know What’s Up”. If you look at those songs, they’re widely considered timeless r&b classics. Sure, the music isn’t exactly the same as generations before, but you can certainly argue that these represent a strong evolution of where r&b came from. When you compare some of these songs to the music that influenced D’Angelo, you can see where the gap exists.
The next part of the quote states “The the funny thing about it is that the people making this s*** are dead serious about the stuff they’re making.” We have to believe he was referring to some of the more commercial r&b songs that had begun to gain popularity. As hip-hop began to see it’s monumental rise in the late 90’s, r&b would begin to mimic it in some ways. Starting to fade are the times when each song was composed from start to finish as a masterpiece, packed with live instrumentation and vocal performance. In were the times of machine made beats, watered down lyrics, catchy jingles, and rap features taking over. Certainly these ware good songs too, just much different than r&b had been used to in previous years.
Finally, the quote ends with “It’s sad, they’ve turned black music into a club thing.” This quote seems even more relevant in 2016 as we’ve just recently seen someone of r&b’s biggest stars, including Usher, Ne-Yo, and R. Kelly, making music specifically as strip club anthems. Many of r&b’s biggest legends created music throughout the decades that was so undeniable that DJ’s were forced to play it, and the fans loved it. As the late 90’s hit, artists would be creating music specifically targeting rotation in the club, and some would say this compromised the artistry. While we can’t say for certain this is what D’Angelo was speaking on, it’s definitely as widespread as ever today as we’ve moved towards a single driven culture in music.
As we look at how r&b has evolved even in the past decade, we can trace it through artists like Chris Brown, Trey Songz, Ne-Yo, Usher and even R. Kelly; some of the genres biggest stars. We’ll start with the younger generation. Chris, Trey and Ne-Yo began in the mid 00’s and you could tell their music emulated their influences like Michael Jackson and R. Kelly. Eventually they deviated from that a bit, and their music took on the sound made popular at radio like EDM and hip-hop influences. “Loyal” by Chris Brown is a good example of where r&b had evolved to in the mainstream.
Usher is an interesting artist to look at, because he’s had a lot of success while evolving over the past two decades, yet his music has changed almost completely. When he started out in the 90’s even through his biggest album “Confessions”, he was making what most considered a “pure r&b” sound that came out of the 90’s era. You could see things start to change with “Yeah!” as he emulated the “Crunk&B” sound and his following albums which trended more towards pop, EDM, and club bangers. It’s fair to say his music has gotten younger as he’s gotten older, and the most mature music he made was when he was in his early 20’s.
R. Kelly is an even more extreme example. His last two albums were “Black Panties” and “The Buffet” and both were very hip-hop driven, over sexualized, tailor made for radio, and a far cry from some of his biggest r&b hits. There is no disputing R. Kelly as the king of r&b, but you can clearly see how he evolved from “Bump N Grind”, “I Believe I Can Fly”, “Half on a Baby” and “When a Woman’s Fed Up” in the 90’s, to “Fiesta”, “Ignition”, “Snake” and “Thoia Thong” in the early 00’s.
The point we’re trying to make is that artists are now influenced by what’s currently popular as opposed to being influenced by artists or eras of music that came before them; and that’s precisely what we feel D’Angelo was getting at. When he returned with his “Black Messiah” album in 2014, he clearly reached back to the influences he grew up on and blocked out everything out that was currently popular. The album was a big success and netted him three Grammy Nominations, but even more importantly, showed that he knew what he was doing all along.
To bring things full circle to the point we made earlier in the article, music always evolves, but the fans don’t always evolve with it. It’s not a stretch to say that D’Angelo as a music fan was unhappy with where the r&b music he grew up on was going, and made these statements. We’re sure that many r&b fans who loved the genre throughout the 90’s felt the same way, just like most older fans of r&b cannot listen to anything considered younger r&b music these days. Most fans consider the music they grew up on to be the only “real r&b”, unwilling to accept the future evolution of it. So we’ll have to disagree when D’Angelo said that r&b had become a joke. The younger fans of r&b love the current iteration of the genre just as much we the older fans loved it during their generation growing up.