The "King of R&B" Debate Is Pointless In 2018

The "King of R&B" Debate Is Pointless In 2018

...and the reason is actually unfortunate.

Published December 11, 2018

Jacqueeswith all the subtlety of throwing a 10-pound boneless ham in an Olympic size swimming pool filled with piranhasmade a ballsy claim on Monday (Dec. 10). "I just wanna let everybody know that I'm the king of R&B right now," he began. "For this generation, I understand who done came and who done did that and that and that, but now it's my time. Jacquees the king of R&B."

As with any behavior such as this, all hell (and hilarity) broke loose.

Music heads, social media observers, trolls, journalists, celebrities, and various “Stan” factions unanimously pushed back at the highly presumptive notion that a 24-year-old kid with a laughably thin catalog barely measuring up to a greatest hits compilation from Bobby V would be brazen enough to toss out such a provocative grenade. One Twitter user cracked, “Jacquees ain’t even the R&B Employee of the Month, what the hell made him think he was the King of a generation?”

Others were quick to mention previous “Kings” who personified the R&B genre over the decades: James Brown, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross and even a certain scandal-plagued pariah from Chicago who shall not be mentioned. Die-hard Bobby Brown fans jumped into the mix as well to vouch for an act that, for a brief magical run in the late ‘80s, wore the title. Neo-soul immortals D’Angelo and Maxwell also received much-deserved shout-outs.

#PressPlay: Do ya’ll think #Jacquees is the King of R&B for this generation?

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Ride-or-die followers of arguably the last R&B male superstar, Usher, and the controversial Chris Browntwo of the best-selling Black acts of their respective eraspointed out that the connected pair are very much still alive. When Chrissy Teigen, former model, outspoken social media empress and wife of the EGOT-winning star John Legend, asked why her hubby was largely left out of the discussion, Wild ‘n Out comedian Karlous Miller playfully deduced, “John Legend makes that music white people get married to." And current R&B faves Trey Songz and Ty Dolla $ign, who have both collaborated with Jacquees, dismissed their younger peer’s chest-beating assertions with simple teary-eyed, laughing emojis. Ouch.  

But engaging in any “King of R&B” debate in 2018 is a maddening pursuit. For starters, R&B music has just recently come off the respirator.

When Fifth Harmony’s Normani and singer-songwriter Khalid hit the Billboard Hot 100 in early September with their soulful duet “Love Lies,” it was hailed as more proof that the storied African-American-birthed art form still had legs. A double platinum ballad eschewing the usual aggressive rap/trap musical sonics and I’m-f**king-you-tonight come-ons of the day while crossing over to the pop charts on its own merits certainly turned heads.

Khalid achieved similar commercial and critical acclaim on his own with his brand of slow burning, retro Millennium R&B as heard on the Texas visionaries’ debut single, “Location,” which has gone on to move more than four million copies. And then there’s British vocalist Ella Mai, whose recent ‘90s-paced synth R&B “Boo’d Up” and the sultry follow up, “Trip,” have broken through big time.

“Real R&B is back!!!” exclaimed thirsty critics and fans who were just happy to hear Black folks sing in tune. Indeed, when the biggest male R&B act today moonlights as a rapper (Drake), overreaction to a few soulful statements makes sense.

What we are left with is a sobering conversation that is as much about the evolution of Black culture as it is about uneven racial dynamics in America. Indeed, is it possible to even have a “King of R&B” debate without confronting the fact that the two highest-selling male “rhythm and blues” statements of the last five years have come courtesy of non-Black performers: Justin Timberlake (2013’s The 20/20 Experience) and Bruno Mars (2016’s 24K Magic)?

While the deeply earnest Mars more than deserves credit for turning the spotlight back on the boundless genius of legendary New Jack Swing producer and songwriter Teddy Riley, it’s hard to imagine Usher enjoying similar Grammy Album of the Year accolades with such an unapologetically Black sound.

On a pure talent scale, Mars, a relentless singer, songwriter, musician and studio rat, reaches loftier heights than the Confessions song-and-dance man. But if a show-stopping hit-maker like Mr. Raymond, who has sold over 20 million records in the States alone and headlined sold out arena tours, has to resort to making a gimmicky trap-fueled album with Atlanta producer Zaytoven (A) to stay at the cool kid’s table, what does that say for the lesser would-be “Kings of R&B?”

Traditional R&B coming from the likes of soulful white Englishman Sam Smith is lauded as if he reinvented the genre while possessed by the spirit of George Michael. Meanwhile, Black veteran R&B singer and lyricist Tank still finds himself avoiding the pitfalls of being labeled an aging “adult contemporary” act with little mainstream notice despite scoring one of the most played songs of 2017 with “When We,” amassing over 100 million streams on Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube combined.

With “urban” music surpassing rock as the most popular music genre in America, there is some irony in Black male superstar headliners like The Weeknd, Frank Ocean and Miguel being promoted by record labels to audiences as alternative R&B rather than straight-no-chaser rhythm and blues. Who wants to be the every-man traditionalist Frankie Beverly when you can be a genre-jumping rebel like Prince, right?  

Perhaps the R&B gods were telling us all something when Teddy Riley led a triumphant Harlem, New York, homecoming at the Apollo Theater last Sunday. Billed as The Kings and Queens of New Jack Swing, the two sold out gigs showcased a late ‘80s to mid ‘90s era when rhythm and blues was still anchored by the same church gospels that helped propel Al Green.

The type of acrobatic vocal runs and lush harmonies unleashed by Guy’s Aaron Hall and Blackstreet’s Dave Hollister, as well as the meticulous sensuality of Keith Sweat, would certainly not be labeled as antiquated in 2018 if some 25-year-old white kid from Chicago embraced the same bag. Besides, that night on Black music’s most celebrated stage, the “King of R&B tag” would have come off as a needless exercise. “We don’t do that lip-sync sh*t here,” joked Sweat.

Jacquees, take notes.

Written by Keith Murphy

(Photos from left: David Becker/Getty Images, Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images, Taylor Hill/WireImage)


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