Let me start off with some hard and fast facts.
- Trey Songz would not have made it in the 1990s as a solo artist.
- Rihanna would not have made it in the 1990s as a solo artist.
- Chris Brown would not have made it in the 1990s as a solo artist.
- Ciara would not have made it in the 1990s as a solo artist.
- Frank Ocean would not have made it in the 1990s as a solo artist.
Imagine what a Chris Brown CD would look like sitting next to something like Maxwell’s legendary Urban Hang Suite in the new releases section? It would look like an un-purchased CD for people with any taste. There was a time when, to be a solo R&B act, one actually was required to possess a vocal ability that would allow them to stand alone as a single act, not needing technological assistance or even top notch production to bolster or distract from their abilities or lack thereof. Sure…as an example, Teddy Riley wasn’t the best vocalist by a long shot, but he was a legendary producer who was always backed by the likes of Aaron Hall and others.
There was a time when artists were humble enough to realize that their vocals are better suited for a group. Granted, the fiscal climate has changed drastically to where an artist can see the benefit of keeping profit for themselves vs. splitting four or five ways among a group, but that’s where the line is drawn between being the best businessperson one can be and being the best artist one can be…and that’s often the line between the most timeless work and the most profitable in the here and now. Then again, this is the generation of instant gratification and very little thought is put toward “will I still like this in ten years” when evaluating music. For us “old timers” who remember the Silks, the Shais, the Xscapes…it’s hard to understand how we got to a place where the Devantes and Mr. Dalvins became, to the public, artists worthy of a solo career. There are a lot of background players stepping confidently into the limelight today and it’s rather unfortunate for music.
And that’s not to say that each member of a group wasn’t talented or there to serve a specific purpose. A lot of people liked Sisqo’s foray into solo work, but I personally preferred to deal with Sisqo’s outrageous look and dramatic vocals when tempered by the smoother, more subdued stylings of Jazz, Woody, and Nokio, who were each talented in their own right…just not to the point I wanted to hear a solo career out of them (although Jazz’ “Here With Me” is an undeniable jam). Dru Hill, to me, represented one of the last phases in the evolution of the great American R&B group, indicating both a pinnacle of talent (the first two albums are undefeated) and unfortunately, a precursor to the demise of the R&B group. In most great R&B groups from the 1980s and 1990s, there was never a real front-man, or at least not one who stood out so much as Sisqo did. By elevating the front-man image-wise to where no one can focus on anyone else in the group and then having that artist go solo, Dru Hill and Sisqo specifically kind of set the tone for what was to come: artists better suited for groups becoming solo entities and skipping the group dynamic altogether. Now it’s not fair to single out Dru Hill and I’m thankful for their contributions as well as Sisqo’s, but I think it’s a fine example.
On the flipside, you have the example of Dave Hollister, who delivered the classic vocals to Blackstreet’s “Before I Let You Go” and ultimately became a solo artist to some success. Despite having great vocal ability, Hollister seemed to lack some of the star power and personality to really shine as much as he could have as the front-man for a group. Chicago 85 was a great solo album, but didn’t get the ears it deserved for a number of reasons. This is the same for artists like Kevon Edmonds, once a member of After 7, and plenty others who were members of successful groups and went solo to a lukewarm reception.
There’s too much ego and greed in music today, which is why you see the lack of R&B groups and even hip-hop groups and collectives, in addition to the number of artists who require a marketing machine and tabloid-worthy antics to distract listeners from the fact that their carefully-crafted public image is a front for minimal talent. It’s why you have songwriters and producers stepping out from behind the boards and trying to hold their own as artists. It’s recession-era fallout, really, and that can’t be helped. What we can do is remember where R&B used to take us and expect more out of what we are hearing today and hope that from that, supply ultimately begins to meet demand.
Head Over Heels x Allure f. Nas
Before I Let You Go x Blackstreet
Cheers 2 U x Playa
Tender Love x Force MDs