What’d I Say: R&B Stars Need to Do Better

Posted March 27, 2011 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

Chris Brown is just a primary example of R&B acts with great talent but very little focus

Chris Brown’s backstage rant on the ‘Good Morning America’ set isn’t all that surprising to me. Think back a little distance to the album drop week of Graffiti, his first album after his 2007 assault on ex-girlfriend Rihanna. It was designed to be a triumph, a comeback spliced in small, digestible proportions. It failed to generate a massive hit and left his fans bemoaning in despair. Brown instantly took to his Twitter account to express outrageon his disappointing record sales by casting blame on deejays for not playing his song(s) and got ballsy with giant retailer Walmart for not stocking the album with the same kind of fervor as their Disney merchandise. You would’ve cast the blame of slouchy record sales on the economy, but we knew the real deal. Brown’s dangerous lifestyle, his unrehearsed decision-making and his half-baked apologies on the air (especially the YouTube video) just wasn’t enough nutrition for his disengaged fans’ diet. Brown did kiss-and-make up with his urban fan base after taking the stage at the BET Music Awards and danced in silhouette to Michael Jackson’s beats as a tribute to the King of Pop. It was at that moment when Brown broke down in tears. Unable to finish the lyrics to “Man in the Mirror,” he covered his face completely and sobbed off the set. A standing ovation was greeted him that night and black talk radio openly forgave Brown of his past mistakes. Two major hit singles later (the No. 1 R&B revenge ballad “Deuces” and the Top Ten pop single “Yeah 3X”), Brown seemed to be on the verge of the comeback he’s been dying for.

But an inexcusable rant on the ‘GMA’ set after an interview with co-host Robin Roberts is not what Brown needs for his image. Certainly there’s a Parental Advisory sticker on the front of his new LP F.A.M.E. and Brown doesn’t have the squeaky-clean language of his early adolescence. He’s surrounded by hip-hop royalty and bad boys like the Game, Lil Wayne, Ludacris, Wiz Khalifa and it looks like he wants to be the Allen Iverson of R&B when it comes to scoring points on his inked-up skin. Brown is no longer the innocent R&B good boy nor is he in the running to be America’s Next Top Pop Model. Instead, Brown has to endure with the reminders of his past mistakes, his criminal record and now, this rant.

Brown is tired of talking about his past with Rihanna. He wants to focus on the future without her. We give him that. He’s also tired of apologizing over past mistakes. We give him that also. But we’re tired of forgiving and forgiving him – not just for his biggest mistake – but for every other mistake he’s made afterwards. People are quick to give him extra grace since he’s in the last years of his youth.

Believe it or not, I can recall a time when the R&B stars of yesterday were groomed to be respectful in public and to keep their bloody rants to themselves. With some discipline from Motown’s Image Control department, Berry Gordy’s babies were always out of harm’s way. Even in the Eighties, R&B sensations like Anita Baker, Luther Vandross, Janet Jackson and Lionel Richie rarely became the folly of tabloid. When they did, they knew the easy way out. In today’s marketplace of tabloid dominance, cell phone weaponry and fast food news coverage, it’s almost impossible to exist in a pop candyland without getting cavities. Still, we know the firepower of the media is stronger than ever and we are reminded each and every day that what you do now surely affects you later. As documented on his newest album, Brown wants to “forgive all his enemies,” but the choices he’s making now leaves him with more enemies to forgive in the future.

One of the biggest problem prevailing in the careers of today’s R&B singers and superstars is that they are forced by the industry to work as worker bees, remaining on the assembly-line to make honey. They no longer enjoy their craft once their debut drops. After several album releases, things become routine and bitterness starts to creep in. No longer is the content performed and recorded with heart and soul. Rather than focusing on their unique originality, the lyrics are designed carefully with the instincts of a publicist and complacency becomes the norm. The art is tossed aside for its replacement: a career with long-term benefits. If performed and timed right, that would be terrific for the modern R&B sensation.

After observing the troubles of R&B acts like Fantasia (for her hush-hush relationship with a married man and a suicide attempt), Ne-Yo (who ranted on Twitter months ago about his poor record sales), Trey Songz (for blasting R. Kelly on his present-day content), we can come to the conclusion that the biggest problem to their artistry isn’t their art, but evidence of their shortcomings could be traced in singing songs that they don’t necessarily live by. Fantasia says she’s “doing me/it’s over now” on her new LP, but in real life was doing Antwaun Cook.  Ne-Yo sings “one in a million/you are” on his latest LP but details on Ne-Yo’s private life remains sketchy and questionable after mysteriously becoming a father of a baby girl with an Atlanta woman he formally called a friend and nothing more, according to the UK tabloid The Sun and he didn’t want to elaborate on the situation publicly. Last we heard, Ne-Yo is rumored to be fathering another child with the same woman. Ask him a question about that or any raise any questions about his sexuality and he’s hard on the defense, even becoming antsy and vigilant. Trey Songz panned Kelz, but fails to address his own vocal woes when performing live. The list goes beyond that. Go on Twitter any given day and you’ll see Erykah Badu blasting Kelis for being a “sellout” or Kanye West getting feisty with Britney Spears for outselling his single or Lil’ Kim getting nasty with Nicki Minaj for stealing her spotlight. It just seems like the competition in the R&B music world is really all the artists really care about. With all their attention on how to become the daily trending topic on Twitter, we don’t have to wonder why their albums stink and ponder too long on the mystery behind their disappointing record sales. Having said that, it’s becoming less gratuitous for consumers to appreciate the craft after being mugged down with all of this negativity. It’s as if the stars need the bad karma to get attention towards selling records. Apparently, their focus is on all the wrong things and their priorities are on everything but their first love: The music.

Final note to my fellow R&B and hip-hop stars: While you’re complaining and bitching and putting out beef with your competition, your competition will be focusing on their craft and taking home their well-respected Grammys. Good work pays off, great work usually pays on.


What’d I Say is apublic opinion series focusing on recent events featuring commentary from our team of skillful writers and guest bloggers. The opinions expressed at this forum are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of the parent company HiFi Magazine.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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