Love & Hip-Hop: Toward An R&B Present

Ty Dolla Sign Jeremih R&B Blurred Lines
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There’s a song on Jeremih’s long-awaited new album Late Nights called “Impatient.” It features Ty Dolla $ign–who released his own anticipated major label debut Free TC a few weeks ago–and offers us the thrilling contrast between two of R&B’s most powerful, pervasive forces. Jeremih builds this big fluttery song, like a breeze through a billowing curtain, and then Ty comes barreling in for just one verse, slamming that window shut. Jeremih is the public-facing romance, he’s the hand on the small of your back, flickering candlelight in the background; Ty is the blackout curtain of privacy, the last thing you see before intimacy really begins. Except he lets us in there too–“I’m gonna have you sucking on my fingers while I hit it.”
In reviewing Free TC for Pitchfork critic Rebecca Haithcoat wrote “there is no fine print in a Ty Dolla $ign song,” and this has never been more clear than when his explicitness is tempered by Jeremih’s hazy ambiguity on “Impatient.” Free TC mostly sprawls beyond feasibility and lacks even the raunchy-but-fun specificity of the Beach House series as a guiding compass, whereas Jeremih’s songs on Late Nights fold in on themselves suggestively, revealing just enough to stimulate, like a negligee, or a public gaze held a touch too long. Hearing Ty and Jeremih together emphasizes their differences, but also their striking similarities: Here are two forces of nature building toward R&B present. But they aren’t the only ones reshaping the possibilities of this genre, and it’s impossible to talk about Ty and Jeremih without bringing Chance the Rapper’s Surf into the equation, too.

Last year in a Fader cover story on Ty, critic Julianne Escobedo Shepherd wrote that his style in particular recalls the purveyors of 90s New Jack Swing, who “hardened gospel-literate R&B by hybridizing it with hip-hop.” Sparked by Teddy Riley and continuing with the work of Guy, Jodeci, and Keith Sweat, the genre wafted by on some key features designated by Complex as “clap percussion, those nostalgic-sounding keys, the fidgety samples.” Sounds familiar, right? Though none of the music that Ty and Jeremih make sounds anything like that bright and cheerful 90s maximalism, Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment’s Surf almost does, and all three releases innovate by mixing what initially seemed to be disparate elements. Free TC and Late Nights are full of crooned sex-and-drug-jams infiltrated with hip-hop sensibilities, so it comes as no surprise that both records are overstuffed with cameos from rappers who are slightly more famous or commercially successful than Jeremih and Ty.

These releases operate in a major label setting, so guest verses are a given. The sheer enormity of features is overwhelming: J. Cole, Migos, Future, Big Sean (who shows up just long enough to put his foot in his mouth worse than J. Cole on “Planez” with a line about fingers in assholes), YG, Juicy J, Twista, Kendrick Lamar, E-40, Kanye West, Diddy, Wiz Khalifa, Fetty Wap and Rae Sremmurd. The only conspicuously missing figure is Drake, who maybe hews a little too close to the R&B-meets-rap style to feel okay appearing on either of these albums? There are 14 rappers featured across these two albums, enough rap to make it hard to classify either of them solely as R&B. They’re hybrids based on numbers alone. To contrast, again, Surf did not operate on guest verses, but centered the collective as a framework for the album. To drive this point home it was released on iTunes without any credits.

Amidst all the guests Ty and Jeremih employ, the production credits for Late Nights and Free TC yields very few women. This is not surprising, but it is worth examining. For Late Nights I was able to find Jhené Aiko on “Worthy” and Thea Austin who is a credited writer on “Don’t Tell ‘Em,” along with Feather as a guest on “I Did.” Free TC has a similar ratio, Brandy sings on “LA,” PJ on “Finale,” and a handful of female writers are credited on tracks. Meanwhile, there are only six tracks on Surf that don’t feature at least one, if not more women. Still unaffiliated with a major label, Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment are the closest thing to a full-fledged rhythm and blues coalition we’ve seen in God knows how long. Maybe it’s because he’s operating on the fringes of the music industry that women show up in Chance’s work. He identifies as a rapper–it’s right there in his name–but he is working far beyond the bounds of most rappers. And while Ty and Jeremih rap mostly about hedonistic pleasures, the physical act of coitus, and the women who obsessively or incessantly pursue them, Surf covers over a multitude of topics.

Look, these artists are all pursuing different ends, but the reduction of women to objects and pawns in the narratives on Free TC especially and on Late Night often makes it exceedingly hard for me to connect with or respect them. I don’t see myself as a “horse in a stable,” I see myself as a fucking jockey.

As if identifying women in various cities as potential sexual steeds to be ridden isn’t a deeply, deeply fucked up metaphor? Or there’s the voicemails included before “Know Ya” that paint the woman Ty was seeing as a psychotic, obsessed fool and him as just another lovable lothario. Whether you identify with the women being cheated on, or the one sneaking out, the only role here for a female listener is sexual receptacle for Ty’s unquenchable desire. It starts to feel like the only way to show up in Ty Dolla $ign’s universe is to fuck him, and expect nothing else. Even if he wants to get to you know, you’ll be driven off by another woman on her way in. Isn’t it hilarious how boys will be boys, this song seems to argue, and yet we see the effects of boys being boys has created a rape culture so toxic that 1 in 4 women have been raped or assaulted before they even hit their 20s.

Conversely, it was seemingly effortless for Chance and the Social Experiment to include women in creative positions and create an R&B album that addresses so much more than sex, drugs, or heartbreak. Surf resonated in a way that neither Ty’s or Jeremih’s will, and I’d argue this is very possibly tied to the bevy of women who helped create it, Erykah Badu and Janelle Monáe chief among them. Surf was downloaded as a full album 618,000 times in its first week, and had 10 million single downloads. Yes, it was free, but that is still almost 100,000 more copies than Drake himself sold.

While hip-hop’s cache in culture at large seems to only grow exponentially, R&B has fallen from the height it once occupied in the 90s. And arguably, the biggest R&B stars at the moment–Beyonce, Drake, and The Weeknd–all incorporate rap heavily into their sound. That seems like a logical evolution, and one that Ty and Jeremih are also helping spearhead. But the biggest stars of the 90s were women, and aside from Bey, that’s who is markedly absent from the upper echelons of R&B right now. Yes, emerging artists like Kelela, Kehlani, Tinashe, FKA twigs, and even Alessia Cara offer hope for a new wave of women, but why do none of them crop up here? Chance put his own perfect twist on Late Nights opener “Planez,” a song J. Cole tried his hardest to ruin, but I imagine a Tinashe verse on there. She always sounds the most spectacular over this kind of spaced-out, slim beat and airy synths.
Free TC and Late Nights are both albums that come loaded with purpose. As they arch to incorporate rap, they also lunge toward deeper, more serious goals. The lyrics might center around acts of physical pleasure and partying, but out of the studio Ty and Jeremih are thinking much bigger than fucking their way through the universe–they’re also thinking about how they can improve the world around them. Ty grew up in LA and linked with YG and DJ Mustard early on, escaping affiliation with a gang lifestyle by focusing on music. His brother TC wasn’t so lucky though, and is currently serving a life sentence for murder that Ty claims he is innocent of committing. Free TC ultimately functions as a tribute to Ty’s incarcerated brother, and TC pops up via prison phone several times, including the stunning, gospel-indebted “Miracle/Wherever.” (It’s also worth noting that Ty still begins talking about sex, even here). Some of the proceeds from the album sales will go toward a lawyer for his brother and a foundation for other inmates who claim innocence. This is admirable. But how long do we have to choose between respecting women and speaking out on behalf of other marginalized groups?

Jeremih told Fader his wider aim for Late Nights is to help revitalize the genre of R&B itself. He said this album is for “any R&B fellas out there, and to inspire other ones that’s coming up. Just for them to see what I’m bringing and how I feel R&B should sound like right now.” But–he said fellas. Part of what makes Surf such an unbelievable record is the synergy it contains, men and women working alongside one another to create the most beautiful and hopeful music possible. I’m not even arguing for either Ty or Jeremih to stop making songs about sex, or saying they need to enlist only women to work on music with them. I’m just arguing that they make songs about sex that allow me to listen and feel like a participant, not an afterthought. Jeremih does this on “Oui,” and “I Did,” and Jhené Aiko gives voice to this on “Worthy.” Further, note that the best song on his album, “Paradise,” isn’t mainly about sex, and sounds like it would fit right in on Surf.

Until the music industry begins embracing women instead of ignoring them or creating a culture that threatens them with harm and disrespect, it is unwittingly squandering a whole host of talent, a host of possibilities. R&B is doing this, too. Even when long-awaited albums drop, I find myself yearning, impatient, for this day. That sounds like paradise.


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