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Reversing gender domination in R&B

By Emily Herbst
On November 8, 2012

Aaliyah, TLC, Janet Jackson, SWV, Erykah Badu, Brandy: all household names for anyone (well, those musically in-touch) that grew up in the decade of R&B spanning from 1992 to 2002. From the sexy and soulful notes of TLC's classic cheatin' jam "Creep" to Mary J. Blige's independent power-fueled "Real Love," music had a beautiful overload of female-dominated R&B that lasted a solid 10 years and exited on the highest note possible.
A consistent message lined the notes of TLC. A trio of sassy women, Lisa "Left-Eye Lopes," Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas' music screamed female independence, sexual freedom and a sense of attitude. "Scrubs" is teeming with all of these concepts: an anthem for the free woman about the resistance to settling for "a broke-ass" guy. It's about making things happen for oneself. As they make quite clear, a cocky guy with financial baggage isn't on the agenda.
A similar substance laced the lyrics of Destiny's Child and Erykah Badu - all R&B queens with a passion to educate about self-support, singleness, individuality and recognizing inner beauty in the most melodic way possible.
"Try to control me boy you get dismissed. Pay my own fun, oh and I pay my own bills. Always 50/50 in relationships," pronounced Beyonce, Kelly and Michelle of Destiny's Child. "Boy I gotta watch my back, cause I'm not just anybody," says Aaliyah in her classic, "Are You That Somebody." Erykah Badu was the epitome of sass, often addressing the advantage men take of wealthy women in the music industry, challenging in "Tyrone": "I'm gon' tell you the truth. Show and prove, or get the boot." Attitude permeated this genre and hence, doubled the appeal.
The bottom line: 1990s R&B music was by women, for women.
Undoubtedly, females have not totally left the R&B scene; singers like Elle Varner, Keri Hilson and Beyonce still crank out albums on the regular. But the few females who do still coin themselves as R&B generally have a very different tone than those from the 1990s. It's not really the message of independence so much as impressing a man now; it's better to push past his mistakes than leave the scene: quite different from the lesson that 3LW teaches in "No More (Baby I'ma Do Right)": "but I'm paid now, I know that you hate that. Oh, you got the one now, you warm now. 'Cause you thought you'd come right back, save that."
In addition to the change in attitude from female singers, it now seems that males are slowly but surely dominating the genre. With this comes a wave of change in lyrics, flow, topic choice, popularity and other aspects. Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All graduate Frank Ocean is the best example. Coming from Odd Future, Frank occasionally donated his vocal talents to some of the rap group's albums, sticking to mixtapes for his obscure solo work. Since the release of Channel Orange this past summer, Frank's popularity has simply exploded. He's flown from the Odd Future nest, touring as a single performer and gaining recognition from countless rap and R&B musicians.
Miguel is another male R&B success story. The 28-year-old crooner has the ideal sexy, smooth voice, but does he have the substance? His talent is unsurpassed, but his topic choice varies little from the usual sexual conquests involving a certain girl, or three. Lloyd is another example. It would be an accurate statement to say that Lloyd's music can be classified in the "baby-making" genre. Not necessarily a bad thing, but is that really all we're looking for in R&B? As one who holds the genre close to the heart, I'd say no.
We need a change-up - a blast from the past of female groups who harmonize about topics that they did a decade ago. I'm not sure how this can be done, but perhaps it is through the revitalization of female independence and freedom that more women will gravitate back to the roots of R&B, or at least create a gender balance in the genre.

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