Blue-Eyed Rhythm and Blues: Does Race Matter?

ROBIN THICKE, who is known professionally as Thicke, pulls into the parking lot of Mel’s Diner on the Sunset Strip and sits at a table outdoors. The son of the one-time sitcom star Alan Thicke, he has long brown hair and a thin Van Dyke and is dressed casually, like beach bum or small-time pot dealer, which he says he used to be.

I tell him how much I like his first album, how impressed I was with his Beethoven-sampling single ”When I Get You Alone,” and how I didn’t even realize that he was white when I first heard it. He glows. Then I tell him that there’s another album coming out, on Tuesday, that it is in some ways similar to his, and that, like his, people are comparing it to Michael Jackson. That album, ”Justified” (Jive), is the first solo CD by Justin Timberlake of ‘N Sync.

Thicke’s glow fades. He says he once tried to be a rock singer. ”I don’t scream as good as Kurt Cobain,” he says. ”I wasn’t using what God gave me, which was a soulful voice.”

The Neptunes, the phenomenally successful production team that worked on most of Mr. Timberlake’s album, are also fans of Thicke’s. When asked about the differences between the two singers, Chad Hugo of the Neptunes said: ”This is the thing: Robin’s got some Michael with him, but he’s got some Prince with him, and he’s got, like, some Kenny Loggins with him. Now, Justin, he’s got some Michael with him, but then, you know, he’s got, like, a Stevie Wonder sample. But then Robin’s got some Stevie.” He paused for a second and then continued: ”I don’t know. They’re different, though. It’s hard to really describe how they are different, but they are different.”

Mr. Hugo is right: Thicke and Mr. Timberlake are very much the same but also very different. There is no mistaking one for the other, but they are both coming from the same place and attempting a rare crossover for this moment in music. They are both white men in their 20’s who have made very good debut albums of modern R & B, with initial singles that sound like new Michael Jackson productions. As surprising as it is, considering the long tradition of white artists riding black musical styles to the top of the charts, there are extremely few white men successfully singing R & B today. But as the distance between hip-hop and R &B;narrows and an 80’s nostalgia creeps into popular culture, the field is changing.

”I think my album is an R & B record,” Mr. Timberlake said of ”Justified,” which includes some of the Neptunes and the producer Timbaland’s most innovative work.

For a time in the 80’s, the color barrier in pop music seemed to melt away. The biggest stars of the period — Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince — did not make black music or white music. They simply made pop music. These superstars transcended genre to reach pop fans across the radio dial. But since then the way in which music is distributed and consumed has splintered and changed. Thanks in part to extensive market research, radio is no longer the domain of music fans but of target audiences. And target audiences, by definition, fit distinct criteria of race, gender, age and income. Turning to any music station, one need only listen closely to the commercials to guess what style of music it plays. Perhaps the only performer who is able to move back and forth between pop, rock, hip-hop and R & B radio today is Eminem, who weds the persecution complex of hard rock to the form and flow of hip-hop.

But all of a sudden, in popular and underground culture, the 80’s are back. There is an electro-pop revival, hordes of new post-punk bands, the ”Thriller”-era Michael Jackson is revered, and there are more and more people dressing in 80’s styles who never did so in the decade itself. Even the radio programming, which many once saw as so excruciating that they reacted with what became grunge and alternative rock, is now idealized as a golden age.

”People should make whatever music they want to,” said Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes, who grew up in Virginia Beach. ”In the 80’s, that’s the way it was. On a big black station, like here in Virginia, we would listen to 103 Jams, and that station would play Shannon and then play Tears for Fears and then Michael Jackson and then ‘Planet Rock’ and then Thomas Dolby. All kinds of music.”

It is this constant erecting and removal of barriers that stimulates musical evolution. After all, artistic innovation often comes about through combination and substitution: combine Kraftwerk and disco, and you have techno; combine country music and rhythm-and-blues, and you have rockabilly. White and black music, not to mention American and British music, have always existed in this type of back-and-forth cultural exchange.

Since the Beastie Boys had the biggest-selling rap album in the 80’s, white groups have made hip-hop their favorite idiom to plunder. Throughout much of the 90’s, hardcore hip-hop was the music of white suburbia, but in the last few years, pop tastes there shifted to white new-metal acts, many of whom simply added hip-hop D.J.’s, rapping or beats to run-of-the-mill hard rock.

Not often in the last few years, however, has it been cool for white male singers to revel in contemporary R & B music. Show up at a Wu-Tang Clan show (that is, if the group shows up), and there are white b-boys galore; go to see any best-selling R & B act, be it Dave Hollister, Gerald Levert or 112, and there is hardly a white male in sight. To make a broad generalization, hip-hop is yang; it is about making it in the streets. R & B is yin; it is about making it in the sheets. Not since the height of new-romantic, new-wave androgyny has it been trendy for a white male to be yin. This is because hip-hop is the most culturally important music being made right now — just as rock and jazz were before it. And it is a praiseworthy attribute in hip-hop to be hard: DMX is hard, and Eminem is hard. R & B is soft.

In this climate, when sensitive male sex symbols have been replaced by alpha male action heroes like Vin Diesel, yin would not seem to be in. Within a year, however, Mr. Timberlake, Thicke and the Canadian singer Remy Shand will have all put out compelling R & B and neo-soul debut albums.

On ”Justified,” Mr. Timberlake teams up with two of hip-hop’s most innovative producers, the Neptunes and Timbaland, to turn 70’s bedroom soul into a sophisticated futuristic funk that serves notice that he has finally graduated from teen pop. The album mixes the feel of a casual soul jam (shot through at times with a surprising sense of humor) with state of the art studio work. Most impressive is ”Cry Me a River,” with driving-rain sound effects, big synthesizer chord stabs, human beatbox, a gospel choir, a string section and a falsetto chorus, all reduced to the stop-and-start minimalism that Timbaland is known for.

”Cherry Blue Sky” (NuAmerica/Interscope), by Thicke, who has written songs for Marc Anthony, Brandy, Mya and Christina Aguilera, is more eclectic in its approach, moving from rickety homemade funk to heart-melting love ballads to portentous disco. (The release of the album, originally due this week, has been postponed until January.) Mr. Shand is more of a classicist, crooning on ”The Way I Feel” (Universal) in a falsetto with an easy soulfulness that recalls Maxwell and D’Angelo by way of the Commodores, Impressions and the Isley Brothers.

Of course, while Mr. Timberlake, Thicke and Mr. Shand are among the first popular white R & B interpreters in years, they are not the first of their kind: they belong to a long tradition that includes the Righteous Brothers, the Rascals, the Spencer Davis Group, the Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers, the Average White Band, Robert Palmer and Hall and Oates.

But the soul and R & B of today is vastly different from that of decades ago, and it has taken white acts this long to catch up with the changes. What was largely a singer’s field became a producer’s art. In the late 80’s, producers like Teddy Riley, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and Babyface and LA Reid modernized soul and rhythm-and-blues in the face of the increasing dominance of rap. And though Mr. Riley may not be a household name like the great singers of the 60’s, he, in particular, was responsible for bringing R & B into the modern age. He managed to incorporate hip-hop beats into the genre, sacrificing little of the bedroom-eyes yin. In the process he masterminded some of the biggest R & B hits of the time and discovered producers like Rodney Jerkins and even the Neptunes.

In the late 90’s, hip-hop beats began to skitter and stutter as producers like the Neptunes, Swizz Beats and Timbaland began to create a sleek futuristic minimalism. Slowly, that sound began to cross over to modern rhythm-and-blues, making the songs much more sonically appealing to rap and even some rock fans. What few understood about Beck’s ”Midnite Vultures” album, for example, was that he wasn’t a white boy playing with hip-hop anymore: he was delving into the high-tech funk and blatant come-ons of modern rhythm-and-blues.

Most musicians bristle at making distinctions between music along lines of color. They are, of course, right. Those and other distinctions usually come along after the music is created, when it must be pushed through the gates of culture. This involves giving it to a division of the record label marketing department (urban, rock, pop) which then gives it to a division of the radio market (Hot AC, Urban AC, CHR/Pop, CHR/Rhythmic and countless other categories with strange appellations).

”Look at Billboard magazine,” Mr. Timberlake said. ”Everything is broken down: this is R & B/hip-hop, and this is gospel, and this is rock, and this is mainstream, and this is rhythm crossover, blah blah blah. At the end of the day, the public — and I say this because I’m a fan of music — doesn’t care. I have Eminem, Donny Hathaway and Coldplay in my CD player right now. I don’t care.”

Thicke offers similar sentiments: ”America is like a high school cafeteria right now. I have to sit at this table because it defines who I am. Why can’t you have a friend at each table? Because there are cool people at each table.”

”It’s usually only the smoke man who normally knows everybody,” he added, referring the local pot dealer. ”I want to be the smoke man.”

Justin Timberlake.
Jive Records.
To be released on Tuesday.

Cherry Blue Sky
NuAmerica/Interscope Records.
To be released in January.


Related Articles

Archive Search

Search the world's largest online archive of material about Jewish diversity.

Archive Search

Search the world's largest online archive of material about Jewish diversity.


Read more on these topics: