Courtesy of the artist
Usher. Courtesy of the artist
Maybe it was Whitney Houston's death. Maybe it's the return of the televised singing competitions – and the caliber of the singers on The Voice. Adele's diaphragm won't quit. It's certainly helped that R&B songs that have been creeping onto radio since the fall are getting video releases now. Maybe we just really missed Usher.
Whatever the reason, we at The Record are noticing a rush on vocal-heavy, gospel-rooted, grown and sexy slow jams this winter. And this is not the PBR&B, mixtape soul of last summer. These new songs and performances aren't afraid of the sweat. They come from the far ends of the R&B spectrum; they're either full-barreled, vein-popping belters or pillow talk murmurers. Singing and sanging.
The point is vocal performance.
Usher feints toward some Bruno Mars-type modulations here and there on "Climax," but he's mostly sticking with the poised, barely bluesed falsetto that made "Love in This Club" and "Lovers & Friends" dark horse house party tracks. Sure, Diplo, the producer, does dance and electronic, but for "Climax" he wisely follows the blueprint Lil Jon laid down: build a clubish track, then strip the tension out when Usher looses those high notes. Make it sound like you and Usher are all alone together.
Brandy and Monica, who, like Usher, have been making R&B hits since they were teenagers in the late 1990s, team up for a rematch of "The Boy Is Mine." Here they're on the same side and they're a little more grown up. The accoutrement certainly is; the styling on the video, from the gowns to the vehicles, is luxe. Maybe so luxe it distracts from the chesty alto Brandy's working and the perfectly calibrated runs Monica lays down.
Speaking of runs — Anthony Evans' performance on last week's episode of The Voice. Christina Aguilera made a big mistake with that one, pitting two huge gospel talents against each other, knowing she'd lose one of them. Evans would dominate any other singing competition show with one hand tied behind his back. When he just went for it (at 2:15 in the video) he turned that studio out. I'm not sure Alicia Keys has a claim to "If I Ain't Got You" anymore. Even if he's off the show, Evans kick-started a crossover career right there.
In a much more unlikely career move, Bobby Womack came back from nowhere this week. Yes, he was huge, but aside from a Mariah Carey namecheck (in related news, she's back!) and a guest vocal on a Gorillaz track two years ago, he hasn't been a headline in a minute. Damon Albarn must have stayed in touch since he produced this song with Womack's new label head Richard Russell. But why? Womack sounds like he was recorded continents away and decades ago from the instrumental. His voice sounds phenomenal, hearty and creased and well-oiled. The production sounds stodgy.
To my mind we owe Whitney for this moment in R&B, or at least the way I'm hearing it. We were spoiled by her isolated vocal for "How Will I Know" that went all over the Internet last month. The chance to listen around and behind the fact of the phrases she shaped and find the song in negative space. To hear the effort, the catch, the physicality of the creation. To sit quietly inside the notes. I wish I could hear all of these performances like that — get everything inessential out of the way and let the singer go to work.