For fans of R&B, December 2008 was a bloodbath.
It had been a year marked by the steady, studied rise of carefully culled standout rhythm & blues albums, from Erykah Badu's career-defining (and criminally overlooked) fifth album to new faces like British teenager Adele and Philly's young breakout Jazmine Sullivan. Recently, Sullivan and Adele were rewarded with a combined nine Grammy nominations for their debut works, which gained word-of-mouth popularity due mostly to their ambitious, mainstream-shunning production and the unique timbre of their vocals. For better or worse, they became the year's "coffee-table albums," as Amy Winehouse had the year prior.
Throughout the year, the scarcity of releases by silky voiced crooners ironically did wonders for R&B's image, allowing excellent outings like Ne-Yo's breakbeat-soul, Year of the Gentleman, the room to establish themselves as the next wave in a genre previously prone to one-week sensations and heavily marketed phone-ins.
As it turns out, this may have been more of a concerted effort on the part of the record labels than first suspected. Plenty of albums by varying levels of superstar artists were in the bag, but they were kept on the shelf until nobody was looking. They would see the light of day in December, a month traditionally reserved for greatest-hits stocking stuffers and a dead-zone for Grammy hopefuls (the Grammy committee announce nominees early in the month, so anything released during those weeks must hope they're remembered a year later).
From Dec. 9 to Dec. 16, at least six new, major-label albums by past Grammy-winning and chart-topping R&B artists were dumped onto the market with hardly a mention, and judging by their quality, it's easy to see why they were snubbed. All but one seem to have been infected with a dramatic lack of identity and soul, either because of personal dramas sidetracking once promising careers or the passing-around of the same handful of uninspired producers.
Of the doomed six — Musiq Soulchild's OnMyRadio, Avant's self-titled release, Brandy's Human, Jamie Foxx's Intuition, Keyshia Cole's A Different Me and Anthony Hamilton's The Point Of It All — Hamilton's is the most undeserving of the treatment. His fascinating neo-soul has earned him multiple Grammy nominations and platinum-selling status since his debut proper in 2003, and the self-produced Point is full of hard-hitting, pavement-level street tales that call to mind Bobby Womack. Considering the success of his last two studio albums, it's inconceivable why this one was deemed unfit.
The rest, however, seal their own fates immediately upon listening.
A still-breathless Musiq Soulchild continues his annoyingly gabby pabulum and Princey LOL-text ("Deserveumore?" Really?) on an effort that only furthers suspicions that his pretentious moniker is there to mask his true identity as yet another empty balladeer.
Here's the only difference between Avant and Ne-Yo: Avant hasn't found a new way to express relationship issues. That's it. In fact, Avant beats the superstar in vocal range and even chiseled looks and style (yes, that's important; yes, that's a sad commentary on the state of R&B). But Ne-Yo expands the songcraft template to include the irresistible draw of a career woman who "doesn't need you," and rather than bemoaning the devil woman he can't get enough of with a somber wail, bathing in his dumb decisions with joyful techno beats. That's called a fresh spin, Avant. That's the difference.
Critically lauded Jamie Foxx cashes in once more on his star wattage with empty, bionic come-ons and an army of his rapper friends guesting until whatever original voice Foxx has to offer is buried in bubbly and boasts. "I'm a boss/I'm a playa/Got nothin' to say about me," he claims on "Number One," while saying nothing himself.
Keyshia Cole's pale effort on A Different Me reaches such a desperate pitch near the end that she recruits Monica, a former R&B star whose last album two years ago barely raised an eyebrow, to join her for a duet ("Trust") about bad boys. Instead of a raw confessional, especially considering Monica's tragic history in that department, it's a highly uncomfortable moment on an awkward album.
Former powerhouse Brandy, facing a giant wrongful death lawsuit for her involvement in a deadly highway car crash, has decided to pretend none of it happened and quietly release Human, an insufferable collection of trite ballads and faux-inspirational syrup. The insultingly middle-of-the-road release was produced largely by Rodney Jerkins but also features backing tracks from Midi Mafia and Dapo Torimiro, two names that also appear on John Legend's much more commercially viable but similarly deficient Evolver from earlier in the year.
This shared pool of elite R&B producers is indicative of a larger problem within the genre: a lack of ideas. Teams like Norwegian duo Stargate (Sullivan, Foxx), Philly's Carvin & Ivan (Soulchild, Cole, Sullivan) and Trackmasters (Avant, Cole) pop up again and again on the December Six's production lists, and although their work on these albums is middling, they can receive up to hundreds of thousands of dollars per song. At that price, the track they come up with for the artist must either be a smash hit or the whole album may be left to die, especially since a publicity push would only sink more money into a dead cause.
An album doesn't have to — nor should it — rely so exclusively on the production, but artists like Anthony Hamilton, who has the musicianship to be hands-on in every aspect, are increasingly rare in modern R&B.
Hence, the big dump; high-risk, high-loss albums in a genre once affiliated with jazz and electric blues. In truth, it's vital for the industry that a skilled sorting method be employed and the trash is truly discarded with minimal attention. If last December signals a trend of less product with greater quality, then a sad month for R&B fans actually results in a more fulfilling year in the long firstname.lastname@example.org