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Before hip-hop died: best of the best in rnb

It’s one of the inevitabilities of music criticism that eventually, someone somewhere declares a formerly beloved genre dead. The movement usually goes something like: underground from first crossover, critically acclaimed innovation, further underground/crossover moments then a final “imperial phase” and then holding pattern as accepted – but not terribly exciting – part of the mainstream’s musical vernacular.

Counter-accusations fly forth from defenders, new evidence for the genre’s liveliness flourished, and so on. Defenders may point out that, like Denholm on British sitcom “The IT Crowd” declaring war on STRESS, the critical declaration may itself be something of an attempt to cause the very thing it is lamented – the death of the genre. Much like Michael Jackson in his final years or The Rolling Stones any time after 1980, living past your prime is just embarrassing.

Passionate fans find themselves over time wishing you out of the way so they can get on with the business of mourning and commemorating your glory days properly, without any inconvenient rubbish new records or duets with Will.I.Am. Such is music fandom in the early 21st century.

Still, I don’t think it’s news to anyone that the hip-hop/rnb behemoth has not been in the best of health for awhile now, interesting anomalies like Janelle Monae aside. Nas pre-emptively declared hip-hop dead in his 2006 album Hip Hop Is Dead, and gradually, as record sales have slumped (comparative to other genres), critical consensus has been forming that he may in fact have been right.

Sasha Frere Jones last year in The New Yorker declared 2009 to be hip-hop’s death, then quickly backed away from the suggestion, while Simon Reynolds in The Guardian dated the decline to 2004, “when Timbaland ‘repeatedly voiced … a frustration with pop music, particularly the hip-hop end of it’ (according to his New York Times interviewer, one Sasha Frere-Jones) and further declared: ‘It’s time for me to retire, because it ain’t the same … I’m tired of stuff now, even stuff that I do.’” After the disaster that was Tim’s “Shock Value II,” that tiredness is evermore apparent.

There’s been a certain kind revaluation of new-jack swing among nostalgists in the last year, bored with the ever-present 80s retreads, but for my money, the hip-hop/rnb merger of the late 90s and early 00s created not only some of the most innovative music of hip-hop’s lifetime, but music that still sounds like the future. Producers like Timbaland, the Neptunes, Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins” and a host of other lesser lights produced music that sounds immaculate, and still surprises and occasionally confuses.

There’s technical reasons for the decline of quality in contemporary music. The real change of the internet distribution model has not been in record sales, but the change in the feedback loop between production and consumption—cheapbeats are made for I-tunes distribution to cheaper computer speakers and I-Pod headphones. Instead of a broad spectrum of frequencies made to cut across equally the bottom end of clubs and car stereos, the midrange of radio and the crisp high end of CD players, contemporary hip-hop and rnb music is aimed at the disparate ends of car bass and YouTube clip treble. The sound is a distinctly tinny, all middle and high end digital (and yes, like everything nowadays, songs are all mastered too high).

The move to 80s influenced synths and the ever-present 808 drum machine cuts through both, though the emulators used on Digital Audio Workstations sound thin next to their analogue progenitors. Sadly, this as much as anything is a strong argument against the inherent positivity of cheap music-making software and recording equipment. A million monkeys might come up with Shakespeare, but ten million kids with Fruityloops could only come up with Soulja Boy.

In contrast, the late 90s hip-hop/rnb still sounds warm across mediums, with drums sampled on hardware samplers like the Akai MPC series. Abjuring the funk drum loop sound of classic 80s hip-hop, millennial rnb producers trimmed their drums to a crisp cleanness, opting for a hyper-real sound that merged jittery inhuman rhythms with “real” sounding drum samples.

Larger budgets gave producers the freedom to experiment with obtaining bigger and occasionally better sounds (though no-one, I repeat no-one ever should be allowed to bring in a children’s choir on a ballad ever again). While Puffy wasted his money on clearing expensive pop samples, Rodney Jerkins in “The Boy Is Mine,” TLC’s “No Scrubs” and the Trackmasters produced “Independent Women Part One” revived the funk potential of the orchestra. Timbaland for much of this period was on a one-man mission to use the weirdest sound fx possible as rhythmic and melodic weapons, from the strange burping synth of “Pony” to the “woop woop” percussion of SWV’s “Can We.”

Of course, many of the worst tendencies in contemporary music emerged in the late 90s too. The initially exciting Autotune gimmick which so plagued the second half of this decade was pioneered in the late 90s, by pop artists like Cher and Daft Punk as much as in hip-hop.

The blending between hip-hop and rnb started by new jack swing artists like Guy was completed and institutionalized in this period, creating a briefly exciting but ultimately homogenous hybrid.

The egregious multi-platform branding which makes music feel like the soundtrack to advertising was similarly pioneered by figures like Sean Combs (then going as Puffy rather than Diddy). Yet, despite this, the period melded sonic innovation with monoculture pop culture ubiquity like few scenes since.

There’s still plenty that could be written in homage of this period—the all-too-brief popularity of bhangra and Middle-Eastern samples (the amazing bhangra drum’n’bass hybrid that is Missy’s “Get Ur Freak On,” Truth Hurts’ “Addicted” and so on), the psychedelic surrealism of Busta Rhyme’s best work (personal favourite: the Hitchcock style strings of “Gimme Some More”), Puff Daddy’s best pop moments (the strangely un-hip hop snares of “Mo Money Mo Problems”), and much more. But for now I suggests that listeners—and producers—dissatisfied with the lack of innovation in contemporary hip-hop/rnb sit down with a few classic songs and imagine what new musical trajectories can be traced out this amazingly fertile period.

Five rnb records that still sound like the future:

Ginuwine – Pony

Ginuwine’s first—and best—single was Timbaland’s first step into the spotlight, a game-changing beat. Slowing the mid tempo new jack swing down to the typically slowjam tempo, Timbaland pioneered the push-pull halftime/doubletime groove that dubstep producers in London are still trying to catch up with. And a 14 years later, I remain clueless as to what that burping synth is, if anything.

Kelis – Caught Out There (1999)

Kelis’s first single announced her strong personality and commitment to mind-melting takes on rnb. Over a rock-solid Neptunes beat, The descending synth tones pre-figure the 8bit psychedelia of “wonky” artists like Joker, while the infamous distorted shouted chorus still lights the way for the injection of some punk-rock injection into the lovey-dovey world of rnb.

Jay-Z featuring UGK – Big Pimpin (2000)

Built around a hypnotic flute 1950s Egyptian sample, Timbaland’s beat is the height of early 00s lushness – the affluent shiny-suit era 90s run just a little bit over before the depression of the War on Terror and the austerity of the credit crunch. Jay-Z’s rap and chorus is passably decent, but it’s the ferocious one-two punch of UGK that really makes the song.

Aaliyah – We Need A Resolution (2001)

I could have chosen practically any of Aaliyah’s still-astounding records, from the eerie baby-sampling “R U That Somebody?” to the sparse-but-lush “One in a Million” or the strange vocoder-aping synths of “Hot Like Fire.” But “We Need A Resolution,” with its’ rising violin sound and skippy drums remains one of Timbaland’s finest moments, while Aaliyah delivers a beautifully fragile vocal . The reversed synth and the plinky glockenspiel outro ends the song on an intriguingly inconclusive note given the song’s title.

Brandy – What About Us (2002)

On “What About Us,” Brandy and her producer Darkchild married the unquantitized drums now being
used by alt-hiphoppers like Flying Lotus with rnb harmonies and vocal edits and warped synths. The marimba arpeggios are a nice touch, too. Still big, still uncannily claustrophobic for a dance-rnb track.

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