A few years ago, when Sunday sessions at the pub were still a core part of me adulterating my weekend (definitely not to be confused with adulting), Big Call Sunday was born.
You know the scene. The talk got louder and looser, views became flippantly more extreme and equally more carefree and confident.
Some of my favourite go-to soundbytes were ‘U2 have had like max three good songs ever’ or ‘Mariah Carey’s Fantasy is the best song of all time, without question’. I was basically a poor man’s shock jock, only less destructive to society given my tiny audience and trivial subject matter.
After a long hiatus, Big Call Sunday made a return in the early hours of this Sunday morning. Chatting to a brand new-BFF as the remaining guests played Spotify-jukebox, I said, “Ja Rule was probably the most influential artist to bring rap into the mainstream”.
With the benefit of hindsight and also sobriety, I probably could have stepped that back a little but that sort of nuanced concession is not what Big Call Sunday is about. It’s not like it’s called ‘reasonable opinions that people will probably agree with’.
To my (and Ja Rule’s) credit, he was the pioneer of the thug-love duet (I’m Real with J-Lo and Always on Time with Ashanti, etc). But it didn’t start there.
It actually started with Living It Up, which brought with it a more R&B sound through it’s Stevie Wonder sample (“…what do I do?”). The same can be said for Jay Z’s Izzo (H.O.V.A.) which came out at the same time and sampled Jackson 5’s I Want You Back (or even his Hard Knock Life sample of Annie).
Think of those songs and their more commercial sounds like the spoonful of sugar needed to help the medicine go down for many a person who had not dabbled in rap before.
This definitely wasn’t music’s first blended recipe. R&B (which owes much of its sound to soul and gospel), hip-hop and, dare I say, pop have had various hybrid incarnations over the years. The credibility of some of those genres may be in question by purists, but there’s no denying they have been a musical-gateway drug for many people. Look where we are now, with hip-hop as the most popular music genre of last year in the US and is finding itself at the top of more countries’ charts, more constantly than ever before.
Of course, the groundwork was already laid for Ja Rule and co. to go on their winning streak. I’d say by Puff Daddy a few years earlier but that would undermine most of what I’ve already written and practically my entire case. Instead, I’m going to talk about the way that was paved back in 80s.
After the downfall of disco (great name for a club) and the rise of underground hip hop and rap, a new sound was born.
New jack swing was its name and it brought together the harder beats and sounds of hip-hop, the silky vocals of traditional R&B, with an added low-key polish of pop production on the way out the door – it was still the 80s, after all.
It’s pretty much what those of us who were around in the 90s know as straight-up R&B. But it’s not, because straight up R&B is called Rhythm and Blues and that was about 30 years before.
Janet Jackson’s album Control (What Have You Done For Me Lately, Nasty) is considered the birthplace of new jack swing. Although that was produced by Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam, the sound of that album inspired a canny producer named Teddy Riley.
Teddy went on to own the genre (and discover a young Pharrell Williams just a few years later), with Bobby Brown his sound’s initial brand champion. New jack swing went on to become the champion of the charts for many years to come and leave a legacy that can still be heard today.
It also went on to become the undisputed champion of my heart over the years through Janet, Michael, Blackstreet, TLC and, of course, Aaliyah, to name only a few. I’m going to make this my first ever Moderate Call Monday and say that Aaliyah was the last pure ambassador and icon of the genre.
New jack swing brought hip-hop into the home and gave R&B an edge that it didn’t have before. It also made it all palatable to people who didn’t really have an affinity with either through it’s pop leanings.
Sure, there are still moments of ‘real R&B’ today but they are fewer and farther between as everyone wants the type of instantly-gratifying assault on the senses that comes with EDM-infused pop. Did you know that the instrumental introduction on songs has decreased from an average of 20 seconds in the 80s to just 5 seconds now?! I don’t want to dramatise this, but we are basically all doomed.
This not only makes that golden R&B-era in the 90/00s all the more sacred, it also means that when someone gets it right today and takes us on a ride in the deloR&Bean to a time when the music on the charts was the purest and the realest, it makes the hairs on your arms stand up like Doc’s crazy time-travelling professor hair.
Like 23 year old London gal Ella Mai’s debut single Boo’d Up, which has unexpectedly but delightingly roared up the US charts recently to reach number 6 and earn platinum status.
This song reminds me of what I loved about the genre in the first place. Music that is about 80-spacious hip-hop beats away from balladry. Music that talks about love in a way that was once judgmentally-reserved for Mills and Boon. Music that ultimately has the singer’s voice as star of the show.
Boo’d Up could be the younger sister of Mariah Carey’s We Belong Together (a Babyface co-write, who was another master of NJS), Groove Theory’s Tell Me or even Keith Sweat’s Twisted. All ballads on paper yet you can totally feel yourself dance to them, even if it’s just a repeat side-wobble from the comfort of a chair.
When I learned Boo’d Up was produced by DJ Mustard, I was initially shocked. He’s renowned for his wonky-hip-hop club-ready beats, the most famous of which might be Rack City by Tyga (Rack City, Rack-Rack City B…). He also usually says “Mustard on the beat” at the start of every song he produces. He does neither of those things here.
Now it makes total sense. To me, this is where new jack swing’s influence really shows it’s genius. That hip-hop influence is so subtle people didn’t – and don’t – even know they’re getting it. It’s more a physical reaction. It takes over your body, the R&B stylings has your heart and soul, and the pop shine gets right into your head and doesn’t let it leave.
There, I’ve just cracked the code of contemporary R&B. And so has Boo’d Up.
This song takes me to places I had honestly given up on ever visiting again.
On this Moderate Call Monday, I’m going to say it’s the best straight up R&B song I’ve heard in a long time.
If it was still Sunday, I would say it’s the best R&B song I’ve ever heard. Sure, it’s a big call. But on the right day of the week, I reckon I can get behind it.