For The Ladies: R. Kelly, Teddy Pendergrass And The State Of R&B

This week, fans of music, melodrama and ridiculous wigs welcomed the return of Trapped in the Closet, R. Kelly‘s hip-hop soap opera, which returns to IFC the day after Thanksgiving with 20 new episodes. (Watch the recapping Chapter 23 here.) The singer-provocateur is having a busy fall — he’s touring with his “Single Ladies” show, aimed at just what the title suggests, and has announced a racy new album, Black Panties, forthcoming next year. Meanwhile, Kelly has some young rivals in the field of creative R&B: Frank Ocean‘s in the studio with Jay-Z and Pharrell, and Miguel has just released the gorgeous Kaleidoscope Dream, which promises to make it onto many a year-end best list. And the business of R&B is in the news, with Billboard instituting a new chart solely devoted to songs from the genre.

It’s a good time to check in with someone who really knows the genre. Nelson George wrote the essential histories The Death of of Rhythm and Blues and Buppies, Baps and Bohos and has recently transformed himself into a documentarian of black music. (Check out the Kickstarter for his current screen collaboration with the venerable music producer Arthur Baker, Finding the Funk, or his film memoir, Brooklyn Boheme, on ITunes.) (George is also a novelist; his latest, The Plot Against Hip Hop was a finalist for the 2012 NAACP Image Award in Literature. I’m always excited to hear what George thinks about a given musical moment, and when I discovered that he was one of the very few men who caught the first big “Ladies Only” tour — the one Teddy Pendergrass mounted in the late 1970s — I decided to ask for his views on the current state of smooth.

NPR: This is an interesting moment for R&B. There’s a lot of innovation and quite a bit of good old-fashion sexiness. R. Kelly is crossing the country on his “Single Ladies” tour, selling his brand of ribald heat to mostly female audiences. The supergroup TGT (Tyrese, Ginuwine and Tank) will do something similar on an upcoming “Shirts Off” tour. Why do you think these older artists are going so hard for the ladies lately?

Nelson George: Hip-hop has always been challenging for adult women. Even women who grew up with it and love it as a genre have problems with many individual artists and songs. Moreover, the youth orientation of hip-hop makes it seem like even “emo” MCs like Drake are talking to teens or young adults — not women with kids or ex-husbands. R&B and soul have always been about adult situations and adult emotions, with songs of devotion, desire and delight aimed squarely at women. R&B, unlike hip-hop, is where the conversation is overwhelmingly about love and usually aimed at seducing or at least engaging women listeners. Ladies like to be the center of attention, and they always are in R&B. So concerts aimed squarely at them makes perfect business and aesthetic sense.

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