I envy R&B singers, I really do.
I mean, how many other professions pay you to tell women exactly what they want to hear, whether it’s true or not, with nearly instantaneous feedback to how it’s going over. However, much like some women, R&B can be fickle. Yet Trey Songz has managed to ride the wave for the past six years.
From braids to waves, his trajectory as an artist has seen him go from the humble every man crooner to a certifiable bedroom specialist and his fourth album, Passion, Pain & Pleasure, hit stores today and continues his trend of sexuality and sensuality over substance.
His fourth album puts him a rare air where there’s just enough material, albeit it in a condensed period of time, to judge where he might stand in the pantheon of singers in a genre that’s essentially been divided into two distinct sub-genres.
Think about it. Take away neo-soul artists, who are absent from this argument because of the stark differences in style, sound and demographic, his competition is really just four other people right now; Chris Brown, Usher, Ne-Yo and The-Dream. All of whom have an edge over him for different reasons.
Songz isn’t the total package or dual threat Chris Brown is as a performer. I’d argue he could out sing Ne-Yo and The-Dream but he’s far from the songwriter or hit maker those two have proven to be and his catalog is hardly ready to compete with Usher’s decade and a half on the charts. Take his best album, to date, and it’s only in Usher’s 8701 ballpark, not even the same league as Confessions. In his defense, few albums are.
With all that said, his appeal right now is greater than all four and there has to be more to it than women thinking he’s cute. Maybe it’s just timing. After Brown’s transgressions, Ne-Yo and The-Dream’s domination on radio finally cooling off and Usher’s shift to OG status of the genre once headlined by Bobby Brown and R. Kelly, Songz has carved out a niche.
In an era where R&B, as a genre, has been about as stagnant as ever, he’s managed to remain on top, when other newcomers have kicked out songs nearly identical in theme and sound. As one female friend of mine put it, he’s believable. But that doesn’t still doesn’t explain the phenomenon.He’s figured out and cornered the market for current R&B and hip hop collaborations. Whether it was “Say Aah” with Fabolous on his previous release or tracks like “The Unusual” with Drake from his new album, it’s seemingly his most comfortable position. Thankfully, he’s not doing the freestyles he was dropping a few years ago though.
On Passion, Pain & Pleasure, Songz moves further away from the ‘us against the world’ anthems that defined his initial success and plants his flag firmly in the woman pleasing department.
Songs like “Love Faces” and “Doorbell” evoke instant R. Kelly comparisons as Songz skips the metaphors and just says exactly what’s on his mind, pulling off lyrics like, “I’m gonna get you naked” repeatedly and “Girl, you gotta n*gga so horny…” smooth enough as not to jump out as misplaced sexual advances. Something’s clicking.
“Bottoms Up” with Nicki Minaj, another rap collaboration, was about as standard as radio ready R&B jams get these days. Those two names appearing together will be strength enough to push it up the charts. Whereas had it been anyone other than Songz, this song might would see it’s airplay run take a different arch.
Ironically his “Pain (Interlude)” and “Pleasure (Interlude)” were two of the best executed tracks to me, too bad they’re both under 90-seconds a piece. “Can’t Be Friends” has a definite, Michael Jackson vibe, while “Return My Call” was begging R&B singer at it’s finest, no slight at all.
Throughout Passion, Pain & Pleasure, it’s hard to determine whether Songz is indeed building steam and getting stronger as the album goes along or you’re adjusting his aesthetic and sensibilities. On first run, it’s back-loaded with good material. “Made To Be Together” and “Unfortunate” stuck out to me as songs that would definitely get multiple plays.
“Blind” was unique. It had the potential to be a hit, not necessarily in the club, but when it crosses over from Urban radio to Top 40, which I think it has the legs to do. It’s the most Ne-Yo of anything on this album in terms of it’s potential universal appeal. Same goes for “You Just Need Me”, Which may be the last song played by one segment of his fans, while it’s the track another segment, skips straight to.
Contrary to popular belief, the genre is more than just chest naked photo shoots, racy videos and posturing. Don’t worry Trey Songz has those elements down. What’s most impressive is the balance he’s found in giving fans just enough of what they’d expect from a traditional R&B dude and in process, slowly crafting something his own, even if it does sound like Bobby B. or Kellz 2.0.
Timeless? Maybe not. Timely? Definitely.