In an article about R&B music, an illustration of a microphone.
Illustration by Mi Young

Is Contemporary R&B Becoming Too Toxic?

While recent releases may be following larger trends, the music also reveals something interesting about a genre defined by love songs.

Sounds x
In an article about R&B music, an illustration of a microphone.
Illustration by Mi Young

While recent releases may be following larger trends, the music also reveals something interesting about a genre defined by love songs.

Dvsn’s latest single “If I Get Caught” was met with mixed reactions. Some fans praised the duo for their newest “toxic banger” whereas others expressed their exhaustion with music that glorifies unhealthy relationships. Fans also showed disappointment with the song, including one user on Twitter who said, “Y’all are way too talented to be putting out stuff like this.” “If I Get Caught” is a departure from the pair’s usual experimental R&B songs like “Hallucinations” or “Think About Me”  so their latest single does come across as a cash in on the growing trend of toxic music.  Many believe unhealthy relationships have become too prevalent in R&B but is there validity behind these claims? Has the genre that was defined by love ballads become too toxic?

There is a growing sentiment that R&B is a far cry from what it once was. Singer and songwriter Ne Yo shared his thoughts on its current state in an interview earlier this year. “R&B music definitely has gone through an era that is much harsher than we all remember…Now it’s like, okay, we got to move with the times but at the same time, love is not a trend or a fade. It’s not something that is supposed to go out of style.” Ne Yo’s take on real love is incredibly ironic considering just this week, his wife announced their separation amid accusations of infidelity. But his statement on the genre doesn’t seem like a fair assessment either. He generalizes modern R&B music when plenty of artists today don’t make toxic tunes.

R&B isn’t all about love — it’s about feeling. Artists from as far back as the genre’s infancy have poured their heart and soul into their music, regardless of the song’s subject matter. To say that every old-school R&B song was romantic oversimplifies the era’s variety. Songs not only explored love but also cheating, heartbreak and loss. These feelings may be negative but they’re real too. It’s easy to write off these songs as toxic but there’s arguably some substance. Usher, who brought us hits like “U Don’t Have To Call” and “My Boo” explores infidelity in his song “Confessions II,” where he admits to his partner that he impregnated another woman. Is this song toxic, or rather, honest? Usher expresses regret and shows emotional vulnerability in the track; and while his actions can’t be defended, the song is undeniably authentic.

Usher’s “Confessions II” was hardly the first R&B song from prior decades that didn’t solely focus on love. TLC’s “Creep” describes a person who’s aware of their partner’s infidelity, and their loneliness and need for affection in turn causes them to cheat too. “My Little Secret” by Xscape details a scandalous love affair with lyrics like, “Everybody cheats/ But you gotta know how/ You gotta know when.” And perhaps no one could make cheating sound as elegant and graceful as Kelly Price does in her cover song “As We Lay.

Admittedly, these toxic anthems didn’t define the genre like the love songs did. And R&B today isn’t defined by toxicity either. Instead, the genre now focuses on different aspects of love and subject matter that were largely uncharted back then. Rather than crooning about fairytale romance, artists now explore real and sometimes cynical relationships in a way that redefines the genre completely.

For example, some label Drake’s classic hit “Marvin’s Room” as another toxic tune. However, the song has a layer of emotional vulnerability, something Drake has never been shy of. In the song, he drunk dials his ex-girlfriend while in the club, and spills everything on his intoxicated mind. He reveals his frustration and loneliness while insisting that she deserves better than her current partner. As he asserts he’s more suitable for her, Drake comes to the crushing realization that she’s better off without him. “Marvin’s Room” is irresponsible and reckless yet also relatable, resonating with many people who have gone through similar experiences. This isn’t a love song. And it’s not trying to be. It’s about heartbreak and regret. It’s emotional and this is what drives R&B.

The Weeknd is another artist who’s recognized the power of channeling real feelings into music. In an interview with GQ, he mentioned that he uses “dark times” in his life to inspire his art, which others relate to. The Weeknd’s music is defined by his struggles with intimacy and vulnerability. This has led to some branding him as a “toxic king,” as many songs spew typical notions of toxic masculinity — but he’s well aware of that. This self-awareness coupled with his ability to embody heartbreak and emotional destruction shows itself in his art. Just because he isn’t singing about loving unconditionally doesn’t mean he can’t make people feel, and this can be said about several artists. His latest work has further opened up new avenues for introspective storytelling as well.

While describing the sources of his inspiration in the same interview, The Weeknd made it a point to differentiate between himself and his music persona. Many speculate that Brent Faiyaz, the undisputed king of toxicity, similarly uses a persona to explore such themes in his music. Faiyaz is the epitome of the toxic lover with his nonchalant attitude and self-indulgent behavior. The contrast between his swooning, angelic voice and brutally honest lyrics is jarring, and it is almost laughable at just how absurdly toxic he is in his music. Similar to The Weeknd, Brent is also self-aware and thought-provoking, as his 2020 EP “F*ck the World” explores lust, narcissism and even nihilism. When asked about the current state of R&B in a Rolling Stone interview, he had this to say:

“I think it’s perfect … When I first started singing, it was like, ‘You have to sing like this, you have to make music like that, you have to be lovey-dovey’ … That immediately took creativity from me, because when you’re a singer, people automatically want to pigeonhole you to this 1991 aesthetic of what the f*ck R&B is supposed to be. People might hear you sing about some sh*t that is not romantic at all, but they will automatically romanticize ’cause you are singing. With this project in particular. … I’m going to talk some real-life sh*t, but I am going to sing it, and you can f*ck with it or not.”

Brent appears to refer to a countercultural movement within the genre, refusing to be placed in a box by challenging the status quo. R&B singers today freely express themselves in their music and don’t hide their feelings, which is something artists from previous generations didn’t always have a chance to do. One could argue Brent is attempting to subvert the genre. But as always, when artists like Faiyaz or The Weeknd enter R&B’s landscape, there are sure to be copycats who steal the formula and run with it. Repackaging this formula as their own without considering the introspection and nuance that accompanies it — this is how we get songs like “If I Get Caught” and other toxic jingles devoid of self-reflection.

Songs that aren’t about love or healthy relationships are assumed toxic but as seen with the previously mentioned musicians, this label isn’t entirely accurate. Summer Walker, Frank Ocean, SZA, and dvsn are just a few of the many faces of contemporary R&B who each have their unique approach to music. To say that all these artists make the same music doesn’t paint an accurate portrait of the genre or respect their originality. R&B has shifted in its tone and subject matter but it’s continually pushed forward by experimental sounds and new topics. There are also plenty of songs from these artists that focus on genuine, real love. So is contemporary R&B becoming too toxic? The short answer: not quite.

Mainstream R&B has seen a saturation of toxic tunes and even though they trend, these songs aren’t the most popular. The rise of social media pages that feature misogynistic memes as well as the idolization of figures like Future have led to a worship of all things toxic, whether serious or not. But as of right now, Billboard’s R&B charts list Lizzo’s “About Damn Time,” which is devoid of any toxicity, as the No. 1 single. Even if you aren’t a fan of her radio-friendly, pop-engineered track, R&B has an abundance of underrated musicians making music reminiscent of the ’90s and 2000s, emulating their sound and style. The genre also has artists who are further pushing the boundaries and making their mark. You just have to know where to look, as many of these artists aren’t mainstream or won’t receive radio play. R&B is as fresh and innovative as it’s ever been and it’s time we appreciate the artists and music we have now while also cherishing what the genre once was.

Writer Profile

Kwami Maranga

Binghamton University
Philosophy, Politics & Law

Kwami Maranga is Binghamton University alumnus who’s an aspiring creative with a passion for writing and music.

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