Musing on Musical Gentrification: Singers Using Other Singers in Commercialised Hip-Hop & R&B
Now, as a young and naïve Commercial Hip-Hop & R&B fan in the 00s, I remember dancing in front of the TV to various catchy hook-based tunes from *NSync, Dream, Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and, of course, Jennifer Lopez. This is somewhat embarrassing to look back on considering my stance on that sort of music now, but, hey, it happened. And it sounded really good.
Really, I should say “commercialised Hip-Hop & R&B”, as the process of making the sort of music I just described involved a lot of taking and then tweaking (usually watering down) various elements of the original genre for a more mainstream audience. As most of the acts that do this rely heavily on external help from songwriters, managers, producers and their labels, they have a similar level of pre-meditation to their identity to the “manufactured” artists of The X Factor, American Idol, Fame Academy and the like. One of the biggest problems I have with this phenomenon is that these acts are almost always white, while in the Hip-Hop and R&B industry, 99% of the acts are black. It’s as if the board rooms at these big labels have consciously decided that as part of the effort to make this music more accessible, they should recruit white acts. It feels as though the whole identity and culture attached to the original genres has been stripped away. It makes me uncomfortable, to say the least, but I’ll touch on that more another day.
No, today, I’m speaking on a specific aspect of this commercialised music, the use of (black) back-up singers. (Brackets, because they are always black.)
Jennifer Lopez is probably the most guilty of at least failing to mask the other singers’ voices when they effectively sing her parts. I used to love ‘Play’, until I heard it in a Topshop dressing room the other day and noticed that the voice singing the chorus sounded distinctly different to Jennifer’s, but oddly familiar. After a minute of thinking and flailing my arms about into an acrylic t-shirt, I realised that it was in fact R&B singer Christina Milian. The already growing black mist of cynicism in my post-adolescent soul expanded about 3 cubic-centimetres more.
Unsurprisingly, in ‘I’m Gonna Be Alright’, I’m pretty sure I can hear Soul singer Angie Stone in the chorus, even though she isn’t credited. So it continues.
Perhaps her management had been so flagrant in their use of other singers because it was the early 00s, and the big exposés of autotune and poor live performances hadn’t really emerged yet. But also, perhaps, because Jennifer was of Latin-American descent, assuming that her non-white status would give her more leeway in claiming connection to R&B music despite her (sorry guys) clear lack of vocal talent. No actual R&B act would have done this, however, without at least giving the other artist a credited feature. This is a Pop characteristic.
But what’s wrong with that? The Black Eyed Peas used Justin Timberlake uncredited in ‘Where Is The Love?’, some may argue. Apart from the obvious, “The Black Eyed Peas suck and employed a white female singer to get commercial appeal” response, I’m pretty sure Fergie could have handled those notes herself, and Justin was added purely for sonic enhancement. To thicken the sound, you could say.
Then why did Jennifer use these R&B acts? My own answer isn’t clear. I’m not sure. Using authentic R&B artists when you’re trying to imitate an R&B sound has merit, but not crediting those artists on the track seems shady. It’s as if they’re not worth the commercial attention, as if they need to be hidden. It gives me strong Milli Vanilli vibes.
Something’s not right, to put it plainly.