Usher, Lloyd & the Difficulties of Growing Old in R&B

Usher, Lloyd, and countless R&B veterans are trying to grow older while their beloved genre gets younger.
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The morning show hosts that would voice my early commutes to middle school are still on the radio—cracking mundane jokes, giving away concert tickets to callers who dial in, and playing the latest in rap and R&B as if time has barely moved at all. On the rare morning that I’m up while the early bird’s feast, I listen to them for that tingle of nostalgia; a few mornings ago, basking in the dawn of a new day, I was shocked to hear singing from Lloyd—an artist who had almost completely disappeared from the world of music. It was on this very station that I heard “Southside” in ‘04, “You” in ‘06, “Get It Shawty” in ‘07, and “Girls Around The World in ‘08. Lloyd's voice has always serenaded Atlanta’s airwaves, but I never imagined hearing him on the radio in 2016. What a time not to use the aux cord.

“Tru,” Lloyd’s comeback single after a five-year hiatus, is like an open letter to the fans who have been awaiting his return. There’s little depth to the details behind his disappearance, but his voice hasn’t changed—still gentle, still soulful. Hearing Lloyd again was a nice surprise, he’s making strides to get his groove back, but despite his voice not changing, R&B has. The elegant, confessional ballad may be soft on the ears but it doesn’t exist in the trap dominant soundscape. This isn’t the genre it once was—new faces have emerged, new sounds popularized, and subject matter changed. Lloyd is reemerging in a new world as a veteran with a sound some would consider dated compared to his contemporaries. A lot of questions surround Lloyd, but the biggest one is—can he relight the old torch that he once carried?

At the same time, Lloyd is throwing his name in the industry's hat, Usher is also back ending his four-year dry spell with the new album, Flawed. It's astounding when you realize My Way is turning 20 next year, 8701 turned 15 this year, and Confessions is a little over a decade old. Usher is one of the biggest R&B acts of my generation. His longevity is a testament to his ability to travel with genius and grace in an ever-changing industry. His new single, “No Limit,” feels modern—the trap beat, the Young Thug feature, the singing/rapping flow, and when you consider this generation's admiration for nostalgia the No Limit Records references are perfect. The song is catchy, a late-summer banger that moves with the waves and not against them, but also feels strangely like the uncle who is dressing like the kids to fit in the club. The (G)mix is star-studded—Master P, Travi$ Scott, 2 Chainz, Gucci Mane & A$AP Ferg—but only further shows Usher trying to balance between the old with the new. “No Limit” will work as a reintroduction, but is this the direction of Flawed? Is this the Usher people have waited four years for? He may be more known than Lloyd, but he's carrying his own old torch trying to keep the flame ablaze.

The crossroads greeting both Usher and Lloyd is largely due to them being established artists in an industry that continues to shift from the music of their heyday. Music isn’t a stagnant art form, it flows forward without mercy, and R&B has undergone a transformation in sound, narrative, and style. They aren’t the only ones, there are countless artists in the genre searching for their place. Tank is one that comes to mind; he's been public about his growing pains in the industry. Back in 2014, he aired out frustrations on Instagram after underwhelming album sales and his label pulling the plug on further promotion. He even declared Stronger as his, “last real R&B album.” Tank's feelings lead him to make Sex, Love & Pain II—a 2016 release that feels like a desperate attempt to fit in rather than stand out. One review criticizes the album for relying too much on trendiness, conforming, and the results were far from favorable.

When Musiq Soulchild announced he would be going by The Husel, his rap alter-ego in 2014, I didn’t know what to think. R&B acts trying their hand in rap wasn’t anything groundbreaking - Chris Brown, Trey Songz, even Ne-Yo rapped a freestyle over “A Milli,” but Musiq’s new transformation had deeper roots. Seeing how much influence rap was having on the masses, and wanting to tap into that sound, Musiq became a persona for the new era where Auto-Tuned rapping eclipsed his soulful singing. Just skimming through The Husel's four-track EP is a less humorous, more painful version of the Hamburger Helper mixtape. A step in the completely wrong direction. The Husel was able to generate social media attention, but the backlash was largely negative and failed to entertain. He thought he could wear the clothes, copy the lyrics, use the effects, and reinvent himself, but it isn’t that simple. Some artists simply aren’t built for the times.

Every artist, every sound, every moment is temporary. Just remember: there was a time when Nelly was the biggest rapper in the world, T-Pain was on every hook, and everybody wanted DJ Mustard on the beat. Longevity is truly one of the hardest feats to accomplish in music, especially in modern music as we spin around in the ever-revolving microwave. Even if “real” R&B isn’t burning up the airwaves, it is still very relevant. Forbes just reported Chance The Rapper’s #SoGoneChallenge—the viral sensation of rapping over Monica’s “So Gone” - has increased the song's Apple Music streams by 233% and raised sales up 407% since August 10. A similar surge in streams and sales happened for Ghost Town DJ’s “My Boo,” a modest hit from ‘96 that received a huge resurgence due to the viral #RunningManChallange. Nostalgia is always selling, you just have to make what was once old into something new and cool. I hope to see more seasoned artists find new ways to incorporate social media in keeping their old music alive. 

I believe there’s still a place in the world for R&B that lives outside the sultry, trap sound of many of today’s popular acts. Not everyone can fit into this moment. Imagine if Maxwell tried to be Bryson Tiller, or if Charlie Wilson attempted to make music like August Alsina; it would be a sad descent from the music that made each of them famous in the first place. There are new acts doing it their way, like Anderson .Paak, BJ The Chicago Kid, Lion Babe, Jamila Woods, and Hiatus Kaiyote, as well as old acts like Maxwell, Tweet, Fantasia, D’Angelo, Charlie Wilson, and others finding their place in the world without conforming.

Even if the albums aren’t selling, or if the singles aren’t spinning like they used to, staying true to your artistry will always bring secure true fans. Artists should take risks, try new things, but within their rules, not for the sake of following the leader. I believe every artist, no matter the genre, will stand at the crossroads of being outdated or before their time when they dare not to fit in. It’s not always the most rewarding, but it is the most fulfilling. What makes change exciting is seeing who adapts, who evolves, and who conforms.

Aging doesn't mean expiration, but it will make you find a new approach to an old dream.

By Yoh, aka Yoh&B, aka @Yoh31

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