All New Jack, No Swing

Bobby Brown performs in Frankfurt, Germany, October 1990. Photo: Bernd Muller/Redferns

If you want proof of our culture’s fetishistic obsession with the late ’80s/early ’90s, look no further than commercial R&B. There the references run as thick and sloppy as the slow jams of yesteryear. Bobby V (formerly Valentino) included a remake of Bobby Brown‘s classic “Rock Wit’cha” on this year’s Fly on the Wall album (he was wise to leave “Roni” alone). Trey Songz released a slightly more askew remake of Guy‘s “Let’s Chill” with Amaye last year and of Mint Condition‘s “Breakin’ My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes)” with Amerie the year before that. Quartet Jagged Edge have attempted to resurrect their career by invoking another quartet, Jodeci, on a single they released this year, “My Baby.” The referenced track, “Come & Talk to Me,” was also remade by Omarion into material racier than even the perpetually half-naked K-Ci Hailey was inclined to turn out (Omarion literally changed one line’s “class” to “ass”). Mariah Carey, too, has repeatedly referenced Jodeci, including on Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel‘s “The Impossible,” which was to be remixed featuring K-Ci and JoJo themselves on her aborted Angels Advocate remix project.

Jodeci are a perfect nostalgic touchstone in that they summarize contemporary R&B’s selective relationship with the past. As a group largely known for its ballads, Jodeci can be referenced without fear in a climate that embraces new jack without the swing.

Indeed, what we hear thrown back to most often are the slower sounds of the new jack swing era: SWV‘s minor hit “Rain” gets repurposed by Twista in “Wetter,” while the infinitely more popular “I’m So Into You” has yet to be exploited all over again on a commercial level (although Wale did spit over the beat on the negligible “She’s Not Mine” off his 2006 mixtape, Hate is the New Love). And speaking of SWV, Chris Brown‘s “She Ain’t You” samples Teddy Riley‘s “Human Nature” remix of “Right Here.” That track was far from his swingingest production, but even so, its rhythm track has been chopped up to remove the faintest trace of swing on Brown’s rendition (Jermaine Dupri similarly smoothed out TLC’s “Baby-Baby-Baby” in Bow Wow‘s “You Can Get It All”).

Jodeci, circa 1992. Photo: Raymond Boyd/Boyd Archives/Getty Images

What we see in this sloppy revival is a failure to commit — today’s artists and producers like the idea of revivalism, but not actual revivalism. Why the new jack swing beat is passed up in favor of more straightforward patterns could have something to do with new jack’s inherent glee. Even when it was hard, it still flitted and skipped along: think Bell Biv DeVoe‘s “Poison” (bap-bap-buh-dap-bap-buh-dap-uh-dap-dap). And even when it was hard, it wasn’t that hard: The thin, treble-favoring mastering of new jack swing is no match for the bass-obsessed, block waveforms of today. Furthermore we don’t take too kindly to unabashed cheerfulness in pop culture in 2011 (hence the mass befuddlement upon the leakage of Beyoncé‘s exuberant 4, which by the way, also falls into the slow-jam trap by briefly sampling Boyz II Men‘s “Uhh Ahh” on “Countdown”). Maybe new jack swing just sounds too content for this time of hater-complainers and crabs-in-a-barrel reality TV ethics. The music industry continues to crumble, and that weighs on it — it’s not nearly the happy place it once seemed.

There is a certain underground purloining of new jack swing beats happening — Onra, whose masterful 2010 album Long Distance distilled virtually every other R&B sound of the past 30 years, has posted a hazy, draggy re-edit of B. Brown Posse‘s “Drop It On the One” on his Soundcloud. Meanwhile, Tokyo Dawn Records’ compilation The Boogie features a few new riffs on the old genre. But these alone will not resurrect a sound.

And maybe that’s for the better: The fact that new jack swing is rarely recreated whole-hog means that we can remember it fondly and not get sick of it all over again. This is very much like the post-NJS, old school hip-hop soul revival that Miguel‘s “All I Want Is You” seemed poised to kick off last year, but has failed to. As a result, a track that explicitly reaches way back by throwing a singer over top of a vintage break and not much else (like DJ Khaled‘s “It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over,” a collaboration with the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, Mary J. Blige, as well as Fabolous and Jadakiss, which samples Schooly D’s indelible “P.S.K. – What Does It Mean?”), can come off as endearingly novel. Moderation, it turns out, works wonders in keeping nostalgia sounding fresh.

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