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In a recent interview with Vibe, rapper Lil Wayne effusively praised a fellow entertainer who seems an unlikely recipient of Weezy’s admiration—Virginia crooner Trey Songz. “Every picture of this nigga, he got his fucking shirt off!” he said. “He’s looking at the camera like he’s looking at a hoe. I said, Ya know what? Trey Songz don’t give a fuck—he be like, Fuck y’all niggas! I’m eating, bwoy! Fuck how you think I look in this picture, your hoe love this picture! It’s her screensaver, nigga! ”
When one of the most popular rappers of the moment compliments a sultry R&B singer for his ring-tone game, his modeling chops, and his sex appeal rather than blasting him for being too soft, a paradigm shift is occurring. Trey Songz, 22, has just released his second CD, Trey Day, and while it’s sexually provocative and rugged in spots, it’s far removed from the sort of borderline-violent sexual material perfected by R. Kelly and the appropriately named Tank—guys who dominated the genre in the ’90s and early ’00s and were prized for their expertise in both fucking and fucking people up. At least that’s what they kept telling you.
Trey Songz may want to “steal your heart,” “make love till the sun comes up,” and even, in one instance, “throw her the bone.” But he doesn’t want to “beat it up,” and that’s a major change from the R&B of the last 10 to 15 years. Maybe it has something to do with the decreasing commercial and cultural relevance of hard-core hip-hop, but R&B singers don’t seem to be acting like rappers all that much these days. A new crop of singers have rejected R&B thug posturing—and they’ve managed to do so without fleeing to the other side of the spectrum, where the sexually nonthreatening, eunuchlike singers dwell. They’re just acting like regular young men, suitable for dating, who happen to sing well. In fact, they may very well be regular young men, suitable for dating, who just happen to sing well.
Joining Trey Songz in easing away from the R&B tough-guy image are singers like Mario, Ne-Yo, Lloyd, and D.C. native J. Holiday, 27, who released his debut, Back of My Lac’, last month. It’s not a total shift. The ’90s and the first half of the ’00s produced plenty of singers like Musiq Soulchild and Brian McKnight, men who have no desire to walk the red carpet at the Ozone Awards. And sure, the likes of Jodeci knockoff Pretty Ricky, known for near-naked stage-humping and lines like “I want to beat it up like an Everlast punching bag,” still see chart action. But guys like Ne-Yo, who has a penchant for more traditional love songs, are the reigning R&B idols, headlining tours and racking up platinum sales without a sweat in an era of poor record sales.
Trey Songz’s music perfectly embodies the R&B-boyfriend model. He has a little freak in him, but he’s still a stand-up guy. “Store Run,” for example, is about Songz nipping out to the quick-mart for condoms. “Pack of three up at the counter/Be back in less than half-an-hour,” goes the chorus. “She want it and I want it too/But I’m unprepared/And we came so close to going raw dog that we both got scared,” Trey says of the events that led him to score what we can only assume is a tri-pack of Magnums.
“We Should Be” is almost comically mushy, with Songz kicking up his falsetto a notch to compete with the treacly, twinkling track and to convey just how sensitive he is. But he’s still thinking about getting some. “You’re looking so lovely, I’m thinking ’bout you loving me,” he sings. Then: “I don’t want to come off as disrespectful/But I can’t keep my hands off of you.” How many R&B guys care about appearing disrespectful? Isn’t disrespect couched in soothing vocals their specialty?
Interestingly, Trey Songz began his career as a rapper. He didn’t much care for R&B growing up, with the exception of slow jams crafted by the father of all R&B thugs, R. Kelly (who actually went as far as to record a song called “R&B Thug”). But Trey Songz not only wants to respect his women, he wants to make them happy, heal them, and steal them away from their controlling, emotionally abusive boyfriends—something he fantasizes about doing on “Can’t Help but Wait,” an uptempo song about women who love too much and the men who love them. “Deep down I’m still a G,” he sings, but he’s less likely to step to some crazy guy and tell him to stop treating his woman badly. Trey Songz’s G-code is apparently different from R. Kelly’s—it involves him meekly waiting for the woman to make a break for it so he can intercept her and buy her the “latest in purses, bracelets and watches.” That’s one downside of the end of the R&B thug era—you can’t exactly use any of these new guys to intimidate your boyfriend.
Still, Trey Songz can get smarmy like it’s 1999 on tracks like “Wonder Woman,” which, despite an intriguing Neptunes-esque beat with a synth core that sounds like an electric violin being tortured, is just an oversexed work in the mold of H-Town, Silk, and other groups you don’t remember. There’s also “No Clothes On,” “Sex for Yo Stereo,” and “Grub On,” on which he wants to pretend he’s at IHOP and dive into a “Rooty Tooty Fresh ’N Fruity.” None of those songs reflect his overall goal on Trey Day, though. Trey Songz wants you to see him as a life partner—not as a sex partner or sparring partner.