R. Kelly is canceled: Long live James Ingram and the R&B love ballad
Quiet storm and slow-moving songs about the urgency of love are fading from view, but they’re not gone yet
There’s an unforgettable moment on Patti Austin’s 1981 slow jam “Baby, Come to Me” where guest vocalist James Ingram deviates from the mellow, melodic script. As the tune glides to its swooning climax, Ingram digs in with a series of snarling ad-libs that lift the mood from a palpitating simmer to a throbbing, blood-engorged boil. “Let me puuut my arms aroound you!” Ingram pleads, stretching out the vowels like a man nearly blinded by lust. Then, underscoring his urgency, the singer shouts, “HEY!” as if he’s just burst through the door in a fit of bodice-ripping passion.
With the recent news of Ingram’s death at the age of 66, fans are reflecting on the singer’s career, a 38-year run during which he plied his pipes so skillfully, he often upstaged the more seasoned pros he shared studios and stages with. “Baby, Come to Me” may be credited to Austin, but it’s Ingram’s finely calibrated performance that lends the tune its much-needed grit. Ingram’s voice, a manly baritone that Quincy Jones described as “soulful” and “whiskey sounding,” was so extraordinary, it helped launch a dozen Grammy nominations.
An Akron, Ohio, native, Ingram was an unknown demo singer when he made his world debut as a featured performer on Jones’ 1981 solo album The Dude. Ingram’s performances on that classic LP, including the Top 10 ballads “Just Once” and “One Hundred Ways,” were instrumental in helping The Dude nab a mind-muddling 12 Grammy Award nominations, including an album of the year nod. He was a two-time Grammy winner, as well as an Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated songwriter.
It seems almost trite to employ the cliché “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” but that tired old maxim genuinely applies to Ingram and his smooth-singing rhythm and blues ilk. Like desperadoes coolly riding off into the sunset, serenaders like Ingram appear to be slowly fading from the Top 40 record charts, taking with them two once-influential music phenomena that seem to be falling from public favor: the R&B love ballad and its wonderworking conduit, the make-out album.
The million-dollar question is: Why would a musical style that promotes something as universally appealing as romantic love slip from popularity?
A quiet storm: The roots of R&B love balladry
Slow jams. Make-out songs. Quiet storm. Call them what you like, but they’re all the same thing — love ballads, melodic mating calls expressly designed to ease the tense, awkward ritual of courtship and hooking up. The love ballad’s modern roots can be traced to the postwar era, when pioneering crooners such as Frank Sinatra, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole courted audiences with chivalrous, mood-setting serenades. While the 1950s doo-wop acts and 1960s singles artists such as Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and The Temptations carried the serenading torch, R&B love balladry really came of age in the early 1960s, when progressive acts took advantage of improved recording technology and popularized the concept album. Unlike its predecessor — the five-minute-per-side, 78 rpm record — the 12-inch LP boasted a playing time of 22 minutes per side, a time span that allowed artists to create a mood via an assemblage of themed songs.
The trend toward album-oriented pop changed everything. In the ’60s, many record companies dictated which songs their artists would record, but the ’70s saw more and more artists fighting for the right to record their self-penned tunes. An elite group of artists that included Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes, Smokey Robinson, Al Green, Barry White and Minnie Riperton began scaling the charts with smart albums filled with original compositions that just happened to double as perfect seduction soundtracks. The trend toward sexually charged R&B kicked into overdrive in 1973 with Marvin Gaye’s legendary LP Let’s Get It On. Setting the standard for a new kind of R&B balladry, the album showcased eight tunes that strained the limits of Federal Communications Commission broadcast acceptability, including a title track whose lyrics gave listeners the feeling they were eavesdropping on a seduction in progress:
“We’re all sensitive people with so much to give, understand me, sugar
Since we’ve got to be here, let’s live … I love you
There’s nothing wrong with me loving you, baby, no, no
And giving yourself to me can never be wrong, if the love is true …”
Nabbing the Grammy for best male R&B vocal performance, Let’s Get It On constituted a master class in musical persuasion. The die was now cast. Following Gaye’s lead, R&B love balladry morphed into a sexy, stylish, jazz-inflected sound, typified by ravishing snake charmer melodies and warm, midrange-type rhythms. Artists such as Luther Vandross, Al Jarreau, Peabo Bryson and Phyllis Hyman recorded entire albums that rarely rose above a flirtatious sigh or a funky, midtempo whisper. Robinson’s 1975 LP A Quiet Storm was emblematic of this new R&B style, featuring a mood-establishing title track that melded old-time romantic sentiments with ’70s-style hippie-dippy sexuality (“Soft and warm, a quiet storm/Quiet as when flowers talk at break of dawn …”). Robinson’s concept of an erotic tempest would become so popular, a ballad radio format was eventually named after his album. Lyrically, R&B make-out albums ran the lyrical gamut from well-tempered party jams (George Benson’s “Give Me the Night”) to semi-philosophical ruminations (“Happy Feelin’s” by Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, Oleta Adams’ “Rhythm of Life”).
It was that latter element — the contemplative, more reflective side of R&B love balladry — that seemed to stump white critics, many of whom wrote off much post-’60s R&B balladry as “slick.” In his review of Donny Hathaway’s self-titled 1971 sophomore album, Robert Christgau, the self-styled “Dean of American Rock Critics,” wrote: “… if having soul means digging on all this supper-club melodrama and homogenized jazz then I’m content to be sterile, square, and white.” What was implied in such reviews is that “real” black music is feral and untamed, like the shouty, blues-based stuff one imagines they would hear in a Deep South juke joint. Christgau and his peers seemed to believe that Pentecostal emotionalism was the only genuine form of black musical expression.
Of course, a nonblack music critic couldn’t possibly understand that a balladeer like Hathaway appealed mostly to a growing African-American middle class who had been inching away from their gutbucket origins since heyday of swing in the mid-1900s. Fueled by the Great Migration, which saw blacks moving from the Jim Crow South to the more accommodating Northern states, African-American wealth skyrocketed. By 1990, black wealth had increased to the point that African-Americans were twice as likely to be educated, gainfully employed homeowners.
For many of these newly minted black achievers, R&B love balladry was the upscale soundtrack to their prosperous lifestyle. Serenaders like Randy Crawford and L.T.D./Jeffrey Osborne didn’t have to holler or wax political to deliver powerful messages because for many of their black fans, the very lushness of the music captured the elegant essence of their upward mobility. Indeed, with their mink-textured melodies and opulent production, classic R&B make-out albums such as Jarreau’s Breakin’ Away and Anita Baker’s Rapture were the musical equivalent of a Central Park penthouse. Sure, few blacks could actually afford a Manhattan apartment, but they could play Vandross’ “Never Too Much” and marvel as the LP’s plushly appointed serenades made their modest digs feel like a posh Park Avenue town house.
Ain’t no stopping us now
The fact that R&B love ballad albums often crossed over to the pop charts was just proof that we were movin’ on up, and it wasn’t long before white artists began hopping on the slow jam bandwagon. Composed and performed by suburban college kids, the white stuff tended to ditch the Stravinsky-like strings in favor of a more bare-bones approach, and the lyrics could be more cryptic. Yet, despite the methodic differences between the two styles, white and black make-out music essentially shared the same sultry DNA.
When Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison dropped his impressively jazzy album Moondance in 1970, his respectable impersonation of a world-weary Harlem jazzbo showed white rock lovers that black music was more than just blues stomps and R&B barn burners. In Morrison’s wake, countless other white acts, including Michael McDonald, Bobby Caldwell, Marc Jordan and Teena Marie, issued their own R&B-inflected love songs/albums. Critics have since dubbed this blue-eyed take on R&B balladry “yacht rock,” a reference to the music’s supposedly well-heeled clientele. Semantics aside, you’re missing out if you haven’t heard yacht rock classics such as Gino Vannelli’s Brother to Brother, Michael Franks’ Passionfruit or Roxy Music’s Avalon, all of which stack up favorably against their black counterparts, evincing the universal appeal of old-school R&B balladry.
Before long, all this honey-drip funk began to garner peer kudos and over-the-top record sales. Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall earned the singer a Grammy Award for best male R&B vocal performance, his first of many Grammys, with the album selling more than 8 million copies in the U.S. alone. Sade captured the 1986 best new artist Grammy, while her magnum opus Promise moved more than 4 million copies stateside. These two notable examples took their rightful place alongside other multimillion-selling, Grammy-winning recordings by artists such as Vandross, Boz Scaggs, Baker, Jones and others.
As the 2000s dawned, artists such as Usher, Akon, Jaheim and Ne-Yo hoisted the love ballad flag, bringing a contemporizing hip-hop sensibility to the music. The lyrics got a little raunchier, and synthesizers and drum machines replaced the crackerjack studio musicians of yore. R. Kelly emerged as the quintessential millennial seducer, a singer-songwriter who often didn’t bother masking his X-rated intentions behind romantic metaphors, as evidenced by no-nonsense song titles such as “Bump n’ Grind,” “Legs Shakin’” and “Feelin’ on Yo Booty.” Unlike his serenading predecessors, who often put sex into a context of doting devotion, R. Kelly often employed the word “love” only to describe sensation (“I love the way your body feels next to mine,” he crooned on “It Seems Like You’re Ready”). Now, in light of his recent indictment for criminal sexual abuse, many folks are cringing at the high-creep quotient evident in R. Kelly couplets such as “Hey, pretty mama, how you doing?/Said I’m just in town for the weekend/Looking for a lil’ trouble to get into/Baby, tell me what ya drinking and I got you.”
As R. Kelly’s songs made clear, the valiant R&B “Love Man” in the mold of Otis Redding and Al Green was falling from fashion, replaced by rappers almost wholly uninterested in the idea of take-it-slow musical seduction. It’s now gotten so weird that a recent top-trending YouTube music video is for a pop lament featuring the refrain “I’m so tired of love songs.”
The disappearance of the R&B love ballad is a mystery because, as evidenced by domesticated tough-guy rappers such as Kanye West and Travis Scott, today’s young adults yearn for old-fashioned love as much as their boomer predecessors. Considering this, what could possibly explain the ballad’s diminished popularity?
Money’s too tight to mention
Remember the aforementioned statistics showing rising black wealth from the mid- to late 1900s? Well, most of that money is gone now. According to research, the Great Recession wiped out black America’s monetary gains. Now, instead of toasting the good life like their baby boomer parents once did, African-American kids are instead eyeing a horrifyingly uncertain future.
Economics are just the tip of the iceberg. In an age of “friends with benefits” and cut-to-the-chase apps such as Tinder, the notion of seduction — i.e., a courtly, nuanced approach to sex — seems almost quaint. The directness of Tinder, where users review thousands of strangers’ profiles and arrange instantaneous sexual liaisons, is actually a reflection of our cord-cutting times, no-strings-attached sex for an aptly labeled “wireless generation.” Why bother with make-out love ballads when social search apps can do all the heavy lifting for you?
Taking all this into account, is it any wonder that hard-nosed rap has replaced swanky love songs as the favored sound of youth? Trap, the currently popular hip-hop subgenre distinguished by robotic beats and frequent lyrical allusions to criminality, echoes the grimness of a new, dystopic America and its increasingly skeptical kids.
But while make-out R&B might appear to be on the ropes, the music stays relevant in curious ways. Some 35 years after her debut, Sade is now celebrated as a Greta Garbo-like cult figure by the likes of West and Nicki Minaj. In 2016, Scott released a sophomore album titled Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, an admiring reference to ’90s balladeer Brian McKnight, although the album’s apocalyptic songs bear absolutely no resemblance to McKnight’s billowy serenades. Then there are contemporary singer-songwriters such as John Legend, Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith who valiantly uphold the slow jam legacy, like musical scholars preserving a dying language.
The love ballad may not be omnipresent like before, but it’s not dead yet.