Op-Ed: Brian McKnight & the Fear of His Explicit Slow Jam
"Will he break my heart a little more by performing THAT song?" was my first, and focal, thought when attending Brian McKnight's first night of a three-night concert series at New York City's Blue Note jazz club on Wednesday (May 16). It seemed far from a coincidence that Brian McKnight was scheduled to perform at Blue Note, alongside the Duke Ellington orchestra, twice each of the three days, 24 days after he startled his longtime fans.
The fear came from McKnight's explicit sex-education song, "If You're Ready to Learn," written while recovering from Achilles tendon surgery he reportedly went through recently, not the surgery itself. Although he said it was "a parody," many didn't believe so. My second thought of last night: "Tonight is the night. (No, not like that.) Prove to us that 'If You're Ready to Learn' was a crude joke gone slightly wrong." Because, whether the song was legit or a "parody," 'If You're Ready To Learn' disheartened many fans, including myself.
Before April 24, I would throw my left hand in the air, cover my heart with my right and smile with my eyes closed every time a Brian McKnight song would come up, specifically 90s R&B indelibles "Anytime," "Back at One" and "Should Coulda Woulda." But due to "If You're Ready to Learn" my third thought became: "I should need to ignore text messages such as from Hip-Hop Wired's Senior Editor, Kazeem Famuyide's, "If he doesn't show you how the pussy works it's a massive fail, you know that right?" My response? "Stop. Lol. No seriously, stop."
I had hope that Brian Mcknight would soothe, not disturb, the 85 percent of me that could divulge to his soulful ballads ten times more than when I was 12 years old, wondering if my 5th grade crush turned 6th grade boyfriend was wondering about me too. But the hopeful 85 percent of me also needed to be reassured that "If You're Ready to Learn" was genuinely a parody -- a crude, perverted joke. Not a cry for attention, as Eric Benet seemed to go with after Brian McKnight splattered emo taint all over my timeline, nor a comeback gone wrong.
I hoped Brian wouldn't adhere to the 15 percent of me that simply wanted a chuckle for the night, and more so wanted to see the 50-year-olds in attendance at last night's show open their mouths widly in disbelief and look franticly at each other for safety. That 15 percent of me wanted others to feel the shock, continuing distress, of last month. Evil of me? Yes. Anger covers up the hurt.
We're critical of R&B. It's emotional; it's "deeper than rap." We want a happy medium between progression and nostalgia, especially with popular 90s R&B acts. I can only ask 90s R&B artists to build off the memories your music was a soundtrack to, and create more memories with songs we can connect to with soulful vocal prowess and honest lyricism. Choose your songwriters carefully -- if not, put up a fight. And look to Adele as inspiration not one to channel the frustration of a career gone left.
Aside from Beyoncé and Usher (recently), R&B artists and ballads aren't effortlessly transitioning from the R&B charts to the mainstream charts look they once did, unless they're assisted by a hip-hop feature or a Chris Brown hook. Emerging acts we would once consider R&B are adamant to be called anything but, going off word of mouth, or their own mouths (i.e. Miguel, Frank Ocean, The Weeknd). R&B acts that impacted the charts in the 90s are re-emerging and are either not making a a loud-enough splash (Carl Thomas, 112's Slim, Tamia, Syleena Johnson, and Ginuwine, who put out two albums last year, "Elgin" and "A Ginuwine Christmas") or are having difficulty assimilating to the current adoration for soulful music coming from across the U.S. pond.
Then there are exceptions, thankfully: SWV and Brandy. SWV's first studio album in 15 years, "I Missed Us," entered R&B/Hip-Hop Albums at No. 6 earlier this month, while Brandy's new album has actual buzz around it. And then there is this thing called hope again: Jazmine Sullivan's reported return to music next year, and the return of D'Angelo from a ten-year hiatus. (Essence Festival, here I come!)
That 85 percent of me walked out of McKnight's show last night relieved and satisfied. Last night he covered soulful classics as Ella Fitzgerald's "I'm Beginning To See The Light" and Nat King Cole's "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me" and "When I Fall in Love," before sitting behind the piano and performing stripped-down versions of two of his most popular hits, "Anytime," and "Back At One."
He didn't perform "If You're Ready to Learn."
His humor throughout his set also proved, to me at least, that the NSFW cut really was a joke he came up to kill time when recovering from surgery.
Although the majority of the crowd was hesitant to count down on "Back At One," my friend and I found ourselves reciting each line as in the comfort of our own shower stalls.
I can breathe easy again. But don't anyone dare bring up Brian's alleged forthcoming "adult mixtape." Too soon.