When Tank signed on to sing background vocals for Aaliyah and Ginuwine during the 1997 Budweiser Superfest — a lineup that also included Mary J. Blige, Dru Hill and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony — he didn’t know he had registered for a master class in R&B/hip-hop. “I went straight from a church choir rehearsal to going out on that 60-city, sold-out arena tour with some of the best to ever do it,” recalls Tank, 46. “There will never be a more pivotal memory of Black excellence for me … [It] was the ultimate building block.”
In the 25 years since, the singer-songwriter-producer born Durrell Babbs has left an indelible stamp on the genre through a string of sensual hits, from 2001’s self-punishing ballad “Maybe I Deserve” to 2021’s remorseful R&B Airplay chart-topper “Can’t Let It Show.” The latter, plus current single “I Deserve,” are on Tank’s upcoming 10th album, R&B Money (out later this year on his Atlantic-distributed label of the same name). The milestone release precipitated a difficult decision: Having lost hearing in his right ear in 2021, the five-time Grammy nominee says R&B Money will be his final album. Now, in addition to a podcast and YouTube reality show, he’s set on mentoring the next generation. “I love and will still fight for R&B,” says Tank. “I want to be responsible for putting it back where it belongs: in the mainstream.”
When did you first feel something was wrong with your hearing?
I was shooting a movie in Washington, D.C. [in 2021]. On my last day of filming, I’m walking home from the gym and, literally, the ground just started shaking, and I had to grab on to something because I thought I was falling over. Then everything in the air started sounding like it was coming through a distorted walkie-talkie. I went to specialists, who said I may have this thing called sudden sensorineural hearing loss in my right ear. The tough part about being diagnosed with that is there’s no why or how this happens. It took a moment to find my balance in the studio and onstage, but I began to recognize my spirit again. The first song I recorded was “I Deserve,” and from there, I started writing again. Now I’ve got one ear and vertigo, but I’m back in fighting mode.
After 25 years, why is your music resonating with a new generation of R&B fans?
I’ve always told my truth 100%. That has been the constant: writing about my life at every stage. Happy, sad, heartbroken, feeling nasty … all of it. I think people who are taking the journey with you don’t want the Instagram version where you can crop out and filter things to make [life] how you would like it to seem. People still want the unfiltered truth. They want to hear the mistakes along with the victories. One cool thing that has also happened is that retro has become a thing among young people. My 14-year-old daughter is into vinyl records, as well as watching shows like Gilmore Girls. You’ve got kids in their teens knowing who Nina Simone is. Everything comes back around.
Your former label, Blackground Records, recently released your first three albums to streaming services. How did you react?
The beauty is that I wrote and produced the music on those albums, so my part is solidified. I have no desire to rerecord. I honestly never expected that music to ever come out, but it is what it is. It got me here, and now I’m just concentrating on doing other things. What’s coming to me is still coming to me, so I don’t really give Blackground a second thought.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently in your career?
Everything happens for a reason. There has been so much good and there has been bad, but I’ve been able to do what I love every day of my life for the last 20-some years. Could I be richer, more famous or more something else? I could be. But that would insinuate that my time’s up, and there’s still a lot more for me to do.