At midnight on Tuesday, R&B singer Trey Songz released a new double album to celebrate his 34th birthday. There is a whole lot of music here: 10 slow and sweaty numbers with only Songz (titled 11), followed by 10 more slow and sweaty numbers with collaborators ranging from Swae Lee to 2 Chainz to Chris Brown (28). Despite the lengthy combined tracklists, there’s not much variation in tempo or style, and the chugging beats are compressed and melody-averse. It leaves little room for Songz’ vocal histrionics — his trademark swooping singing. You could take him off any record here and replace him with very nearly any rapper, and the transition wouldn’t be too jarring.
That’s not uncommon in R&B today, as the genre continues to follow hip-hop, rather than vice versa. Unfortunately, that it isn’t particularly helpful for Songz, who hasn’t had a Top 20 crossover hit since 2010. He fared better in an earlier era, when beats were less somber and there was more of an appetite for singers willing to prove that they were different from rappers, often by showing off and flexing how much range they had. That’s when Songz nearly became a star, thanks to gliding, unabashedly pretty singles like “Can’t Help But Wait” and gleeful, sex-drunk Nineties throwbacks like “Neighbors Know My Name,” where he sings an entire silly verse in the tone of someone who just huffed a whole canister of helium.
Songz is not the only aging singer to be pushed aside by changing fashions in R&B. You can hear a similar angst on Ne-Yo’s (age 39) Good Man from this summer, and Usher’s (age 40) A, an October surprise with Atlanta rap stalwart Zaytoven. Like boys who dress up in their fathers’ suits, young singers often want to borrow authority from older ones — think of Drake paying homage to Tank in the late 2000s or Jacquees interpolating Avant on “B.E.D.” But these days, middle-aged R&B singers are trying their damnedest to make songs that they pray will get played on the radio (or, more likely, Spotify) after the newest humdrum single from Tory Lanez.
In their defense, these artists basically don’t have a choice if they want to be commercially successful. Though the prospects for R&B singers in 2018 have improved, relative to the grim landscape of five years ago, the genre remains on the defensive. It still lags behind rap in terms of both streaming activity — the biggest hip-hop playlist on Spotify has more than twice as many followers as the biggest R&B playlist — and airwave play: Only four singers are credited as lead artists in a recent Top 25 on the mainstream R&B/hip-hop radio chart.
Every one of those four singers had his or her breakout hit in the last 18 months; pop is still largely a young person’s game. So Songz and co. try to make records as if they were still 22. If they don’t, they’ll be shunted to “Adult R&B,” which has a considerably smaller listenership.
This strategy works occasionally: Tank’s “When We,” released in June of 2017, slowly became the biggest single of his career, earning him his only platinum plaque this year — at age 42! — and a top five mainstream radio hit more than a decade after his last one. That’s a unicorn, though. More often, these records are greeted with a shrug — as in the case of the new releases from Ne-Yo and Usher — or a cringe: See Keith Sweat’s ridiculous trap record “Eenie Meenie Miney Mo.”
Trying to make songs like you’re still 20 seems like an odd, defensive strategy for older singers — they are ceding the clout they built up over time. It’s unlikely that Songz can do better at the 2018 sound than, for instance, Jacquees did with “Ocean”, which features one of the year’s prettiest singing moments at the start of the second verse. But it’s surprising that Jacquees, at just 24 years old, is getting the jump on his elders with a song like “London” — this feathery, acoustic number isn’t so far from “Neighbors Know My Name.” That’s a style Songz can dominate, if he chooses to.