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At one point, Kevin Ross was at the forefront of this generation’s rehabilitation of R&B. The DC native’s nostalgic-abiding slow jam “Long Song Away” topped Billboard’s Adult R&B Songs chart in March 2017. That chart has also seen his peers like Ro James, Daniel Caesar, H.E.R., Sevyn Streeter, and Ella Mai find the same success. This year, he’s on a mission to bring new life to that movement of millennials sharing the R&B airwaves with the legends they grew up listening to— and to infiltrate the public music conscience during the process. With his new EP, Audacity Vol. 1, he plans on a few tracks crossing over into formats geared towards younger audiences.
In recent months, there has been a lot of conversation online about the definition of “real R&B” and who in the new generation of stars are crafting it properly. On February 24, the discussion came to an explosive fever pitch when hip-hop artist, Young M.A tweeted, “Music don’t feel the same because we barely have R&B, ... R&B brung that balance to music...now everything is leanin one way smh so it gets played out quick! We need R&B for the balance no kap [sic]!”
For the next few days, opinions were split. Some— even as notable as music mogul Diddy— agreed with Young M.A’s stance, going as far as saying, “you can’t fake R&B.” However, the opposing side of R&B fans felt insulted, wondering if mainstream entities should be blamed for not putting more spotlight on those artists.
The fact of the matter is there is still a lot of “real R&B” out there. A soulful kind of R&B that matches the lifestyle and attitude of the vocalists, songwriters, and producers who are still holding down the genre’s origins. A simple dial tuning to adult R&B stations on terrestrial radio or Sirius XM’s Heart & Soul will reveal this to be the case.
Weeks prior to Young M.A’s comment, Kevin Ross is celebrating the release of Audacity, Vol. 1, his fourth EP since launching with 2014’s Dialogue In The Grey. The singer arrives two hours late to his own R&B themed party. At 10:10 PM on a cool President’s Day Monday, one of Koreatown’s many bars, Spot Karaoke, is flipped upside down as his roaring posse of friends, fans, and industry associates belt (and butcher) R&B classics of the past and present.
In Spot Karaoke’s open front lounge, the MC who queued song requests and his bartender assistant are a bit puzzled when Kevin Ross grabs the mic and “warms up” with an acapella role call. Without lyrics displaying on a screen, or the usual off-key instrumentals of karaoke songs, the singer starts out with The Deele’s 1987 classic, “Two Occasions.” The room responds back to Kevin Ross’s performance by comfortably finishing the chorus after figuring out the song.
Other audience members follow lead, performing rousing renditions of Kirk Franklin and The Nu Nation’s 1997 gospel-R&B hit “Stomp,” Aaliyah’s 1996 electro-staple “One In A Million,” and Brandy’s 1994 freshman ballad “Brokenhearted.” For a quick 30 minutes, it seemed as though Ross and the other talented individuals who kicked off the gathering had almost forgotten the rules of karaoke. Until someone finally holds up one of Spot’s many karaoke books and requests, “Can y’all do it to the music?”
Wearing a blue, yellow, and black striped Guess shirt tucked inside black overalls that had one pant leg rolled up to highlight his black Timbs, Ross oozes '90s homage with his “fashionably late” outfit. It’s the perfect look and segue into the first actual karaoke song of the night, Bel Biv Devoe’s defining New Jack Swing cut, “Poison.”
During the run of selections ranging from Sunshine Anderson’s “Heard It All Before” to Sisqo’s “Thong Song,” the room would break out into choreographed dance breaks, including a House Party moment to “Poison,” swaying to Lloyd’s hook on Young Money’s “Bedrock,” and a boy band moment to *NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye.”
The attendees get into an uproar when they realize that The Maze and Frankie Beverly’s “Before I Let Go” is not in Spot’s karaoke book. The session reverts back into an acapella roll call, with a soul train line forming to do the electric slide. However, Lauryn Hill’s starring Sister Act 2 gospel ode “Joyful Joyful” is in the karaoke queue to close out the night.
The following afternoon, Kevin Ross appears more business casual when he’s visiting the VIBE office in Times Square. “Oh, you’re the guy that sang ‘Wild Thoughts’ last night!” he says as we get reacquainted. (Yes, I couldn’t refuse the opportunity of performing all of Rihanna, Bryson Tiller, and DJ Khaled’s parts during the festive night.)
Easing into a conversation about Audacity, I had to bring up an encounter with one of his fans — who eventually left before Ross’s arrival. “She DM’ed me, and she was like, ‘Hey, where you at?’ And I was like ‘Hey, they’re still trying to figure everything out,’” Ross explains. The singer has a strong connection to his fans: celebrating the birthday of one at his karaoke night and making it up to another by giving her free tickets to his Philly show.
As he’s blaring select cuts from Audacity to VIBE’s editorial staff, I notice that “Let It Out” and “Switching Sides” are the two favorites that his impatient fan described. She enjoyed the more sexual nature of the cuts because she had never heard Ross sing like that before. The trap percussions and lascivious vocals of both songs sharply contrast the singer’s self-described “peace and love” vibes on his 2017 debut album, The Awakening, or “This Is My Wish,” his breakout jingle from a 2014 Glade holiday commercial.
“What I did on Audacity was I had an ego,” Ross highlights. “But that’s kind of like my alter ego. That’s when you get the more sensual, sexual stuff.” He finishes off by saying, “I’m a grown man… And I think that shouldn’t be glazed over.”
The new territory the singer finds himself in as a solo artist is not much different from what he’s penned as a songwriter for a long list of others, including Toni Braxton and Tank. During his karaoke session, someone snuck in Trey Songz’s 2014 sex anthem, “Touchin, Lovin” for Ross to perform. “I wrote this one,” he gleefully says during the opening instrumental before matching the tone of Trey Songz. At the office, he acknowledges, “I think if people listened closely and they understood my journey as a writer, I have a history of overt writing anyways.”
The reason for naming his new EP, Audacity, is because Ross “had the balls to leave” his former label Motown Records. With a laugh, he further explains that he went independent with his own label, Art Society Music Group, and a distribution deal with EMPIRE.
“I’m a lot freer,” rejoices a confident Ross, “There are less cooks in the kitchen.” He continues: “When you take away a lot of people’s opinions and you really get down to the art and the creativity of it, [you] get to the soul and the honesty and the transparency.” The decision also came with the “autonomy” of owning his own masters from this point forward, working during the process to eventually own those of his previous songs.
Sitting alongside Kevin Ross through all of this— and even co-hosting the R&B karaoke night— is Canjelae, the Tammi Terrell to Ross’s Marvin Gaye. New sentence: Growing up in Bermuda, Canjelae used to read VIBE, and now she’s in awe of this cultural connection made possible by her friend and mentor. They started out as friends of ten years, meeting when both studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Now they’re hoping to take their newly cemented recording partnership into a new dimension.
“I write a majority of my own stuff,” boasts Canjelae, as Ross co-signs with a “yep!” in the background. However, she goes on to explain that she “stole his laptop” and fell in love with a song called “Necessary Evil,” which talks about a past doomed relationship where the woman realizes she “trained” her ex to be better for the next.
Both artists plan on releasing “Everybody Here Wants You,” an early 2000s quiet storm cover of Jeff Buckley’s song of the same name. Their feminine and masculine balanced falsettos are reminiscent of Usher’s “Can U Handle It.” When they play it at the office, a rare moment happens with VIBE’s editor in chief, Datwon Thomas, popping into the room to give his props, prompting the singers to run back their potential hit that’s slated for a late spring release.
Canjelae— who is inspired by Amel Larrieux of Groove Theory, as well as the star power of Beyoncé— will soon be releasing Cave Covers, which will include a spin on Missy Elliott’s “DripDemeanor.” Mapping out the project, Canjelae notes that she’ll also be covering Sade’s “By Your Side” and Brandy’s “Brokenhearted.”
While Kevin Ross is smoothly calculated in his demeanor, Canjelae is slightly timid but nonetheless assured in hers. At that moment, she’s breaking down how “pop has always been the music that Black people were listening to at the time that everyone else wants to love too.”
The duo’s intellectual takes on the industry at large are what could potentially make their upcoming collab lethal. “Right now, pop is sounding a lot like R&B, trap, reggae, and afrobeats,” points out Canjelae. “And I am loving it as an island girl who loves R&B and everything else.”
When asked how both feel to see non-Black artists such as Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber receive more mainstream success (at the time of the interview, Bieber notched two No. 1 songs from his Changes album on the R&B Songs chart), they take no issue. Canjelae starts by saying, “I don’t feel like I’m competing [against those artists] because everything that I make is my culture, so how could I be competing?”
She finishes off, almost as if she’s simultaneously giving the definition of what real R&B should stand for. “We’re coming to a time where people want to hear the music from the people that are living the life.”
In the background of his friend's words, Kevin Ross preaches a “facts!” and adds “I don’t think that we should barricade the genre [of R&B]. That just creates division.”
The recent loss of legends in jazz, soul and classical music have saddened the music industry and reminded us of their touching gifts to music. The passing of Manu Dibango, Krzysztof Penderecki, Ellis Marsalis Jr., Bucky Pizzarelli and Alan Merrill brought endless tributes from peers and fans with the recent loss of soul singer-songwriter Bill Withers doing the same.
With a mirage of hits, the iconic songwriter left his mark on music with the release of his debut album Just As I Am in 1971. "Ain't No Sunshine" put a spotlight on his songwriting while 1977's "Lovely Day" reminded the industry of his signature vocals. Withers released eight studio albums, one live album and garnered three Grammys for his powerful songs that gave hope and love to fans to this day.
Hip-hop and R&B have gained the most from Withers as his music went on to inspire records like "No Diggity" by BLACKStreet, "Roses" by Kanye West and other songs from UGK, Dr. Dre, Jill Scott and more.
Take a look at some of Withers' finest tunes covered, remixed and sampled below.
__8. “Lovely Day” | Menagerie (1977)
Sampled On: T.W.D.Y., “Player’s Holiday” | Derty Werk (1999) LunchMoneyLewis - “It's Gonna Be A Lovely Day” feat. Aminè | Pets 2 Soundtrack (2019) Swizz Beatz - “Take A Picture” |One Man Band (2007)
Standout: T.W.D.Y., “Player’s Holiday” | Derty Werk (1999)
Short for "The Whole Damn Yay," the group used Withers' sample while throwing a splash of The Bay's laid back flavor. With cameos from future legends like E-40 and Ray Luv, the single already embodied the best of R&B and hip-hop with guest verses from Too Short, Mac Mall and Otis & Shug. The mimosas and yacht are also a great touch.
Covered By: Jill Scott, The Original Jill Scott from the Vault Vol. 1 (2011) Alt-J, This Is All Yours (2014) Robert Glasper Experiment, Black Radio 2 (2013) Kirk Franklin, The Nu Nation Project (1998)
Standout: Kirk Franklin, The Nu Nation Project (1998)
Who was going to beat a chorus singing to the lordt? Franklin's take on the classic gives us stirring gospel and appreciation for Withers and God. There are plenty of covers that have lifted the same vocals as Withers, but the ones listed have put their unique spin on the track.7. “Ain't No Sunshine” | Just As I Am (1971)
Sampled On: DMX - “No Sunshine” | Exit Wounds Soundtrack (2001) Lil B - “Up And Down” | Based Jam (2012) 2Pac- "Soulja's Story" | 2Pacalypse Now (1991)
Standout: DMX - “No Sunshine” | Exit Wounds Soundtrack (2001)
"No Sunshine" served as the only single from DMX's film alongside Steven Seagal, which gave everyone the perfect backdrop to the movie and X's intricate storytelling. Both the original and flipped version points out the dark elements of our lives. Withers penned the song after watching the film 1962 movie Days of Wine and Roses, he pondered over the toxicity in his life. "Sometimes you miss things that weren't particularly good for you," he said in 2004 to SongFacts. "It's just something that crossed my mind from watching that movie, and probably something else that happened in my life that I'm not aware of."
Covered By: Soul For Real | Candy Rain (1994) Michael Jackson | Got to Be There (1972) The Boris Gardiner Happening | Is What's Happening (1973) The Temptations | Solid Rock (1972)
Standout: Michael Jackson | Got to Be There (1972)
At 14, the future King of Pop gave a riveting cover of Withers' hit for his debut album, Got To Be There. From his vocal control throughout the track to the instrumentation, his cover takes the song to another level of heartbreak.6. "Grandma's Hands” | Just As I Am (1971)
Sampled On: BLACKstreet - “No Diggity” feat. Dr. Dre and Queen Pen | Another Level (1996) Big K.R.I.T. - “I Gotta Stay” | K.R.I.T. Wuz Here (2010) Brother Ali - “Waheedah's Hands” | Champion (2004)
Standout: BLACKstreet - “No Diggity” feat. Dr. Dre and Queen Pen | Another Level (1996)
R&B heads are well aware of BLACKstreet's neverending ballads and the genius of Teddy Riley. But the pivot of their sound for their sophomore album Another Level was due to Withers and the William “Stylez” Stewart. Speaking to Fact Mag in 2017, the creator of New Jack Swing gave credit to Stylez for bringing him the sample of "Grandma's Hands."
“If he hadn’t played that sample for me, there would never be a ‘No Diggity’ And if he didn’t write it according to the melody I gave him so it would sound that way because I wanted it to sound funky,” he said. “I wanted it to be appealing to everyone, but mostly to women. I wanted every woman to feel like they were the ‘No Diggity’ girl and that song was about them and it came across. And now, still, today, that song plays and people are on that dancefloor.”
Covered By: Gil Scott-Heron, Reflections (1981) Merry Clayton, Merry Clayton (1971) Barbra Streisand, Butterfly (1974)
Standout: Gil Scott-Heron, Reflections (1981)
Gil Scott-Heron's version of the soul classic reminded us of his versatile talents. From spoken word to his vocal abilities, the Godfather of rap music always came through with his own sound and style. Reflections was one of four albums the late artist dropped in the 80s with critics looking to it as one of his finest projects. Other cuts from the album included "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" and "B Love."5. "Use Me" | Still Bill (1972)
Sampled On: Kendrick Lamar - “Sing About Me, I'm Dying Of Thirst" | Good kid, Maad City (2012) J. Cole- "Dollar And A Dream II" | The Warm-Up (2009) Leela James - “So Good" | Fall For You (2014) UGK - "Use Me Up" | The Southern Way (1992)
Standout: Kendrick Lamar - “Sing About Me, I'm Dying Of Thirst" | Good kid, Maad City (2012)
Lamar's take on "Use Me" blended right into the themes of his debut album, Good kid, Maad City allowing the artist to create another world on the project. To make things even better, Lamar also sampled Al Green's "I'm Glad You're Mine" for the track.
Covered By: Grace Jones, Indigo Nights, Live (2008) Mick Jagger feat. Lenny Kravitz, Wandering Spirit (2004) Issac Hayes, Dr. Dolittle Soundtrack (1998)
Standout: Mick Jagger feat. Lenny Kravitz, Wandering Spirit (2004)
On his third solo album, Jagger linked with Rick Rubin to test his creative energy, allowing him to work with Lenny Kravitz on their version of "Use Me." Colliding worlds was one thing but to hear Kravitz's vocals come in on the bridge, set the track apart from the rest.4. “Kissing My Love” | Still Bill (1972)
Sampled On: J. Cole - “The Cut Off" featuring kiLL Edward | KOD (2018) Dr. Dre - "Let Me Ride" featuring Snoop Dogg, RC and Jewell | The Chronic (1992) Masta Ace- "Movin On" | Take A Look Around (1990) Master P- "Bastard Child" | The Ghettos Tryin To Kill Me! | 1994
Standout: Dr. Dre - "Let Me Ride" featuring Snoop Dogg, RC and Jewell | The Chronic (1992)
"Kissing My Love" is one of most sampled from Withers catalog, thanks to its feverish drums. It's also why it fits into Dr. Dre's single and the G-funk era.3. Grover Washington's “Just The Two of Us” featuring Bill Withers | Winelight (1981)
Sampled/Covered On: Will Smith - “Just The Two of Us” | Big Willie Style (1997) Eminem- "Just The Two of Us" | Slim Shady EP (1997) Keri Hilson- "Pretty Girl Rock" | No Boys Allowed (2010)
Standout: Will Smith - “Just The Two of Us” | Big Willie Style (1997)
Touching and soulful, Smith's dedication to his eldest son Trey is just too cute for words.2. “Let It Be” | Just As I Am (1967)
The Original: The Beatles - “Let It Be” | Let It Be (1968)
"Let It Be" is a pretty special record. Aretha Franklin recorded a version a year before the release of The Beatles' version and Withers gave his take on the record in the 70s. Slightly faster, his upbeat take on "Let It Be" just hits different.1. “Rosie” | Menagerie Re-Issue (1977)
Sampled On: Kanye West - “Roses” | Late Registration (2005)
As the somber part of Late Registration, "Roses" brings us into Kanye's world where he contemplates the mortality of a loved one. It's a sentimental take on the sample and one of the artist's most underrated songs. It's also a hidden gem for Withers as it isn't featured on Menagerie's LP. It was added as a bonus track on
Enjoy the jams in playlist form below.
There's no denying The Weeknd's influence over today's string of moody/alternative R&B. The singer-songwriter has changed the scope of the genre with his mix of synths and dark lyrics but the artist believes he inspired one of the biggest artists in the genre in the process.
As the cover star of Variety's latest issue, The Weeknd discussed the success of After Hours, transitioning into mainstream music and his presence in R&B. While looking back on his classic 2010 mixtape House of Balloons, he noted how two years later he began hearing his sound in other artists.
“House of Balloons literally changed the sound of pop music before my eyes,” he said. “I heard ‘Climax,’ that  Usher song, and was like, ‘Holy f**k, that’s a Weeknd song.’ It was very flattering, and I knew I was doing something right, but I also got angry. But the older I got, I realized it’s a good thing.”
But the resurgence of EDM in the early 2010s might've inspired Usher's hit single. "Climax" which went on to win the Grammy for Best R&B Performance in 2013, was produced by Diplo who looked towards house music and "Atlanta strip clubs" to create the track.
Speaking to The Guardian in 2012, Diplo discussed how he learned about Usher's musical palate which included an appreciation for genre-bending artists like Monsters of Folk and Grizzly Bear.
"The production actually started as a house thing with a chord progression that I wrote, but with some time in the studio alone, I was making a sort of "wildfire" beat out of it," Diplo said." The idea of pushing cut-off on a synth used so much in progressive house music but pulling back. I was making something like a minimal techno record with Atlanta strip clubs in mind."
He also shared how much Usher knew of his work outside of Major Lazer. "Usher knew about my first album on Ninja Tune, Florida," he added. "I was so surprised about how much these guys are into music beyond their normal lane. That is something that makes it very easy to work with him. Usher has the power to take a record into any lane. He's that big. He brought house music to the R&B crowds in America, and with "Yeah!" he brought synths to Atlanta hip-hop. I think he wasn't going to these producers for their sounds ... We all know what they do. Usher is a smart man, he has been doing this for long enough. He's using the producers instead of the other way around."
"Climax" ended up on Usher's Looking For Myself album, which played to all his strengths with dance tracks like "Scream," quiet storm jams like "Dive" and "What Happened To U" and the clubs like "Lemme See" with Rick Ross.
Legendary superproducer Max Martin also worked on "Climax" and would eventually work with The Weeknd on Beauty Behind The Madness standouts like "Can't Feel My Face" and "In The Night."
This isn't the first time the two have been compared to one another. The Weekend issued an apology to Usher in 2016 during the Billboard Music Awards after he mistakenly claimed to win the most awarded male R&B vocalist in the show's history. The Weeknd took home eight trophies including Top R&B Artist and Top R&B Album for Beauty Behind The Madness.
But Usher famously took home 11 trophies in the 2004 telecast for his magnum opus, Confessions including awards for Artist of the Year, Male Artist of the Year, and Hot 100 Song of the Year for "Yeah!".
Elsewhere in the interview, The Weeknd also explained his decision to release After Hours in the middle of the novel coronavirus pandemic. “Fans had been waiting for the album, and I felt like I had to deliver it," he said."The commercial success is a blessing, especially because the odds were against me: [Music] streaming is down 10%, stores are closed, people can’t go to concerts, but I didn’t care. I knew how important it was to my fans.”
The album amassed 2 billion global streams in its first week and debuted at No. 1 in the U.S., Canada, Australia, the U.K., Ireland, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and New Zealand.