Cynicism is a growing phenomenon in music. True love songs are hard to come by these days. Deriving its name from Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” Yellow Diamonds is a series of lyric breakdowns in which VIBE Senior Music Editor Austin Williams celebrates songs that sound like love found in a hopeless mainstream.
At the 64th annual Grammy Awards, Silk Sonic executed what one half of the duo called a “clean sweep,” with their single “Leave The Door Open” collecting Grammys in all four categories it was nominated for: Best R&B Performance, Best R&B Song, Song of the Year, and the coveted Record of the Year. Jazmine Sullivan also picked up a pair of golden gramophones, with her Heaux Tales EP winning Best R&B Album, and the project’s second single, “Pick Up Your Feelings,” tying “Leave The Door Open” for Best R&B Performance. These separate victories bring to mind an R&B debate from last year that underscored my earliest weeks at VIBE.
This past December, VIBE’s staff contributed blurbs praising their favorite R&B albums of 2021. As the newly hired Senior Music Editor at the time, I presented those blurbs as a list ranking each body of work. From first to third, the top three projects on the list were An Evening With Silk Sonic (No. 1), Tinashe’s 333 (No. 2), and Heaux Tales (No. 3).
On social media, where music opinions are adjudicated as if they’re judgments in a court of law, most responses to my top three celebrated Tinashe, an independent Black woman artist, finally being considered among the kings and queens of her craft. However, a loud minority seemed to almost feel personally offended that I didn’t name Heaux Tales the best R&B album of 2021 and somewhat scandalized by me giving that distinction to Silk Sonic, whose omnipresence had already inspired some fatigue by that point. Someone on VIBE’s own staff even shared this visceral reaction.
Though not innately, I do understand what Heaux Tales means to Black women. As Sullivan expressed during her Best R&B Album acceptance speech, a project she originally wrote to address the shame she felt surrounding decisions she made throughout her 20s ended up becoming “a safe space for Black women to tell their stories” and “learn from each other and not be exploited.”
As cynicism informs a great deal of R&B music these days, noted at the beginning of each edition of this column, an EP detailing the trauma that inspires said cynicism struck most people with an expected measure of emotional resonance. But to allow that resonance to animate an angry response to Silk Sonic’s own critical acclaim is to misunderstand the purpose of both award shows and year-end lists.
The reason the Grammys are not the only awards given out on television and VIBE’s annual roundups are not the only year-end lists on the internet is simple: These honors are bestowed by people with opinions, and no one opinion counts more than another, especially not with regards to something as subjective as music. As a Black man who, for reasons either fair or unfair, has not had to deal with much shame over my past dating experiences, I was able to appreciate the romanticism of An Evening With Silk Sonic more than the poignancy of Heaux Tales.
Something I’ve covered in this column before is the sentimentality of R&B and soul music that existed and somewhat died before this current era. To me, what’s most impressive about An Evening With Silk Sonic is how records like “Leave The Door Open” are able to capture that long gone sentimentality without ever mocking or defaming it.
As I wrote in my year-end blurb for the album, “From the very first single […] it was clear An Evening With Silk Sonic would be more informed by Bruno Mars’ sensibilities as an artist specializing in pastiches and homages than Anderson .Paak’s inventiveness. What followed that correct assumption was an ode to 1970s soul and funk that in the hands of lesser musicians could have sounded like a parody album, but instead exemplified the singers’ fluency in both genres.”
Steered by a reverence for the history of Black music that I don’t think Bruno Mars gets enough credit for, An Evening With Silk Sonic accomplishes something that would seem to be more difficult than Heaux Tales’ placation of modern disillusionment. Aided by a Bootsy Collins stamp of approval, Mars and .Paak dared to reimagine the music most R&B-lovers grew up on, and in the process offered things we’ve been asking for since the genre lost its way sometime last decade—namely musicianship, full-bodied singing, and, perhaps most important of all, actual love songs.
Even as records like “Pick Up Your Feelings” offer equally impeccable production and vocals, there isn’t a single love song on Heaux Tales. So, while the project’s sound soared above that of most other R&B works released in 2021, its subject matter still felt bound to an overused style of songwriting that’s weighed the genre down in recent years.
“Leave The Door Open,” on the other hand, is a masterwork of romantic imagination. Over lush and soulful production, Anderson .Paak spends two verses dreaming up a fairytale fit for an influencer couple’s TikTok account. Though he doesn’t spill his guts the way Mars does later in the record, .Paak finds a way to balance coolness and sincerity through old soul flirtation.
I’m sippin’ wine (sip, sip)
In a robe (drip, drip)
I look too good (look too good)
To be alone (woo-hoo)
My house clean (house clean)
My pool warm (pool warm)
Just shaved (smooth like a newborn)
We should be dancing, romancing, in the east wing
And the west wing of this mansion, what’s happenin’?
In the verse above, there are promises of wining and dining in silk loungewear with the option of either swimming in a heated pool or dancing through the halls of a freshly cleaned mansion. And in the verse below, the romance is ratcheted up as .Paak talks of seducing his lover with Purple Haze and fish fillets, leading to kissing and cuddling in a bathtub lined with rose petals.
Ooh, you’re so sweet (so sweet)
So tight (so tight)
I won’t bite (uh-uh)
Unless you like (unless you like)
If you smoke (what you smoke?)
I got the haze (purple haze)
And if you’re hungry, girl, I got filets (woo-hoo)
Ooh, baby, don’t keep me (waiting)
There’s so much love we could be making (shamone)
I’m talking kissing, cuddling
Rose petals in the bathtub, girl, let’s jump in
Yet, despite the lighthearted, more fantastical elements of the record, “Leave The Door Open” finds itself grounded nearly every 30 seconds. Separating each lavish verse from Anderson .Paak is a pre-chorus and primary chorus from Bruno Mars that serves as the emotional bedrock for the record. That duality results in what I referred to in my original year-end blurb as Mars and .Paak’s ability to “capture the charisma and sex appeal of the 70s exactly the way folks thought they would—as sharply sketched characters, not lazily drawn caricatures.”
I ain’t playin’ no games
Every word that I say is coming straight from the heart
So if you tryna lay in these arms
I’ma leave the door open
(I’ma leave the door open)
I’ma leave the door open, girl
(I’ma leave the door open, hopin’)
That you feel the way I feel
And you want me like I want you tonight, baby
(Tell me that you’re comin’ through)
Ostensibly, “Leave The Door Open” is a frivolous song about a pair of bachelors offering the women in their lives access to the romantic amusements their lifestyles afford. But really, it’s a sincere call to action encouraging would-be lovers to leave their hearts open to companionship.
As playful as the verses are, the opening lines of the pre-chorus—“I ain’t playin’ no games/ Every word that I say is coming straight from the heart”—express a simple certainty of love that used to be common in R&B before the genre gave way to situationship songwriting. With that sense of old-fashioned commitment established, the following lines—“So if you tryna lay in these arms/ Imma leave the door open”—would seem to be more about vulnerability than sexuality.
While “Leave The Door Open” is a work of throwback R&B and soul, its songwriting contains an evergreen pop brilliance. Like most hit records, the song is endlessly listenable while sneakily speaking to one of the many human emotions that either keep us up or help us sleep at night.
Jazmine Sullivan’s Heaux Tales does this as well, which is partially why I can’t be mad at the Recording Academy for naming the EP the best R&B album of 2021, even though I’d argue it actually isn’t. The reality is there are no right or wrong answers when it comes to music criticism, despite much of my job being dependent on pretending otherwise.
And even if you disagree and believe there are such things as definitively right and wrong music opinions, allowing yourself to ever have yours validated by the Recording Academy, an institution most people believe is routinely incorrect, would have to rely on some pretty suspect logic. I’m not willing to commit such hypocrisy in celebrating Silk Sonic’s “clean sweep,” and I hope those who agree with the Academy’s estimation of Heaux Tales over mine aren’t either.