Humor in soul music hasn't been the same since everyone went hardcore in the late '80s. These days, if you want to cut a joke, you can't just make a corny novelty song like Bobby Jimmy & the Critters' "Roaches." You've got to do it cool and use plenty of ironic asides, sly put-downs and slang-filled allusions.
R&B comedy may not be as broad as the good ol' days of Rufus Thomas and George Clinton, but it's still full of cheating spouses, smack-talking ladies and ornery men. In short, battles and truces between the sexes comprise the dominant theme, and the humor comes from the farcical situations that ensue, whether it's Trey Songz claiming that "I Invented Sex" or Missy Elliott claiming she doesn't want a "One Minute Man." Consider this an introductory lesson on how ribald R&B can get (if not necessarily pornographic -- after all, this is a family blog), triggering sometimes-uncomfortable laughter when we realize that these would-be players are just like us.
Oran "Juice" Jones: "The Rain" "Hey, I missed you, too! I missed you so much I followed you today!" So begins one of the most infamous rapps in R&B history (rapping in its original "let me rapp to you" conversational style, not its hippity-hoppity "rhyming" form). Jones spends the first half of the song crooning in a thin falsetto about following his girlfriend as she held hands with another man, before abruptly going ballistic as he gives her the boot: "That's right! Now close your mouth, 'cause you're cold busted!"
Prince: "Adore" As he often does, the Purple One went overboard with his gospel-like trills on this sweet ballad. "This condition I got is crucial, crucial! ... You could burn up my clothes, smash up my ride! Well, maybe not the ride."
Bell Biv Devoe: "B.B.D. ( I Thought It Was Me)?" Ricky Bell tells a story about meeting a sexy girl and enjoying a romantic interlude, but alas, "I found out she's like that with all the guys." For years afterward, guys used the phrase "I thought it was me" when mistaking party girls for wifey material.
R. Kelly: "Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)" and "Down Low (Live to Regret It Mix) (Blame It on the Mo)"; Kelly Price: "Friend of Mine (Remix)"; Ronald Isley, "Contagious" In 1995, R. Kelly recruited Ronald Isley for the backing chorus to "Down Low," but it was the video treatment for the single when Isley became Mr. Biggs, a Bumpy Johnson-like figure with a wife Kelly openly lusted after. The soapy video proved so memorable that Kelly and Isley reprised their characters for a years-long affair: on Kelly Price's "Friend of Mine," Price played Isley's daughter and Kelly the dog who cheats on her. On Isley's "Contagious," Kelly is, again, the dog, but this time Chante Moore plays Isley's cuckolding wife. (At least, she did in the video.) Also look for Little Brother's The Minstrel Show, where Phonte "Percy Miracles" Coleman duets with "Mr. Biggs."
Erykah Badu: "Tyrone" "I'm gettin' tired of your sh*t," begins Badu on "Tyrone," to loud audience cheers. Badu's anger is palpable as she lays out a lazy boyfriend that just sits around and wastes time with his friend Tyrone, soundtracked by peals of delight from ladies all too familiar with such losers. Many of Badu's male fans were stung by the characterization -- ironic, considering that hip-hop artists had begun using "b*tch" with vigor -- so she briefly stopped performing "Tyrone," lest it be construed as a diatribe against black men. Yeesh: with all the crap guys talk about women, you'd think they'd be less sensitive.
TLC: "No Scrubs" Much like Erykah Badu's "Tyrone," this song generated an unexpected amount of anger from men. Perhaps the ladies' characterization of "busters" who "hang on the passenger side of his best friend's ride, trying to holler at me" struck too close to home. Also check for the Sporty Thievz' slightly pathetic revenge track "No Pigeons."
Chris Rock: "No Sex" Chris Rock explodes the myth of strippers having sex with customers in the champagne room, with considerable help from the late Gerald Levert. Also see the 1999 HBO documentary Pimps Up, Ho's Down, where notorious exploitation filmmaker Brent Owens cues up "No Sex" … while strippers have sex in the champagne room.
Jill Scott: "Gettin' in the Way" When Ms. Scott confronts an old paramour of her boyfriend, things quickly turn from cordial to nasty. "I've been a lady up 'til now/ Don't know how much more I can take," she sings. "Queens shouldn't swing, if you know what I mean/ But I'm 'bout to take my rings off, get me some Vaseline." For the unaware, she uses Vaseline to moisturize her hands so she can slap up the woman without bruising them.
R. Kelly: "Trapped in the Closet" R. Kelly is not only the king of R&B, he's king of the urban melodrama, mining the field for shocked "No he didn't!" giggles long before Tyler Perry ruined it. His greatest achievement is "Trapped in the Closet," a bizarre serial where he once again plays the dog cheating with another man's wife and hiding in the closet when the husband comes home. As the chapters unfold, the husband catches Kelly, the husband's boyfriend shows up and at one point a midget appears.
T-Pain: "I'm Sprung" Tallahassee "rappa ternt sanga" T-Pain tapped into urban America's collective id with "I'm Sprung," a ridiculous story delivered in kitschy Auto-Tune, portraying a regular dude who falls so deeply in love with a girl that he sticks with her after she cheats on him. The Auto-Tune effects made it awkwardly hilarious, at least until the song's popularity sparked an unexpected fad that persists to this day.
The-Dream: "Falsetto, " "I Luv Your Girl" and "Make Up Bag" "She's like ooh! Ooh! Baby!" goes the chorus to Terius "The-Dream" Nash's "Falsetto." More than any other R&B artist of his generation, The-Dream can walk the boundary between sexiness and ridiculousness, from "I Luv Your Girl" ("She like 'Aah, aah-aah-aah'") to "Make Up Bag," wherein he buys his girl designer handbags ("Louis, Prada, Hermes, Fendi") as an apology for cheating on her.
Tank: "Emergency" Thanks in part to The-Dream, over-the-top sexual metaphors are in vogue (see Trey Songz' "Neighbors Know My Name.") But Tank's "Emergency" raises this trend to new heights. "Got a lady on the line, screaming 'bout how she need me," he begins. So he rushes to her house with "the sirens on, running every light" and delivers her much-needed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, among other things. "I've gotta save her!" he cries. "If I'm any later, somebody might get there before me."