The best era in recent R&B history unites for a concert in downtown Auckland tonight. Duncan Greive reviews the Melbourne version.
I don’t know what the strangest moment of the night was. Maybe the whole crowd singing Ne-Yo ‘Happy Birthday’ ahead of his vegan cake, due to his turning 38 the night prior. It could have been Fatman Scoop taking his shirt off every time a camera hit him, including while showing off the rider backstage. More likely was Kelis inexplicably singing a clean version of ‘Trick Me’ live. But if I had to pick I’d probably vote for the video backing for ‘Dilemma’ being a ropey karaoke bootleg from YouTube, with Nelly’s disembodied head wearing a santa hat as it bounced across the comic sans words.
All this happened on a damp Thursday night in Melbourne, where 10,000 or so crammed into Hisense arena to witness one of the best R&B lineups ever assembled in the southern hemisphere for RnB Fridays Live 2017. The night spanned seven hours, with every artist past their peak, some by more than others. This was also true of a good portion of the audience – people who’d grown up with this music, with artists whose career apexes landed somewhere between 1993 and 2009. Which meant the event was a few very cool things: a giant club night; a nostalgia event for the quite recent past; a music festival for a genre which has had hardly any dedicated events in this part of the world; and a chance to witness a bunch of singles-driven artists play shortish sets largely composed of singles.
And because R&B is a genre far less self-serious than most, those comical elements listed above only served to elevate the occasion – to punctuate the emotional heft of the regular highpoints.
The first one scheduled I missed entirely: Mario playing ‘Let Me Love You’, the song I’d most-anticipated. He’d started early for a reason which never was properly conveyed, and it pains me even as I write this.
There was no time to dwell on this real life tragedy as En Vogue were already on stage. They’re 25 years from the period during which they dominated the world, and the prognosis for most artists at that distance is not great. Yet they were revelatory, amongst the most impressive acts of the whole evening. The drama and savage chords of ‘Don’t Let Go’ capped a ‘put me in the game, coach’ performance: voices, choreography and stagecraft all reflective of a group in their prime, not decades removed from it.
The same could not be said for Kelis, who remains one of the most confounding artists of the past 20 years. I saw her on the Tasty tour at the St James, and she was a very specific kind of terrible. That album was one of the best documents of what is, to my mind, the greatest R&B era ever (I know the ‘60s and ‘80s happened, but they didn’t happen to me). Kelis and the Neptunes were so well-matched creatively, each possessed of artsy impulses, each aware that those bells rang loudest with a huge hook attached. It gave us ‘Milkshake’, Trick Me’ and ‘Millionaire’ and ‘In Public’: an extraordinary four single stretch.
It was also extremely digital music – made in code, in a lab, by scientists. So it was very bad to see it performed live by a fucking band – a sloppy, hat-wearing one at that. Watching Kelis perform those extraordinary pop songs sat on a goddamn stool remains one of the most aggravating experiences of my life.
In Melbourne she stunk in a different way – the DJ played ‘Bossy’, her last truly great single, in its entirety as entrance music, depriving us of a major hit. Kelis then did a creditable job of the Tasty-era singles, but rushed through them, and spent far more time on the muddled electronic music of the last ten years.
She’s just such a frustrating artist – her best glides above almost everyone, with a rare boldness and confidence. But she almost takes it for granted, and apart from an incredibly cool print jump-suit there was little evidence that she was even trying.
That was underlined by the very next artist. Kelly Rowland is a megawatt star, who should be playing arenas like this alone, not mid-bill. No one on earth is haunted by Beyoncé’s success like her – by inevitable and functionless comparisons (like this one). It’s a tortured relationship which she captured so affectingly on ‘Dirty Laundry’, and begs the unanswerable question: if no one knew her backstory, would she be more famous and fulfilled?
This much is true: she has the songs, the look, the pipes, this room-filling charisma – and a freakish work ethic. Because if you brought your best here, then you bring it everywhere you go.
Rowland played a tight ten song set, opening with that stunning disco vamp ‘Work’, hustling through a Destiny’s Child medley which sounded a million bucks before a scorching ‘Dilemma’. Musically though, the peak was ‘Motivation’, a song ahead of its time, presaging the spare, sinewy, hard R&B which has become its own genre the past few years. She performed it with raw desire and two shredded male dancers worshipping her. The whole room kinda fainted.
The final song was a David Guetta collaboration, released at the peak of R&B’s capture by pop EDM. A dark time for the genre, during which most of its best singers were reduced to voicing hooks for little euro producers with white pants and bad facial hair. Some of those songs aren’t bad, some are even trashily great – but the vacuum was palpable.
What she did to ‘When Love Takes Over’ in this setting felt like the power being taken back. The piano refrain was the same, but instead of its boshing climax, Rowland had replaced it with a rattling trap beat. It felt like a kind of ‘fuck you’ to that era. It felt great.
Ne-Yo came next, which was a little cruel. He was the night’s second-best performer, but so far from Rowland’s crest that it was inevitable he suffered by comparison. The first half contained his first few singles, with ‘So Sick’ and ‘Sexy Love’ outrageously good. The next few years saw him torn: between his classicist instincts as a songwriter (‘Mad’), and the beckoning of the beat. I interviewed him when ‘Closer’ came out, and he told me that he’d had this night out at a club in London (have not we all) that really changed him musically.
There’s a strong case to be made that ‘Because of You’ – a song my wife and I love enough to have made it our first dance – was the patient zero of all the bad EDM-R&B crossover that came subsequently. A huge hit with a 4/4 beat, but a subtle pulse rather than a stomp. Within a couple of years it was Pitbull and ‘Give me Everything’, which Ne-Yo played almost apologetically, and felt vaguely traitorous. This night frequently felt like it was processing what happened to R&B in the early 2010s. Much of the best music played came out between 2003-2009. Then it stopped.
A confession: I saw maybe five minutes of Craig David’s set. It’s not that I don’t like him; just that it had been a very long night, and I needed to eat. Plus he had nearly twice as a long as anyone else, and I felt like the prospect of me chancing across one of his best singles in a brief watch was almost nil. I will say that the brief parts I heard of him and his TS5 DJ thing – some two step, some TLC, some Drake – were very good.
Sadly, I can’t say the same for Sean Paul. His Dutty Rock was my gateway drug into dancehall, and sits alongside Tasty as an emblematic and near-perfect document of its era. When he opened with a strong ‘Get Busy’ I thought we might be getting that Sean Paul, but it was not to be. He really concentrated his time on the so-so pop-EDM era of his creative life, frustratingly, but it was the messy botching of ‘Like Glue’ which hurt the most.
Energy was flagging everywhere by then. The crowd were six hours plus into a long night. Bodies were strewn throughout the concourse. And while he fought hard, the room was gone. Sean Paul signed off early, and we walked out into the night.
Yet despite the limp ending and some patchy performances, the peaks were incredibly high – I’ve rarely smiled so much or sung so hard, and never felt freer to do so. This was one of the sweetest, most dedicated and no judgement crowds – not unrelated that it was 80% female, to the point of men’s toilets being taking over – exactly what you’d hope for from this music. I can only urge genre fans to go to the cut-down version playing at Spark Arena tonight. As much as anything so that it comes back time and again. Because this music just sounds better in a big room, surrounded by true believers – everyone united in remembering our better selves in the recent and receding past.
Craig David, Ne-Yo, Sean Paul and more play Spark Arena tonight under the name ‘Friday Jams’
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