If you’ve been reading me for a while, it’s no secret that I’m a 90s R&B head. I grew up listening to music that was far too mature for a 10, 11, 12-year-old girl to hear. But I bopped to Adina Howard’s “Freak Like Me” as if I were 22, as if I knew exactly what being a freak entailed. I could barely decode the better-written references to sexual acts back then. As I got older and listened to those old jams, some of the songs gained new meaning simply because I’d experienced new things. But I never expected other beloved tunes to take on creepy implications. Again, being “woke” ruins everything I love(d).
My views on male and female relationships have shifted drastically over the last decade or so. I was pretty headstrong even in my early 20s. However, I didn’t yet have the language to articulate the “why” behind societal constructs that seemed inequitable to me. I did a lot of feminist and womanist reading that taught me things I thought were normal…were actually pretty f***ed up.
And those readings gradually seeped into the way I consumed R&B. Things like street harassment, stalking, pedophilic grooming, statutory rape, sexual assault, and slut shaming all went under the guise of romance and being in love. When I listen to some of the songs I adored back then, I can’t help but cringe.
The song that changed the way Michael made me feel.
I’m cycling through a lot of old R&B music on purpose these days because I have songs I want Bean and Button to associate with their childhood. I want them to look back and recall fondly that their mama introduced them to Michael Jackson and Prince at a young age. We watch a lot of old Michael Jackson videos because Bean loves him. Around the time when Bean was three, we watched the video for “The Wake You Make Me Feel.” For nostalgia’s sake, give it a click.
A woman walks down a dark, abandoned street and encounters MJ, who gives her his best Moonwalk holla. Miss Lady isn’t feeling it. She struts away from him, but encounters groups of his dance buddies. MJ and the gang block her path at every turn, trying to dance his way into her heart. She even goes so far as to dart into an empty car to get away from him. So much ground humping and pelvic thrusts. The video ends with her hugging MJ in front of a wildly spraying fire hydrant. So romantic!
Except…it’s not. The first time I rewatched the video after a long time, I was appalled. I would have been terrified to be the woman he harangued up and down the street. Groups of men blocking a woman’s path in the dark is threatening, period. I don’t care if they are a-twirling on their toes. The song itself is lighthearted and cute, which makes it easy to forget that the actions depicted in the mini-movie are not okay.
Hey, lil mama, it’s just a little street harassment and stalking!
“The Way You Make Me Feel” came out in 1987, but the subsequent decade of 90s R&B has a recurrent trope of a man approaching a beautiful woman he’s smitten with. I give men a modicum of sympathy when it comes to the social custom of approaching women in public. That 50/50 rejection odd never diminishes. On the harmless end of the spectrum, you have Jodeci’s “Come and Talk to Me,” which is mostly a lot of romantic daydreaming. But that moment when K-Ci groans, “I wish I could grab you” isn’t just a wish for some guys. They actually do seize random women so they can come and talk to them.
I was so in love with Tevin Campbell as a tween girl. His ode to a cutie from afar, “Can We Talk?” seemed like the sweetest thing when I was younger. But now? “I started to write you letters” veers on the creepy side for me. The ad lib outro has him begging, “Now can we talk for a minute / Come on and talk to me, baby / I said can we talk for a minute / See I wanna know… you better tell me your name, baby.” Assuming he’s no longer having internal dialogue, his romantic pleas are off-putting when spoken aloud.
Songs in the key of creepy old play-play uncle.
I think I’m speaking for all of us here when I say that Keith Sweat’s nasal drone hasn’t held up very well over time. One slow jam that especially makes me shudder is “Right and a Wrong Way.” It’s like a primer for pedophilic grooming of young girls for older men.
Right out the gate, 26-year-old Sweat whines, “You might be young / But you’re reaaaddddy / Ready to learn.” Ew, ew, ew, ew. I feel sick just typing that. Exactly how young, Keith?! Not, “you might be young, but you’re old enough.” No, he said, “ready.” It’s just the sort of thing pedophiles whisper into the ears of girls too young to see the glint of sharp teeth. This song was written by superproducer Teddy Riley, a man old enough to know better. But he wasn’t alone.
In retrospect, everything Robert Kelly touched turned ashy for me when those infamous tapes came out. But I was most surprised his career survived when we discovered the then-27-year-old secretly married 15-year-old Aaliyah. He could’ve written “Right and a Wrong Way” about himself. After that, I couldn’t look at Aaliyah’s hit debut album the same–Kellz pissed all over it as its producer. He even photobombs the cover photo.
I still really love “Back and Forth” with the heat of 1,000 summer suns. I just gotta ignore R. Kelly’s 50-leven ad libs and quick rap in the middle. But how can I listen to “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number” without feeling ill? I was 12 when this came out. I want to know why was this ever okay to any adult? This grown-behind man wrote a thinly veiled song about statutory rape and had a 15-year-old singing about “let me show you true ecstasy.” And then he married her? And he’s still making music? :::flips table:::
Age ain’t nothing but a pretense for statutory rape.
Girls aren’t the only ones in danger from creepy or predatory adults. I cannot believe I bopped so hard to a little-known album cut from 90s boy group Hi-Five, called “I Just Can’t Handle It.” The flirty song introduces us to an adolescent boy being sexually hounded by a grown woman. The pubescent lead singer intoned, “I was only 16 / And she was 25.” It ends with him at her house in front of a half-naked adult. Written by Bernard Bell and Teddy Riley, the single peaked at #10 on the US Billboard R&B charts. Riley is on my permanent side-eye list for these Rape & B tunes. I don’t remember a single protest against a song playing on radio glorifying statutory rape.
Firmly and sadly in the QTNA column for me is my beloved Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Do Me!” If you wanna do the math on this track, I was 8 when it came it and I knew it like the back of my hand. So many of the lyrics went over my head until I got older.
But there’s a line that rang out clear as a stripper heel then, as it does now. The second verse after the vamp, Michael Bivins raps, “Backstage / underage / adolescent” skkkkkrrrrrrt. Excuse me?! I’ve always hoped and prayed that he was referring to his own adolescence in the hit group New Edition. That might be too kind an assumption. The biopic that came out confirmed at least that the boys were wild in their heyday. Either way, it’s more than a little off-putting to hear a 22-year-old sing about adolescent sex.
Let me put this sexual harassment on you, girl.
One time I was at a party dancing by myself and a guy came over to dance with me. I was cool with it…until he moved in closer and closer so I could feel the print of his dick on my stomach. Dancing, I shifted my feet backwards until a sliver of space remained between us. This dude put his hand on the small of my back and pressed me back into him. I wiggle-danced out of his grasp, desperately trying to maintain distance. After another 30 seconds of this dance-within-a-dance, I got fed up. My feet stopped moving, I pivoted, and left him standing in the middle of the song, alone on the crowded dance floor.
Despite how frequently that scenario played out in my 20s, I still sing and fake harmonize to Next’s hit song, “Too Close” whenever it comes on the radio. It’s all about a guy getting hard in the middle of a dance. I’d consider it consensual from his standpoint, since the hook blithely says, “Baby, when we’re grinding / I get so excited.” The cultural aspect of slow dancing or backing it up at a club makes it difficult to tell when it’s welcome.
But the woman’s part throws me into confusion. She sings, “Step back, you’re dancing kinda close / Feel a little poke coming through on you.” Clearly, she doesn’t want to feel him. You can’t grind on someone with space in between you. So if she’s asking him to step back, maybe she never wanted to grind in the first place. The lyrics are a good example of how body language gets lost in translation under the noise of a throbbing bass. Or simply ignored.
The more things change…R&B will never lose its creepiness.
The history of creepy, problematic lyrics in R&B is as old as the genre itself. I could be here all day picking apart supposedly romantic songs that depict a dangerous representation of love. I know Rape & B is alive and well when I hear lyrics like those in Miguel’s “How Many Drinks?” and Trey Songz asking “Why the hell are you sleeping naked?” when a lover says she doesn’t want sex right then.
So many of us pretend the 90s era of R&B was flawless, a bastion of courtly love. We lament, “Why don’t guys croon sensitively like they used to?” But I don’t want to return to having statutory rape tales on the airwaves. I can’t unsee the danger, no matter how nostalgia tints my rearview. Listening to the way we defend these old tunes warns me that we all have a long way to go before we lose the creepy predators in our love songs or our lives.
What was (or is) your favorite creepy R&B song?