Welcome to the Prefix Power Rankings, where we take a look at who’s the hottest in their chosen genre. Today, we look at perhaps the most important classification of musician around: male R&B singers.
Every good R&B singer is like an academic paper: he has a thesis, and he develops and defends that thesis. Every R&B singer’s thesis is that the listener should have sex with them. They develop this thesis throughout the course of their career, justifying their existence using several points of defense: physical appearance, charisma/public persona, street cred, and of course the actual quality of music they put out.
R&B is in a weird place, with indie interlopers and underground upstarts fighting tooth and nail with established giants for valuable megabytes on listeners’ iPods, and sometimes even finding themselves assuming their place within the upper echelons of urban music with startling swiftness. So without further adieu, let’s see how everybody stacks up.
Disqualified: Chris Brown and Justin Timberlake
Breezy. J-Tim. Sit down, both of you. It’s time for a lecture. Once upon a time, you seemed like our only hope, the once and future Michael Jackson and Prince of your generation, two child stars turned all grown and sexy. But you threw it all away. Chris, you couldn’t keep yourself from going Ike Turner on everybody and having a full-blown career meltdown to the point that in the future we will know exactly what somebody means when they say that someone is “pulling a Chris Brown.” “Look At Me Now” is still a boss track, though.
And Justin. Justin, Justin, Justin. These days, if you ever grace us with your golden throat, it’s to yuk it up with Andy Samberg on SNL like some sort of hipster Martin and Lewis (no Catskills). You’re better than that, Justin, and you’re better than your current Hollywood role as a second-tier Ryan Gosling. Come on, dude. You’re one hot jam away from returning to greatness. Do it for all of us, especially those of us who never want to hear another lame joke asking when you’re going to bring sexy back.
10. How To Dress Well
There was a lot of debate about whether or not to include How to Dress Well on this list, but he eventually slipped in here. And why shouldn’t HTDW (née Tom Krell) be included in Prefix’s inaugural R&B power rankings? He’s got the same influences as most of the other cats on this list, he just approaches those influences from the perspective of a grad student who used to make noise music, mainly because, well, that’s exactly who Tom Krell is.
Beyond all that stuff, there’s something undeniably sexy about How To Dress Well. It lies within his mystery—he hardly shows his face to the media, nobody gets why he’s so into Jodeci, and on a personal level I don’t understand how he managed to sidestep the label “chillwave” and get lumped into the category of “PBR&B” instead. Then there’s his music itself, which is the sonic equivalent of staring into an inescapable abyss full of very depressed ghosts. It’s truly haunting, and if you’re in the right (that is to say, wrong) mood, it’s the absolute best music out there. The problem is, while Tom Krell’s music is often amazing, his music itself is never all that sexy. So despite Krell’s ambiguous hipster sexiness, How to Dress Well is relegated to the bottom of this round’s list. Maybe if he makes a song with a rapper to shore up that street cred (he and Main Attakionz are friendly on Twitter; why doesn’t one of them just go for it already?), and comes up with more music in the vaguely sexy vein of his Just Once EP, he’ll make the jump to the next tier of R&B. Here at Prefix, we’re all rooting for him.
9. Cee-Lo Green
Cee-Lo is an original. Of all the singers on this list, he has the strongest singing voice, the greatest musical range, and is the best rapper—a good skill for any R&B singer to keep in his pocket—and has made some of the most creatively bold musical decisions of any singer operating under the increasingly-hazy label of “pop music.” Cee-Lo, however, is plagued by a couple of very unsexy problems that no amount of genuine talent can erase. He’s derailed his public persona by actively trying to look like a crazy person, and he looks like a giant baby. What’s worse, he has really tiny hands. Have you ever met a person with really tiny hands who isn’t completely fucking terrifying? Me neither.
8. R. Kelly
You must be thinking, if Chris Brown got disqualified from the Power Rankings, why didn’t the R in R&B? Well, disembodied independent music fan, just as Ben Roethlisberger redeemed being a pervy creep through pure, unadulterated achievement, so did Kellz. While Big Ben won a bunch of football games and consented to being interviewed by Terry Bradshaw on national television, R. Kelly’s one-two punch came in the form of “Ignition (Remix)” and the Trapped In The Closet series. Throw in his late-career classic Double Up, and you’ve got a body of work that both proves its creator is both crazily talented as well as just plain-old crazy. And while these days R. Kelly seems intent on justifying his place in the R&B canon by making music that appeals to old people (show me a dad who doesn’t fuck with “Radio Message” and I will show you a dad who’s a liar), R. Kelly is still the John, Paul, George, and Ringo of high-concept songs about fucking, and his influence can be felt up and down this list. And for that, R. Kelly holds a legacy spot on Prefix’s R&B power rankings.
There was a time when R. Kelly and Usher were the Picasso and Matisse of R&B, friendly rivals at the top of their games. It even looked like Usher might surpass Kellz, through the release of “U Got It Bad” and “Yeah,” respectively the third-greatest slow jam of all time and the best song that Lil Jon ever threw his stupidly brilliant dreads into. But then, something happened. While R. Kelly continued to release works of idiosyncratic genius, Ush (or Ursh, if you’ve got the cadence of Ludacris) got too comfortable, releasing middling RnB radio jam after middling RnB radio jam, to the point where he was a chart staple, always expected but never greeted with particular warmth. As of late, however, Usher has redeemed himself—he discovered Justin Bieber, and single-handedly saved this year’s Super Bowl halftime show by falling from heaven and taking the attention off of the Black Eyed Peas. However, Usher seems to be slipping. At the prehistoric age of 32 and no new plans on the horizon, he’s trending downward. Let’s hope for all our sakes he can muster another Confessions, or he’ll be off this list altogether.
6. The Weeknd
When The Weeknd first burst on the scene, all we had was his music, a sublime, demure mesh of mainstream R&B stylings and indie signifiers. Whether interpolating Siousxie and the Banshees or warping a Beach House record to something that could have shown up on something by, well, Warp Records, the Weeknd’s moody, dark mixtape House Of Balloons was one of early 2011’s most pleasant surprises. Soon after, we all found out that The Weeknd was a Canadian dude named Abel Tesfaye, and he was best friends with Drake. A couple months later, the two would make a song called “Trust Issues” to confirm this. The Weeknd’s star is rising, but he’s only performed live twice, and at his recent OVO Festival performance he was reportedly shy onstage, and at times shocked at how many people knew the words to his own songs. Sorry, The Weeknd, but you’ve got to get your swagger up before you can be the boss of this R&B shit.
To understand The-Dream, you have to think of him as R. Kelly’s nerdy, eager-to-please younger cousin. He’s certainly a creative force, having penned approximately forty percent of radio hits for the likes of Rihanna, Beyonce and Snoop Dogg, and his own albums are latter-day classics amongst both R&B aficionados and interlopers. The problem is he might just do everything a bit too perfectly—The-Dream is a sphere with not even a hint of an edge, and his music seems to have come from some other planet where every emotion is fabricated and error spells death. The-Dream’s music is perfect, and that’s why he’s not higher up on this list.
4. Trey Songz
It’s amazing how quickly Trigga assumed Chris Brown’s place within the R&B spectrum after Breezy fell from grace. At first glance, they’re basically interchangeable—one, a heavily-tattooed loverthug who lyrically divides his attentions between the streets and the sheets, and the other, well, a heavily-tattooed loverthug who lyrically divides his attentions between the streets and the sheets. But when you peel back a few layers of tattoos, you realize the secret, sinister truth: Trey Songz doesn’t mind going out of his way to be a total weirdo.
“Your Side Of The Bed.” “I Invented Sex.” “The Neighbors Know My Name.” All of these song titles sound like they could be vintage R. Kelly, but no. They’re from Trey Songz, the upstart boy wonder of R&B. And for his bold stabs at individuality in this increasingly homogenous RnB world, Trey Songz earns his place on the RnB Power Rankings.
Even Lloyd is probably confused as to why he’s so high up on this list. But he has redeeming qualities. He’s got a tattoo on his head, which is sexy in a crazy-person type of way, his recent album King Of Hearts is a genuine contender for latter-day classic, and when most of your competition is too busy being old, releasing shitty music or having really tiny hands, you can’t help but rise to the top. Lloyd, just do us all a favor and never use the word p-word fifty-six times in a single song again.
The news that Drake was going to be singing more (maybe) on his new album Take Care really brought forth the whole idea for the R&B power rankings: how would one of the giants of the rap world stack up against the heavyweights of R&B? There’s really one answer to that question, and it’s called “Marvin’s Room,” Drake’s sloppy drunk dial to an ex who, he’s just saying, do better. It’s got it all—Drake not knowing who is friends are, missing someone he can’t have and doing all the wrong things to get her back. Throw in an unwanted pregnancy, and you’ve basically got a Springsteen album.
And as a singer, Drake’s got it all. A nice tenor that sounds like a sorta-emotive robot when ran through Auto-Tune, good looks (though in some corners of the Internet there remains a debate regarding whether or not Drake looks like a thumb), and the ability to smile and hug in public. Judging solely from his smiling and hugging abilities, Drake might be the first rapper turned R&B singer turned politician. Mothers, prepare your babies for Drake to kiss them. They’ll thank him later.
1. Frank Ocean
While Lloyd and The-Dream might represent some kind of sterilized, Plutonian Ideal of an R&B Singer, Frank Ocean is just the opposite—a bucket of emotion, baring his soul to you, warts and all. Take the music video for his track “Novacane,” which features the OFWGKTA-affiliated crooner being socked in the jaw, only to keep singing. What’s more, Frank Ocean one hell of a storyteller, throwing in details with the same precision and personality of a young Biggie. And while he might have made a song complaining about how his girlfriend only listens to Trey Songz and Drake, it was Ocean whose able baritone was awarded two guest spots on Watch The Throne, beating out the likes of The-Dream, Seal, Beyonce, walking punchline Mr. Hudson and a sample from that Will Ferrell ice skating movie, all of whom only appeared on one track.
Earlier this summer, Chris Brown took to Twitter to snipe at Ocean. Maybe Breezy was just genuinely confused about whether or not Frank Ocean worshipped the devil. Maybe he was just mad because he has a lot of anger problems. Or maybe Chris Brown knew the truth: that Frank Ocean symbolizes a new day for R&B.
There’s an episode of the late, great show Party Down where a character named Pepper McMasters claims that the biggest erogenous zone is in your brain. She was categorically not talking about Frank Ocean, but that platitude seems to apply to him, that sometimes the sexiest thing about an R&B singer isn’t his body, but his brain.