The mottos have long been established: Black girls rock, and black girls rule. Either way, both acknowledge the influence that black-girl spunk has exerted on popular R&B for decades. After all, it's black girls singing about black girl things. The stuff used to be all over the charts.
But not anymore. Sure, these days, and as far as love songs are concerned, maybe ghetto isn't so sophisticated, the hood isn't the vanguard, and urban is too ambiguous. Whatever pejorative one chooses to ascribe to the black-girl R&B that Mary J. Blige made popular in the early '90s, the form has fallen far behind. In all of her recent suburban outreach, R&B's reigning lioness, Beyoncé, has about as much in common with everyday black girls as Madonna does with the cast of Teen Moms. Despite the success of Beyoncé's recent 4, she still isn't quite the urban heroine of her former Destiny's Child foil, Kelly Rowland, who landed the racy hit "Motivation" last year despite being mostly ignored as any kind of icon. Former black-girl hero Keyshia Cole has virtually disappeared, and it's a Laffy Taffy stretch to say Rihanna's music really resembles R&B. Shameful as it is to admit, Jennifer Hudson even lost the bulk of her black-girl R&B realness when she seemingly put more effort into her fitness than her records.
When you take away the usual tropes of the black woman scorned or the hypersexualized-misogynist themes in the currently self-replenishing cycle of black-male-dominated R&B, you're guaranteed to find sweet despair, a celebration of love, and a black-girl charm that gets washed away in today's willful genre blurs. Like it or not, these urban birds sing in a different language. There is a different aesthetic of love in the black community, with more at stake and more to covet. R&B's women used to capture that for the masses, thorns and horns and all.
Take a stroll across any HBCU campus in the country, and you'll see that black girls swing to a different beat. In my experience, they carry themselves with an animated attitude that's not captured by fist-pumping, electro-fluff dance hits. Dancing isn't the problem. Rather, it's about the amount of black-girl style and swagger that gets lost with high BPMs. Black-girl life definitely isn't an eternal party, but lately, their music experience seems constantly bum-rushed by loud, emotionless electronica that leaves no room for the simple finger-snapping and head-bobbing. This was the kind of R&B that was all but absent in 2011. So, this year, who's going to tell the story of the black girls and how they view love and life from one day to the next? Who's made the resolution to be real again?
In a year-end piece, Village Voice Music Editor Maura Johnston asked, "Was 2011 the best year for women in music ever?" She eventually answered no, though it was certainly a good one—from Brit behemoth Adele and the indie grit of St. Vincent to the Saturday Night Live stature of Florence Welch and the ambivalence of Nicki Minaj. Considering the amount of assembly-line dance tracks that hijacked last year's popular musical landscape, you'd expect that at least one glimpse of traditional black-girl R&B would have hit near the mainstream. But not that I can find. I believe this more urgent question stands: "Was 2011 the worst year for black-girl R&B music ever?"
I can't go blaming everyone else. Maybe 2011 was when all of the black girls who would normally rely on their own type for romantic narratives were content getting their fixes from R&B's new wave of leading men, like former TV dude Drake or upstarts The Weeknd and Frank Ocean. For black girls, perhaps 2011 was more about listening to the desires of their suitors rather than the cries of their sisters. But as Johnston points out, female listeners still couldn't get "past the notion that they'd be treated as second-class listeners" with the aforementioned men last year. Did the black-girl R&B singers also get the hint that they weren't invited, too?
But hold tight: The blueprint for cranking out traditional, black-girl R&B music hasn't been lost on everyone, especially not a young songstress from Wilson, N.C., named Heather Victoria. After bringing Grammy-winning producer 9th Wonder her vision for creating something along the lines of Mary J. Blige's classic debut, What's the 411?, Victoria went under the aegis of E. Jones, one of the strongest selectors in 9th's stable of R&B producers. Victoria has subsequently released three projects as a member of 9th Wonder's IWWMG/ Jamla Records label. In 2011, as far as I could hear, she came the closest to the black-girl aesthetic that her idol Mary J. Blige helped pioneer.
For her part, Blige has moved a long way from dancing in her videos in baseball jerseys and knee-pads; at this point, her celebrity act is more diva prototype and pop fixture than the R&B tour de force she used to represent. Still, she doesn't seem ready to name her successor quite yet, perhaps because there's a dearth of viable candidates clawing for the tiara. But if we expect someone like Victoria to be the lone savior of this specific brand of R&B, we better start identifying it for what is—black-girl R&B—and demanding its assets again and again.
What Victoria's music has that her more mainstream R&B counterparts' music doesn't have is an intimate tie-in with golden-era hip-hop (here, via 9th Wonder) and its elemental ways of making itself accessible to very casual listeners. Victoria has the goods, too—a creamy voice which crescendos just below bravado, womanly curves that suggest candied-cursive, a hip-hop production team called The Soul Council, and an all-around home-girl likability. Her recent Hip Hop Soul Lives, the follow-up EP to last year's sparkling Graffiti Diary album, finds her stretching those black-girl love concerns even further. She takes a stand on "Not Taking You Back" and shows all her romantic cards on "You and Me," a duet with fellow Jamla crooner Tyler Woods.
The things of which Victoria sings aren't uniquely black, but there is a certain grit and edge here that, once again, her more commercial counterparts miss. Historically, after all, love songs by black women suggest that they have had a harder bargain than other races in love and relationships. Opinion pieces and profiles abound about this situation. To wit, in a recent New York Times piece titled "Black, Female and Single," Angela Stanley hones in on the root of the issue. "It is part of a persistent historical and present-day attack on black people in America, with black men made into deviants and black women into problems," Stanley writes. "What has happened, though, is that black women have been silenced. When we are vocal, we are problems."
Victoria may not have the answers to some of these deep-rooted issues. But she finally gives them voice again, reclaiming at least a corner of R&B for the black girls who rock and rule.