My favorite thing about traveling is the quality time I get to spend with my iPod. I’m aware of how that sounds. Sure, I like new places, new people – turns out Omaha steaks really are one of the great pleasures on God, Buddha and nem’s green earth – but what really makes me excited is how new experiences color old habits.
There is a heightened awareness that I think happens when you are in new places. You pay attention, not just because you are taking things in but because you are trying to get your bearings. Customs, smells, the way Google Maps becomes your best friend – all of this requires you to be open and cognizant.
And for me, I find that that leads to hearing music I love differently.
On this trip, I dug into my male R&B singer playlist. It’s often said that there isn’t much variety in the voices of black male singers. And there is some truth to that; that is, if you are speaking solely in terms of tone. But when you listen to Bobby Brown, Eric Benet, Tevin Campbell, Darien Brockington, R. Kelly, Donell Jones, and Tank back to back, you do hear tremendous diversity in phrasing, in the way these brothas articulate.
Bobby Brown, in particular, emerges as a master of a sort. By the time he got to the deeply underrated Bobby album, he’d mastered the ability to leap fluidly from the new jack swing style of letting the rhythm guide the vocal – think of how “they say i’m nasty” becomes the fluid, nearly one word “theyzayUMnastAY”, with a “t” so soft its practically silent, on the classic “My Prerogative” – to a more classic soul approach.
Or how Eric Roberson obliterates any assumptions you have that technical vocal prowess and soul singing are mutually exclusive terms.
Or how Rahsaan Patterson is a big open heart, the single most emotionally devastating male singer not Stevie Wonder that we have.
Perhaps because black male singers are so tied to the meaning of their words – which are often simplistic, misogynistic, or uninteresting on their own – we don’t pay nearly enough attention to the way they sing those words.
But those little nuances become very very noticeable when you are sitting in your hotel room looking out the window at a really lovely Omaha fall day.