Today’s club hookup hits tend to be gross and leering, and not in the fun way that actual club hookups can be. Listening to the R&B/Hip-Hop top ten, my inner grad-school Marxist-feminist grows increasingly restless, until I’m incapable of seeing “the club” as anything more than a site where powerful and wealthy men peddle their reality as your fantasy, jockeying for prestige as the stride through a showroom of female products seeking to consume the grandest commodity of all: a woman who “belongs” to another man.
R&B is such a jerk farm these days that even a guy who’s made a career of projecting decency looked at his calendar and realized it ain’t The Year of the Gentleman anymore. I hear nothing flirtatious or seductive in Ne-Yo’s voice on “She Knows,” just the cool approval of an art buyer or livestock trader, gliding along the beat as though the definition of class is to restrain yourself from shouting instructions at the women you ogle. To keep his own hands clean, Shaffer Smith outsources the icky, sticky sex metaphors to Juicy J, who has become a one-man Mumbai call-center for such gunk. Dr. Luke and Cirkut hit the right crass notes with that farty synth-horn, but then the track faux-suaves into blandness as Ne-Yo reaches the all-important questions “Does she love the attention? Does she get it when she moves?” Dude, why are you asking me?
In an age where romantic illusions still needed dispelling, the Weeknd’s “Earned It” would score candor points for how it ‘fesses up to the economics of sexual affection. An impresario of somber sleaze when he’s auteuring on his own dime, Abel Tesfaye pimps himself out for Fifty Shades of Grey as a sugar daddy with a heart of gold here, and the overt theatricality of the production suggests a campy self-awareness — a guilty wink at the kitschy naughtiness of the vanilla-kink blockbuster he’s soundtracking — that his falsetto credibly builds on. There’s even some wordplay, I guess you could call it, tying back into the titular nexus of romance and finance: “You don’t pay it/ Don’t pay it no mind.” A harmless bit of commodified roleplay — though expect some resistance when you tell him you get to pick the costumes tomorrow night.
With all this in mind, it’s nice to see Natalie la Rose breaking into the top ten, and not just because I never thought I’d get the chance to type the words “Flo Rida protege.” On “Somebody,” Natalie and Jeremih are just two attractive people meeting in public, drinking and dancing, then leaving the club together. Imagine that. The Futuristics have chosen a fine ‘80s to misremember — their keyboard bass pops, their sequenced vocal blurts burble, and that little 808 fillip is tasteful and stylish. Jeremih’s slightly obnoxious Lil Jon homage “Shots! Shots! Shots!” bugged me at first, but now I think of it as a clumsy but well-meaning attempt to show off that Natalie, instead of LHFAO, responds to with a patronizing but not dismissive eyeroll. Had la Rose sung “Somebody”’s Whitney hook she might seem to be putting on airs, so when Jeremih respectfully spindles the lyric to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” it’s as polite an act as opening the cab door for her after they leave the club. Downright gentlemanly.