First published in Mongrel in 2007 (the heyday of the slow jam)
THE SLOW JAM is a weird branch of the musical tree. It’s usually a combination of crooning vocals with smoothed-out hip hop beats. Bendy synth sounds are frequently prominent. Prime movers of the slowjamming scene have been Usher, Ginuwine, R Kelly and recent arrivals T-Pain and The Dream; and slow jams are, almost exclusively, about knocking the socks off women. Which is to say, they’re all about being a particular kind of man.
The position of the Slow Jam Man is a curious one. On the one hand, you’re the undiluted essence of male: a master seducer driven by the urge to sexual conquest. On the other, that conquest is generally achieved by such doctrinally effeminate methods as the gyration of hips, the murmuring of sweet nothings, and the hitting of climactic high notes. For a genre obsessed with notions of masculinity, this is the elephant in the room. How do you reconcile being an unreconstructed player with – let’s face it – singing and dancing, like a girl?
The slow jam shares a lot of its temperament, as well as its musical stylings, with the mainstream of American rap. But its Thug Life works with a soft caress. Usher wears jail trousers and a do-rag, but they’re white, immaculately pressed, and often removed mid-song. Hip hop and the slow jam are both obsessed with sex; but where male rappers tend to studiously ignore any satisfaction a woman might take from the experience, in a slow jam the lady’s pleasure is paramount and dwelt upon at length. (The Dream’s song Falsetto has the refrain “She’s like ‘Ooh, ooh! Baby! Ahh, ahh, ahh! Ohh!’”) Rappers are just recipients of sexual favours; in a slow jam, the pressure is on the singer’s bedroom performance. It’s not so much the woman who is a desirable object as the man.
On April Fools Day 2005, a radio station in the States ran an item suggesting that Usher had officially revealed his bisexuality. Although they swiftly admitted the hoax, rumours to that effect have dogged him ever since. If femininity is the slow jam’s elephant in the room, homoeroticism is its double-decker bus. And yet, album liners favour Liberace glamour: Chris Brown’s has him caressing a black panther cub. In the video for Ginuwine’s breakout single Pony, he impresses a bar full of good ol’ boys with his shirt off. And YouTube is awash with topless young men filming each other in the act of ‘winding’ (the archetypal naked-abs dance).
In short, the slow jam scene is like Attitude magazine without the honesty, and it is extremely sensitive to this. When T-Pain commented on fellow singer Ray J’s sex tape with socialite Kim Kardashian – saying “The man got a huge meat, OK… He’s got length on him… Man have a foot on him” – he faced a bloggers’ firestorm, despite tagging his words with the evergreen “No homo”.
Part of the slowjammer’s problem is his narrowness of focus. Anyone who devotes that much effort to protesting their virility is going to look like they have something to hide. So it’s perhaps ironic that the singer who is most publicly, unpleasantly, libidinous – R Kelly still faces charges for a video in which he allegedly performs various sex acts with, and eventually urinates on, a 15-year-old girl – is also the artist who has done most to push his genre’s envelope.
His current project is deploying the slow-jam format to document life as a man – not just between the sheets, but in all the inconsequential minutiae of getting by. “Life is a song”, he says of his slowjam documentaries, “and I’ve realised that.” His Trapped In The Closet song cycle is essentially a soap opera. His song Real Talk, which, in his own words, “represents just how real shit gets when you arguing with your girl”, might as well be a transcript of a domestic spat, verbatim.
And the reason it’s so compelling, other than its inexpressible weirdness, is that it’s about being a (more or less) normal man in a normally turbulent relationship: fatuous and petty and not very good at coping with a cross girlfriend. In the end, the reason R Kelly can release 22-chapter domestic dramas involving gay priests, and not worry about looking weak or effeminate, is that he’s the only man in slow jam keeping it real.