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Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012

Trey Songz, Last R&B Singer Standing

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The last half-decade has been a transitional one for contemporary R&B. One of the dominant forms of American pop music throughout the '90s and the early 2000s, the genre has since been squeezed out of pop playlists, supplanted by trendy, European-inspired dance-pop. While some of R&B's most commercially savvy singers like Usher and Chris Brown have adapted, Trojan-horsing their way onto pop radio through Euro-pop synths and club beats, Trey Songz has taken the opposite path. He's redoubled his commitment to purebred R&B, dedicating the bulk of his 2010 album Passion, Pain & Pleasure to traditional ballads and slow jams. His audience is no doubt narrower for that—even after a four-year hot streak of huge urban-radio hits, he's still only an incidental presence on Top 40 playlists—but as he sees it, he's part of a movement of R&B artists who are making the best out of the genre's diminished commercial standing.

"I think R&B is being reignited right now," he says. "You've got Miguel, who's a new guy who came with a special sound; you've got Mary J. Blige, who's always going to be on the radio; you've got The Weeknd on the underground, which has this following that's amazing; you've got Frank Ocean and his sound and his crew; and Ne-Yo, who is still around doing great music. So I think we have an opportunity to make the R&B charts look R&B again. What we really have to take responsibility for as R&B artists is ensuring that this style of music stays alive, because it's so easy to do the pop thing. It's so tempting to try to get the biggest record you can, but that's not what R&B is about right now."

Songz wasn't always an artist that fans would have pegged to become one of R&B's esteemed torchbearers. His first albums were largely unimaginative, and he was widely dismissed early in his career as an R. Kelly knock-off, but he's become a more daring, innovative singer as his star has risen. It was his free 2009 mixtape Anticipation that truly announced him as an artist with a unique vision. It didn't attract much notice at the time, but the mixtape's shadowy, spaced-out production was miles removed from the bright gloss of commercial R&B. It was an oddly prescient release, foreshadowing some of the more austere and off-kilter sounds that Drake and The Weeknd would later popularize.

"I stumbled upon this mood and I just loved the way it felt, and how soulful and deep and dark it was," Songz says. "So as I finished one song, I would sit with my producers and we would mold more songs around that mood. We ended up creating this dark, moody place. When you listen to Anticipation, you just go to that place, and you're there from the time the music starts to the time that it ends. It's seamless."

Anticipation
was released as a prelude to Ready, the 2009 album that announced Songz as one of R&B's A-listers. As the singer's career took off, it seemed like the mixtape might remain a one-off fluke, but last November he followed it up with a sequel, Anticipation 2. The new mixtape expands on the warped sounds of its predecessor, while paying frequent homage to Marvin Gaye.

"These mixtapes are more of a creative release than anything, a way to try weird things or to do the things that I really love to do," Songz says. "Like, on Anticipation 2, I cover Marvin Gaye's 'She Needs Me,' which is one of my favorite songs but something I could never put on an album. You know, the difference between mixtapes and albums is that mixtapes are way more authentic. I think you find that in rap, and now in any form of a mixtape, since so many different types of artists are doing them now. With an album, it's more about the commercial appeal. It's more about the sales, and the success. But mixtapes are about who you are as an artist."

It's with that in mind that Songz launched his latest tour, the "Anticipation 2our," which will heavily feature songs from his mixtapes—an unusual move for a singer of Songz's stature. He says the tour is meant to hold fans over until he releases his fifth album, Chapter V, later this year.

"Fans are used to seeing me touring a lot; I've done six or seven tours in the last three years," Songz says. "Since I'm between albums right now, this is the first time I've been without a tour as well, and I wanted the chance to perform these songs live. No, Anticipation 2 isn't in stores, and it's not a commercial release. I didn't make it for the accolades or the rewards. It's for my fans. So when I go out there for 3,000 or 7,000 people a night, singing records that were never commercially released, it's something that I'll never forget, something that they'll never forget, and something that I may never do again."

Trey Songz headlines the Milwaukee Theatre on Saturday, Feb. 25, at 8 p.m. with opener Big Sean.
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