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In the late '80s, the line between hip hop and R&B seemed well-defined.

Mary J. Blige & Jaheim 

click to enlarge Mary J. Blige
  • Mary J. Blige
In the late '80s, the line between hip hop and R&B seemed well-defined. A thick-voiced guy like Luther Vandross was worlds away from the rugged boys in Run-D.M.C., and the thought of cross-pollination seemed pretty outlandish. But with New Jack Swing's emergence in the early '90s, producer Teddy Riley blurred the sonic distinction between the two genres by trading sultry production for hip-hop rhythms. Fashion sense followed suit, but--while groups like Jodeci and Bell Biv Devoe acted the part in their videos, even sounding rough when they dropped the occasional virile come-on--leather suits, sunglasses and raunchy sex songs were no match for N.W.A.

Today, the line shows even more wear, as contemporary R&B looks more like mainstream hip hop by the second. In 2006, the slow jams aren't even for the Vandross fans anymore. They're for the Vandross fans' kids, especially when babies like Chris Brown, Ne-Yo and Usher keep busy. But while the marquee names in R&B might wear the same brands as hip-hop moguls and jump on Lil' Jon tracks like they are going out of style (they are), the lyrical subject matter of the two genres still seems bifurcated.

Popular hip hop, largely, is about swagger, integrity, geography, authenticity and weed. Popular R&B, though, is largely still about (making or falling in) love, dancing, infidelity and sounding sexy. Some folks meld the two stocks decently. Akon sings hooks about slinging rocks with Young Jeezy or getting thrown in lock-down, but his biggest single to date is a chipmunk-soul apology called "Mr. Lonely." It's far from hood.

Meanwhile, Ne-Yo comes off rough and tumble alongside Ghostface in the Killah-lite spurner, "Back Like That," but the rest of his singles are about being sick of love songs and having make-up sex. Par & B, for the course. R. Kelly, a self-described "R&B thug," has even publicly boasted about his lock on each genre, and he's kind of got a point: Play any chapter of "Trapped in the Closet" for the over-40 set, and they'll be blushing as though you'd played "The Whisper Song."

click to enlarge Jaheim
  • Jaheim

But Mr. Sex Weed really knows his title belongs to someone else: Jaheim, a 27-year-old voice from New Jersey, is built from equal parts woo and Wu Tang. The grittiest figure R&B has to offer, his rich boom comes crossed like a rough-edged Anthony Hamilton, a smoother Charlie Wilson with a gun in his grip, or R. without the megalomania, insanity and pornographic past.

Kelly's shtick stinks of sideshow. His songs are either absurd (accidentally brilliant?) bangers or smoothed-over candle-burners. Kelly, essentially, sings about sex or love. When they intersect, the sex is never as raunchy, and the love is never as sweet. But Jaheim bottles it all up--weed smoking, slow dancing, cheating, sexy lingerie, anniversaries, parole officers, time between the sheets, time behind bars.

Really, though, it's the Jersey guy's tourmate, Mary J. Blige, whose been at this whole street-soul thing for ages. When New Jack Swing went belly up in the late '90s, P. Diddy dropped the genre's increasingly urban artists in a world of grimey Gotham beats. Mary J. emerged as a star, bringing songs to the corner with an honesty and intensity even guys like Dre, Eazy and Cube had trouble matching. She was and still is the queen of street soul, and, if Saturday night's lineup at Walnut Creek is any indication, she's picked her king: His name is Jaheim.

Jaheim and Mary J. Blige appear at Alltel Pavilion on Saturday, Aug. 5 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $29.50-$65.50.

  • In the late '80s, the line between hip hop and R&B seemed well-defined.

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