Last fall, Nick Jonas sang the same lines every white child star clamoring to maintain relevancy as an adult entertainer recites while promoting his debut solo album.
In one interview, he claimed, "At times, it is surreal looking left and right and not seeing my brothers.” Those are likely the same lines Justin Timberlake fed his *NSYNC band mates when he departed the group—while dually stifling laughter about JC Chasez sharing similar plans for solo stardom. In a separate interview, Jonas said of his self-titled debut album, "The sound of the album is kind of an alternative pop/R&B feel." He proceeded to note “I’ve got soul as my roots in the vocal space” while referencing Stevie Wonder and Prince—two artists all acts reference to convey seriousness and artistry.
However, Jonas also referenced the Weeknd and Jhené Aiko, and it’s an important distinction because it has given him space to exist within a particular strain of R&B where he might actually fit. Jonas did not prove that so much on the album itself—it’s far more “alternative pop” than R&B—but has so on subsequent remixes of “Jealous” and “Chains.” Each is accompanied by someone who falls somewhere in between the ever-expanding definition of R&B, Tinashe and Jhené Aiko, respectively.
While I somewhat cringe at the phrase “alternative R&B” and similar names that scream “Ooh, I’m so different,” there is a certain bareness to it—and that differs substantially from what the likes of K. Michelle are offering. Frankly, that bareness gives singers who are more equipped to coo and whisper than sing a more fitting space to exist in. Conversely, it lets the likes of Nick Jonas really shine because though he may not be the most soulful person around, he can certainly carry a much higher note than the people he’s been covering in the studio and on the road.
This is different from say, Miley Cyrus, who despite working with Mike WiLL Made-It on Bangerz, proved that an ability to sing doesn’t mean one should try singing everything. Her annoying caricature of black music and culture got attention, but musically she continues to be at her best when she’s jocking Dolly Parton.
And I don’t care how many times mainstream publications declare this: Sam Smith is not the new face of soul. If that’s soul singing, a pumpkin spice latte goes perfectly with a plate of oxtails, black-eyed peas, and greens. Sticking a black choir behind you doesn’t make you or your song soulful. That’s a lesson Nick Jonas should also carry with him. I watched the video for his gospel twist to “Jealous.” God bless him, but that should never happen again.
The trend may never end, but there may now be a better way of going about it.
There are some white singers who can do R&B or soul music well. That would include Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Ariana Grande, and Robin Thicke—well, when he isn’t pissing off the Gaye family. Some white singers do the music in earnest, others because it is a proven blueprint on how to secure easier success. Whatever the motive, some don’t have the voice for it. The trend may never end, but there may now be a better way of going about it.
I’ve actually admired how intentional and direct Nick Jonas has been about proving himself as an adult singer who should be taken seriously. This includes embracing his gay fans and losing his purity ring somewhere along the way while pulling his pants down to sell himself as a sex symbol. He’s done enough so far to net two hit singles, but when it comes to a follow-up project, he should stick to the post-debut album tunes he’s been releasing.
That white boy of alt R&B thing actually works for him.
Michael Arceneaux hails from Houston, lives in Harlem, and praises Beyoncé’s name wherever he goes. Follow him @youngsinick.