The Raw Romanticism of Vulgar Pop Ballads

Rihanna and Beyoncé are at the forefront of this genre-ambivalent formula that fans can't get enough of.

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Complex Original

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Thanks to an iOS cellular device and staunch commitment to Spotify streaming services I was not one, but two steps behind in the unfolding frenzy of ANTI’s late January release. “Kiss It Better” was clear and away the top trending track and I could merely sit and scroll as, even in the wake of “Work,” that title was soon dubbed the rightful and “true” first single.

From a fan perspective it’s easy to see why “Kiss It Better” might arise as the unsingle’d hero of ANTI. Though Rihanna’s top charting hits tend towards high energy (“We Found Love,” “SOS,” “Don’t Stop the Music”) or lush mid-tempo (“You Da One,” “What’s My Name”), members of her Navy insist on underrated tracks outside the singer’s vocal comfort zone such as “California King Bed.” But mid-release is no time to play hipster and to be sure more than just self-appointed stans were quick with the Twitter fingers on this one. So then why “Kiss It Better?” What about this song forged such an immediate, real-feeling kinship with listeners?

Adele and Taylor Swift are similarly embossed sides of the same coin. While Adele writes ballads structurally designed to hijack our feels, and Taylor stages melodramatic acts that evoke the highs and lows of relationship-ing at this age, their lyrics speak an ecstasy tailored to an easy listening crowd. As philosopher Robin James wrote on Adele, the artist’s sonic signature rests on a flat “interpretive horizon,” able to take in a multicultural history of sound, but muted so as to feel homogenous (white) and inoffensive. Taylor is hardly different in this regard, and comparisons to her Top 40 peers constantly gesture to a “direct, intense, purely emotional” quality or relatability about her music versus artists more readily willing to play with an uglier sound. No surprise that “I Knew You Were Trouble,” for all its commercial success, made country fans and pop purists cringe in unison, or that it reemerged as the much more palatable “Style.”

Besides the Adeles, Taylors, Lanas, Eds, Justins, et. al., there is a category of pop songstresses whose dramatics take a much less censor-friendly approach. “Rocket,” from Beyoncé’s eponymous 2013 album, opens with the elongated entreaty, “Let me sit this ass on you.” Complete with silky suggestives, embodied euphemism, and breathy pleas leading up to a unsubtle climax, the song is very much the explicit sex music tailor-made for “an overeager, pre-shower quickie, or a hushed morning make-out session before the baby wakes up.”

But even as critics were quick to identify the sexual overtures in the song, they hesitated to assign “Rocket” to a genre. Post-release evaluations of “Rocket” hesitated on the question of genre. Dubbed “sumptuously asstastic,” a “squishy” and “Roger-and-Zapp style” slow jam, the “squelchy, Prince-ly old-school sex-ballad” complete with “lust-saturated choir” eluded categorization. Several pointed out it’s similarity to D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel).” 

explicit content notwithstanding, [Beyoncé’s] 'Rocket' refuses to fall in line with a f*ck-me crooning of the R. Kelly type. The tones are too earnest, the address too familiar.

Very much unlike “Hello” or “Thinking Out Loud,” the song makes apparent the various sound schools and music traditions that brought it here. But explicit content notwithstanding, “Rocket” refuses to fall in line with a fuck-me crooning of the R. Kelly type. The tones are too earnest, the address too familiar. Amidst the too-easily-found sexual innuendo lies a soul-deep romance. “Rocket,” along with many of Bey’s other slow jams, bypasses any predilection towards concealment or filter, yet still touches that gooey, feeling place also reached by Adele, Sheeran, and others.

Same with ANTI. Noticeably sans electro-bangers, the album’s mostly electro-something relaxed tempo tracks were similarly awkward to categorize. Unified across its reception is the noted ferventness solidly concentrated in the raw ballad-ish “Kiss It Better,” “Needed Me,” “Love on the Brain,” and “Higher.” These songs are not so much a departure from Rihanna’s norm as the whetted pop-edge Rihanna has been steadily crafting since Good Girl Gone Bad. Though distinct from Beyoncé’s “Rocket” or “Mine,” they all share a genre-ambivalence made so for an ability to covet seemingly counterintuitive tonal, emotional, and vernacular registers, versus schlepping off diversity in favor of neutrality.

The pop twist is key. The contemporary, common vernacular is key. Something about the genre’s commitment to landing on a perfect nowness of feeling enables frankness without diluting emotion. Fuck what you heard. Hell yeah, you’re the shit. Fuck your pride. I just really need your ass with me. Out of a vulgarity commonly held down by kiss-offs and blunt seductions a new romanticism emerges. In their language, these songs are adjacent to but not mired in raunch, delightfully unsubtle yet above innuendo. Along with their multiple mixed genre-ness, “Rocket” and “Kiss It Better” don’t hide from an accumulation of multi-register feelings. Even as they wriggle from description, these songs are fearlessly sincere about what they contain. We love the vulgar pop ballad because it celebrates the ephemeral feelings of love, sex, and relationships in the language real lovers use.

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