Jermaine Dupri knows a thing or two about making hit records.
A producer, artist and Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee, he’s helped steer the successful careers of Usher, Janet Jackson, TLC, Xscape, and Mariah Carey, to name but a few. He even won a Grammy with the latter for co-writing and producing her 2005 hit song We Belong Together.
As the founder of So So Def Records, he is also a heavyweight in the world of rap. Aside from discovering Kriss Kross, Bow Wow, and Da Brat, he’s worked with the likes of Jay-Z, Ludacris, Nelly, and many others.
But it’s R&B where he shines the brightest – especially in his work with Usher – and according to him, there’s a “big gap” in the market for the genre stage a comeback.
“I feel like the culture needs it right now,” he says.
His comments come a month after a number of record labels, streaming services and award shows vowed to stop using the word “urban” as a catch-all term for music of black origin – from rap and hip-hop to soul and Afrobeats.
With the term banished, there’s potential for all those individual genres to flourish on their own, especially R&B.
A rhythmic derivation of soul, it dominated airwaves in the late 90s and early 2000s, in part thanks to artists like Mary J Blige, Usher and Destiny’s Child.
Its mainstream popularity faded in the 2010s and Dupri says there’s a (potentially controversial) barrier to the genre’s resurgence.
“I mean, it’s gonna take a lot of work because we lost the actual centrepiece of R&B music with R. Kelly going to jail,” says Dupri, referring to the star’s arrest and ongoing investigations into allegations of sexual abuse.
Kelly is facing a number of state and federal charges in the US, with accusations including sexual assault, abuse of a minor, making indecent images of minors, racketeering and obstruction of justice. The 53-year-old has consistently denied the claims.
The star was, for many years, considered the “King of R&B” by fans and peers alike, helping to define and update R&B with songs like Ignition (Remix), I Believe I Can Fly and Bump N’ Grind.
“He was pretty much the centrepiece of all that,” Dupri continues. “He would drop a record that had the same feel as a hip-hop song… but when he wanted to sing, he could actually sing.
“So with the departure of that, and R. Kelly not being a part of the music industry any more that’s a big gap right there, and I don’t think people really understand that.
“You can’t really talk about it now because you sound like you’re siding with him and saying something crazy, but in a real technical space about R&B music, R. Kelly was 65% of the music.”
But it’s not just Kelly. Dupri lists a number R&B stars – like Jagged Edge, XScape and Boyz II Men- who he says aren’t fairly represented on commercial radio.
“I don’t believe any of these record labels believe that R&B ballads can move the needle,” he says.
Even artists who work within the constraints of R&B, such as Canadian star The Weeknd, are mis-categorised, he argues.
“When you read on iTunes what The Weeknd is, it says ‘pop,’ doesn’t even say R&B, right? So they’re taking a completely different lane on him.
“If you just come out with a straight R&B record, a ballad, it’s hard because the labels don’t really believe in it.”
Dupri’s comments follow rapper Young MA’s recent claim that modern music is lacking the slow jams and feel-good grooves of Maxwell or Jill Scott.
“Music don’t feel the same because we barely have R&B,” she tweeted in February. “R&B brung that balance to music.. now everything is leaning one way smh (shaking my head) so it gets played out quick! We need R&B for the balance.”
“She’s making a valid point,” Dupri says. “The industry is diluted now with so many rappers that sing their own hooks.”
“That’s not R&B, though. That’s rap-singing or whatever you wanna call it. What [Young MA] is talking about is singers. She’s talking about people that actually sing, as in that’s what they really do.”
Confessions, Pt III
One artist who qualifies is Dupri’s long-time collaborator, Usher.
Together, the pair are currently hard at work on the sequel to Usher’s diamond-selling 2004 album Confessions.
After releasing the single Don’t Waste My Time – featuring British singer Ella Mai – earlier in the year, Usher has also shared the songs SexBeat and I Cry, but it’s not yet known whether any of them will make the album’s final cut.
In February, the R&B titan also previewed a snippet of a new song he called “the next piece of the confession.”
Fans assumed it would Part III of his Confession song series (Part I sees a man admitting to infidelity, while in Part II he confesses his mistress is pregnant).
But there’s a catch – speaking during a recent livestream concert, Usher told fans, “it wasn’t my confession that made up Part III, she had something to tell me”.
Discussing the song further, Dupri says it’s not even called Confessions, Pt. III – the real title is Trust.
“It’s like a warning shot to guys that get themselves into the position heard on Confessions,” Dupri explains.
“It’s really about the repercussions of when men go out and do what they do and not actually believing that their girl is doing the same thing.”
“It’s a return to storytelling,” he continues. “Me and Usher both felt like people wanted to know what happened after that baby situation on Part II, but it’s called Trust.”
So does Dupri think Usher can help turn the tide and put R&B back on the map with his forthcoming album?
“Hopefully,” he answers.
“But if Usher can come back and we do what we gotta do with the album and it pops off, somebody has to safeguard it and make sure that they say that it’s R&B.
“Because if they don’t, and it gets big, then it’s gonna trend to the left and somebody’s gonna call it a pop album.”
That’s partly why the record has been held back, he says: They’re waiting “to get everybody to believe” that R&B can re-emerge as a commercial force.
He concludes: “If I can have a hand in helping to inspire people wanting to sing again, and this Usher album makes people wanna sing, then I would really be proud of myself.”
Jermaine Dupri plays weekly Juke Joint DJ sets on Instagram Live every Sunday.