The last few years of R&B have played out like science fiction. To save itself from extinction, the genre had to blast off into outer space. Spins through Spotify’s “Are & Be” and “The Newness” playlists give a sense of where the music is orbiting. Led by artists like PartyNextDoor, Jeremih, and Bryson Tiller, pop’s most historically passionate, earthly form has become loopy and futuristic. It’s all ethereal keyboards, trap hi-hats and Auto-Tune vocals: zero-gravity baby-making music for indie kids and hip-hop heads alike.
A lot of this stuff is fantastic. It stems from the ease with which songwriter-producers can now create tracks on laptops, wherever they are. They do so without feeling the need to disguise their methods or create “authentic” sounds. Born Jahron Anthony Brathwaite, PartyNextDoor takes his name from an audio filter on FruityLoops, the software he used to craft his earliest jams.
No such digital manipulation went into the new albums by R&B vets Andre Williams and William Bell. Due out today, both LPs were made by real people playing real instruments, though that’s hardly the interesting part. Williams and Bell are 79 and 74, respectively. They’re not about to flip open their MacBooks and get down on some Weeknd business. What makes Williams’ I Wanna Go Back to Detroit City and Bell’s This Is Where I Live so refreshing is the link between old-school sonics and old-time values. These are records about going home and recognizing how much place—a person’s home—still matters.
That Williams and Bell should find themselves on similar paths is curious, given their histories. Williams is an R-rated, pimp-suit-rocking non-singer who landed in Detroit in the mid-‘50s and hustled his way into a multi-faceted music career that’s spanned more six decades. He scored cockeyed hits like “Bacon Fat” and “Jail Bait” in the ‘50s, messed around at Motown in the ‘60s, partied hard with Ike Turner in the ‘70s, and lived on the streets in the ‘80s. He was reborn in the ‘90s, when garage punks like The Gories and Jon Spencer began backing him on a series howling-mad scuzz-soul albums (1997’s Silky, 2000’s The Black Godfather) that might have seemed exploitative were Williams not so present and fully invested in the bat-shit things he was hollering about.
Bell, meanwhile, is a golden-voice balladeer best known for classic Stax singles like “You Don’t Miss Your Water” and “Forgot to Be Your Lover.” Born in Memphis, he fell in with his legendary hometown label in the early ‘60s and stuck around until its collapse in the ‘70s. Bell spent the ‘80s and ‘90s recording so-so albums whose cheesy modern production did little to diminish the sweetness and power of his voice. Like Williams, he’s worn many hats—singer, songwriter, producer, label executive—but unlike Andre, he doesn’t have dudes from The Dirtbombs beating down his door. Bell is a respectable career artist, not a kooky eccentric with stories about where Ike Turner kept his cocaine.
Williams and Bell continue apace on their latest records—only now with this common thematic thread. The title of Bell’s record, This is Where I Live, refers to the fact he’s back on Stax, which relaunched in the mid-‘00s after being acquired by Concord. Working with producer John Leventhal and co-writers like Rosanne Cash and Marc Cohn, Bell doesn’t just re-embrace the Stax name or logo. He returns to the warm, gospel- and country-tinged Southern sound of his greatest hits. It’s a tasteful, NPR listener’s mix of old and new, not unlike Solomon Burke’s 2002 album Don’t Give Up On Me.
The highlight is the title track, Bell’s life story in 3:16. It begins with him hearing Sam Cooke, getting inspired, and striking out as a performer. The second verse tells the story of him writing “You Don’t Miss Your Water” while playing New York City with the Phineas Newborn Orchestra at the age of 16. On the surface, Bell’s signature 1961 hit is about a philanderer realizing the error of his ways. But really, Bell was singing about being homesick. He returns to this idea in the final verse of “This Is Where I Live,” where he sings: “I’ve been around the world, now I’m heading home / she’ll be waiting when I walk in.” As with “Water,” he’s not singing to a woman. “This is where I live” refers to Memphis and Stax and the music he’s given himself to so completely. As he sings, “This is where I give all my love, all my time, all my money, every time.”
Things don’t get quite as sentimental on I Wanna Go Back to Detroit City, an album that again owes more to the city’s garage-rock legacy than to its most famous source of R&B, Motown. It’s a funny, funky, grimy rock ’n’ soul record that features Matthew Smith of Outrageous Cherry and Dan Kroha of The Gories on guitar. Williams reportedly cut the standout “Detroit (I’m So Glad I Stayed)” directly after a recent visit to his old neighborhood. It’s now a grassy field with no houses or people in sight, and that inspired him to give the Motor City a pep talk. “Detroit—we’re coming back!” he roars at the outset, as stomp-clap drums and karate-chop guitar chords recall another song of municipal pride, “New York Groove.”
As the song strolls along, gangsta-style, Williams gets increasingly worked up. “Cars getting bigger / Money getting thicker / girls getting finer / drinking all the wine,” he bellows, spreading word of the Motor City revival to all those suckers who left town. “I’m so glad I stayed” his backing musicians sing in the final bars, as Williams—flat-out shouting at this point—declares, “Glad I didn’t run.”
Today’s R&B musicians are right to use computers instead of Hammond organs. It’s fantastic that you don’t need to sing like William Bell to get on a record and say what’s in your heart. The growing indistinguishability of R&B, pop, and hip hop is yielding incredible records that optimists might say are bringing people of different backgrounds closer together. This is our brave post-regional future, and we needn’t be afraid. Sometimes, though, it’s nice to remember where we came from.