10 Reasons Why Urban is the New MOR

Its mostly young audience likes to think that ‘Urban’ music – in its various forms – is cutting-edge, cool, even dangerous. But scratch the surface, and in many ways ‘Urban’ music is every bit as safe, as conservative and as middle-of-the-road as its fans misguidedly think Easy Listening is – perhaps even more so. Here are my ten reasons why Urban is the new MOR:

1. The Cowell factor. Leona Lewis, JLS, Fantasia, Alexandra Burke, Jennifer Hudson… I’m not here to argue over whether they’re ‘soulful’ or not (Jennifer and Fantasia certainly are; the rest – well, that’s up for debate). But the sole purpose of X-Idoltalentfactor telly shows is to find the most saleable artist possible – and nothing sells as much as the stuff aimed at the middle. So be big enough to admit it: if your favourite R&B singer came up through one of these shows, there’s no difference between him/her and Susan Boyle (and there’s nothing wrong with admitting that).

2. Ice Cube’s film career. For the most part, I preferred the comic strip version of The Boondocks to the telly version. But one scene in one episode of the show stands out for me. Wannabe thug Riley and his favourite rapper Gangstalicious were on the run from some thugs; they got caught and were tied up and locked in a car’s boot. As they lay in the boot awaiting certain death, Gangstalicious said to Riley, “When I was your age, my favourite rapper was Ice Cube,” to which Riley replied, “That guy who makes family movies?” It’s a brief scene, but it speaks volumes of how one of hip hop’s legendary tough guys has mellowed – and in the process, become middle-of-the-road. It seems to happen to a lot of rappers who go into acting (Will Smith doesn’t count because his music was never that ‘threatening’ to begin with). I’m not sure whether it’s because they’ve grown up, started having kids and now feel some responsibility for what they put out, or because they’ve realised that there’s more money to be made in doing more family oriented stuff. Still, it can’t hurt…

PS. It’s been pointed out to me that this doesn’t just affect rappers, and that Eddie Murphy’s career has taken a similar path. That’s true – but Eddie recorded ‘Party All the Time’ while Ice Cube gave us ‘F*** Tha Police’.

3. Flavor Flav’s TV career. From prancing about on The Farm to going all Ozzy on us with Flavor of Love, Flav’s career trajectory from Public Enemy’s time keeper to serial reality TV clown has to be the biggest blow ever to hip hop’s street cred. Just the thought of him in that barn dancing to ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ gives me shivers.

4. The Obama effect. Like Spike Lee, I’m not drinking the “post-racial Kool-Aid” either. But there’s no escaping the fact that America now having a black president (all right, you pedants – a half-black President) has had the knock-on effect of making large chunks of black culture – music in particular – more mainstream. It’s also indirectly responsible for the next item on this list:

5. Dizzee Rascal’s Newsnight appearance. Sorry – this is supposed to be the things that made urban music MOR. Dizzee’s interview with Paxo just made it comical. My bad – but the next Dizzee-related thing on this list definitely belongs here…

6. Dizzee on the Electric Proms. I know the ‘Electric’ prefix is supposed to make them sound youthful, or less formal (or something) but ‘electric’ or not, the Proms are still the Proms – and you can’t get any more Middle England than that.

7. Timbaland wins Eurovision for the Russians. Here’s Russia’s first ever Eurovision Song Contest winner from 2008: Dima Bilan singing ‘Believe’ – produced by (whisper it) Timbaland! That victory puts one of the coolest producers in urban music in the same class as Abba and Celine Dion. I’ll say no more…

8. Dancin’ Alesha. I do love Alesha Dixon. The only time I’ve ever voted in a TV poll was for her to win Strictly Come Dancing. But when I remember Mis-Teeq’s “ragga gyal” and then hear that “does he wash up?” song, I can’t help but wonder if the price for mass appeal hasn’t been a bit too high…

9. 50 Cent is now a self-help guru. Personal development is the new religion of our time. And with his new opus The 50th Law, our man Fiddy can now be found in the ‘self-help’ selection in your local bookshop, stuck between Your Best Life Now and Screw It, Let’s Do It. Think about it: that annoying bloke who phones you up trying to sell you double glazing gets his motivation fix from a book Fiddy wrote! I wonder what his success seminars are like? Or his infomercials?

10. Dr Dre collaborates with Burt Bacharach. Actually, I’m changing my mind on this one too. It hasn’t made urban music MOR. But it did temporarily turn Mr. Bacharach into Burt Badass. And for that, Dre, I salute you.

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3 thoughts on “10 Reasons Why Urban is the New MOR

  1. Per #1, upopn watching the Simon Cowell ep ‘ of E!’s True Hollywood Story, I got the impression that he’s more enamored w/ the music business than actual music (his dismnissal of Bob Dylan helped cement that impression, too).
    Speaking as someone living in the country where he’s president, am not sure whether Barry Hussein in the White House … Read Morehas made black culture/music all that much more a hot comodity. Maybe on your side of the pond?
    Funny you mention Fiddy’s self-help guru gig. Upon seeing one of those books in the shop where I shop where I go to read Billboard and Variety, I laughed out loud at the absurdity of taking advice from the guy (& I heard this morning about how he evicted his baby mama&how her former abode not long thereafter burned down under “mysterious circumstances”). And a friend who works there (hi, Kayce!) told me she had trouble figuring out in which catagory the book should go.

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