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Trey Songz and the Sad State of Pelvic-Thrust R&B

The singer’s last album was a major disappointment; the genre has mostly moved past corny slow jams. But who wants to live in a world without Mr. Steal Yo Girl?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

It’s no small feat to get a crowd of several thousand to erupt into synchronized body rolls. But, when the first chords of “Slow Motion” began to play during Sunday night’s Hot 97 Summer Jam concert, one (female) half of the audience started dancing on cue. As the screen behind Trey Songz projected prerecorded images of his washboard abs — and brief flashes of him smiling knowingly at the camera as he removed his shirt — the women in the New Jersey stadium sang and screamed and shimmied in unison.

“Slow Motion,” off 2015’s Trigga Reloaded, is warm, confident, and almost meticulously sexy. It is reminiscent of an earlier era — a neat summary of the Trey Songz who won over listeners in the mid-to-late aughts. The Charlie Puth–produced slow jam, which chronicles a would-be night out, harkens back to the tender filth of ’90s R&B in both its production and lyrics: “Baby, ooh, I just wanna get you out them clothes / Ooh, I just wanna see you dance in / Slow motion / We can take, we can take, we can take our time, baby / In slow motion.” Each word hung in the 95-degree air as Songz delivered a surprisingly crisp performance; the Supreme Yankees–jersey-clad Songz then transitioned directly into another recent sensual favorite, “Dive In,” reveling in the audience’s reaction to his sultry theatrics. Nearly 12 years after his debut, Trey Songz still had women hyperventilating over his every move and men covertly singing along to his hits.

But moments later, Trey stepped toward the back of the stage, sitting down and priming the crowd for a man brandishing an electric guitar. The guitar solo rang through the stadium for what seemed like a small eternity, and the audience looked increasingly puzzled as Trey began to sing what could only be described as a rock remix of “Neighbors Know My Name.” One of Trey’s biggest hits, the 2009 track is perhaps the most easily recognizable mainstay in his body-roll-inducing repertoire. But Trey spent the entire song chopping the syrupy, slow “Neighbors Know My Name” into a sloppy, faux-hard-rock medley. After a quick reprieve in the form of club-friendly R&B jam “Say Aah,” Trey invited rappers Tee Grizzley and Dave East (along with Dave East’s mother) onstage; the two rappers took up nearly 10 minutes of Trey’s set.

The rap detour was disappointing but not wholly unexpected for the Summer Jam stage, and Trey’s final song fizzled without precedent. He closed his set with a guitar-heavy rendition of “Animal,” the primal single from his March release, Tremaine the Album, and by then the crowd energy had faded to the point that some audience members were busy debating what songs Chris Brown would perform later on. Brown, who received markedly high billing at Summer Jam, was a useful comparison: While Trey made ill-advised detours out of his established lane, Brown stuck to the hits — and the moves — audiences continue to expect of him. Brown sang erratically but danced with a characteristically frenetic energy that inspired significantly more crowd affection (from the women, at least). (He is also admittedly a dancer, while Trey is far better suited to the occasional impassioned pelvic thrust).

While not totally underwhelming — it’s hard to ever truly forget any set that causes you to instinctively body roll alongside thousands of strangers — Songz’s scattered Summer Jam performance was symptomatic of some larger issues. While Trey’s core fan base still watches his moves with heart-eye emoji locked and loaded, in 2017, Songz has lost the undeniable charisma he once enjoyed. Where his earlier albums made begrudging, closeted fans out of anyone who regularly listened to hip-hop and R&B radio, Trey’s recent body of work lacks both cohesion and age-appropriate personality; at 32, he’s too old to make the same corny sex puns work with the flash of a smile. As the R&B landscape shifts toward experimental production and away from the relatively unified sound of the ’90s, Trey’s status as sex symbol hasn’t exactly wavered — but the weight of that designation has. The genre, which once trafficked in hyper-masculine sexuality targeted toward adoring black (female) fans, may still smolder and sometimes even shock, but it’s no longer as overtly sexy as it once was. R&B’s biggest male stars may sometimes seduce, but rarely do they market themselves — even with a wink — as eye candy for (black) women. Where early-aughts R&B album covers featured no shortage of shirtless men, modern “urban contemporary” imagery is often far more brooding, sometimes even dark. The mid-to-late aughts were fertile ground for Trey’s music to succeed on the strength of his sex appeal, but now Songz is struggling to remain relevant — and avoid corniness — alongside his more dynamic, introspective peers. For every unified body roll “Slow Motion” inspires, 2017 Songz also elicits an “Animal” eye roll.

For 32-year-old Tremaine Neverson, comparisons to the 28-year-old Brown are hardly new. The Petersburg, Virginia–born Neverson rose to prominence as “Trey Songz” alongside fellow Virginia native Brown. But where Tappahannock-born Brown first exhibited a boyish charm (remember “Poppin’”?), Songz was decidedly more grown ’n’ sexy — even if he wasn’t actually much more grown. At 20 years old, Songz released his debut album, I Gotta Make It, just months ahead of 16-year-old Brown’s self-titled debut. I Gotta Make It begins with a weighty industry cosign: an inspirational message from soul legend Aretha Franklin, who offers gospel-inflected encouragement to the scrappy, young Songz: “Believe in yourself, believe in your dreams / Don’t let nobody tell you what you can’t do.” Her intro transitions into the (almost) titular track. “Gotta Make It,” the lead single, introduced listeners to an earnest, hardworking Trey who just wanted — needed — to succeed to build the kind of life his girl deserves: “Looking at you day after day, I know I / Just gotta make it (all right), just gotta make it, Just gotta make it.” The Twista-assisted, pre–“Dollar and a Dream” single was relatable and endlessly catchy. It peaked at #87 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and no. 21 on the Hip-Hop/R&B chart), but the image of a durag-clad Trey belting out the song’s lyrics remains eminently meme-able. Franklin appeared again on the remix alongside Juvenile.

I Gotta Make It dropped during a particularly prolific era for male R&B. Mario’s Turning Point was released at the tail end of 2004, and “Let Me Love You” lingered on the radio well into 2005 alongside various singles from Usher’s Confessions. The year was packed with releases from R&B heavy-hitters: Bobby Valentino’s self-titled, Omarion’s O, Pretty Ricky’s Bluestars, 112’s Pleasure & Pain, Anthony Hamilton’s Ain’t Nobody Worryin’, Ginuwine’s Back II da Basics, and Brown’s self-titled debut were all released within months of I Gotta Make It in 2005. 2006 brought albums from Ne-Yo, John Legend, Jaheim, Donell Jones, Avant, Tyrese, and Lyfe Jennings.

Trey distinguished himself first with the sincerity of his just-a-boy-from-Virginia narrative and later with his ability to make raunchy lyrics shockingly palatable. The album’s deep cuts explored a brazen sexuality the then-20-year-old would later become known for. “Just Wanna Cut” (and its reprise) took on a life of its own, and “Kinda Lovin,” “Make Love Tonight,” and “Ur Behind” all showcased Songz confidently stepping into the role of R&B heartthrob.

In the years and albums that followed, Songz carefully cultivated his role as the rightful heir to the pelvic-thrust kingdom over which Ginuwine loomed large. On 2007’s Trey Day and 2009’s Ready, Trey positioned himself as “Mr. Steal Yo Girl,” a cocky playboy who knew just how badly women wanted him and leaned into his sex-symbol status chest (tattoo) first. Trey Day featured a song about role play (aptly named “Role Play”), a chronicling of Trey’s dedication to safe sex (“Store Run”), a pre–Katy Perry food-metaphor-filled bop (“Grub On”), and a strangely meta exploration of aural sex (“Sex For Yo Stereo”) alongside its radio-friendly singles. Trey’s corny, mixed metaphors worked much in the same way Ginuwine’s did; because his voice was solid and he was undeniably hot, fans forgave the rough sonic edges and embraced the artist wholesale. 2009’s Ready introduced listeners to its Drake-assisted third single, “I Invented Sex,” and Trey’s reputation helped propel the song to no. 14 on the Hot 100 and no. 2 on the Hip-Hop/R&B chart (Trey’s first to chart that high). The concept was outrageous, but it didn’t matter. Even lyrics like “Listening to Usher, I got a confession / Now we bout to sin, but your body is a blessing / Father, forgive me” were embraced by ardent fans and Trey-agnostic R&B heads alike (including Usher himself). The song’s steamy video, which featured Eritrean Canadian model Grace Mahary, cemented then-24-year-old Trey’s position as a new age R&B heartthrob. Even though they lacked the megapopular edition’s level of raunch, the two official versions of the song’s YouTube-friendly music videos have over 11 million views combined.

With his cornrows, tattoos, defined abs — and classical R&B sensibilities — Songz followed in the genre’s tradition of targeted, but marketable sexuality by catering almost exclusively to young black women. Nearly all of his love interests in music videos were black (if also frequently light-skinned with loosely curled hair); he was linked almost exclusively to black women, including Ethiopian American model Helen Gedlu, in his sordid romantic affairs. The male sex symbol is a strange archetype, most often defined for (straight) women by (straight) men. But for years, no other male R&B artist captured the hearts and libidos of black millennial women like Tremaine. Footage from Songz’s 2010 Summer Jam performance of “Neighbors Know My Name” shows both a wildly different stage routine from Trey himself — and a significantly more enthusiastic crowd response than this year’s audience. While 2017 Trey gestured at his own sexuality with prerecorded visuals and a jersey he unbuttoned halfway through his set, a shirtless Trey in 2010 introduced the song with a salacious note for his female fans: “My name is Trey Songz, and I just want to get you wet.” In other performances, he explicitly demanded women sing his name — and they did. Sung at its normal slow, but percussive tempo and without the interruption of an electric guitar, “Neighbors Know My Name” electrified. Before dalliances with rock and EDM-lite distracted him from what he does best, so did Trey.

In the time since 2010’s Passion, Pain & Pleasure (and the residual airplay of its biggest single, the Nicki Minaj–assisted “Bottoms Up”), Trey has struggled to capture the energy he once inspired in a broad fan base. His 2012 album, Chapter V, rehashed familiar themes — the triumphs and tribulations of love, sex, and success — with mediocre production and uninspired lyrics. The album was his first no. 1 on the Billboard chart, but it felt uninventive; Chapter V rode on the coattails of Ready and Passion, Pain & Pleasure; it didn’t improve upon them. Trey wasn’t the only R&B artist whose 2012 offerings didn’t rise to the level of previous projects; Usher’s 2012 Looking 4 Myself found the artist exploring new sonic and emotional territory much to fans’ chagrin. But both Usher and Brown — for all his transgressions — can dance impeccably. Even when their lines and production don’t land, their status as overall performers (and heartthrobs) isn’t dependent on the slow jams. For Trey, however, it was always the undeniable sexiness, endearingly corny metaphors and all, that attracted breathless fans. One set of straight-back cornrows, a couple of dark Caesars, and late, a newly grown-out fro, Trey is still impossibly, but approachably attractive. But as the industry continues to shift away from strict definitions of R&B, his body-roll-and-winking-pun routine isn’t enough to keep Trey relevant. He is still the most obvious sex symbol in a genre that boasts the likes of Frank Ocean, the Weeknd, and Miguel, but sex-symbol status no longer guarantees the level of fame it once did. Sex sells, but 32-year-old R&B singers — especially those looking to remain prominent in 2017 — have to offer more.

For Trey, Trigga, Trigga Reloaded, and Intermission I & II were all middling projects that did little to bolster his status within the genre or outside of it. Taken alongside records like Channel Orange, Kaleidoscope Dream, and Jeremih’s Late Nights, Songz’s offerings felt stale — though none of them necessarily offended. But Trey’s most recent release, March’s Tremaine the Album, is perhaps the most unfortunate record of his career. The marketing campaign for the album began with Tremaine the Playboy, a Bachelor-esque faux reality web show on VH1. Unsurprisingly, the show felt cheesy and contrived rather than self-aware. The album itself only expanded on the boundaries of Trey’s cheesiness. Rather than stake a bold claim for the importance of Songz’s brand of R&B even within the increasingly experimental genre, Tremaine attempts to once again rehash Trey’s old exploits — with ill-fitting beats and haphazardly executed inspirations. The EDM-lite “What Are We Here For” somehow sounds like a B-side version of Justin Bieber’s “Where Are Ü Now,” while “#1Fan” sounds like it borrows its production from discarded Postal Service tracks. Both sound unfocused, not innovative.

But it’s Tremaine’s singles that most portend Songz’s difficulty adjusting to the R&B in 2017. One of its biggest singles, “She Lovin It,” parrots elementary rape culture in lieu of centering the love interest’s desires: “She said that she don’t wanna be fucked / I said, ‘Why the hell are you sleeping naked?’” It’s a surprising move for a man whose lyrics have always been corny, but rarely ever malicious. The music video for “Animal” might be even more embarrassing than the Summer Jam performance I witnessed. Full of scantily clad women (a Trey standard), it leans heavily on the song’s central metaphor. The lyrics are cringe-inducing, no longer just corny in the way a 24-year-old Songz once made endearing. The track’s awkward pauses allow the lines to really marinate: “I’ma bring my anaconda / Gonna get to, get to your forbidden fruit / Turn the bed into a jungle / I’m Tarzan, you be my Jane up in this room.” Watching women dance around while Trey sings them induces a second-hand embarrassment even Trey’s attractiveness doesn’t temper.

In the absence of Trey’s uncontested reign as prince of sexified R&B, a new crop of male singers have sprung up — but men like Miguel, the Weeknd, Luke James, Jeremih, PartyNextDoor, Frank Ocean, and Bryson Tiller all fall short of black-woman-centric, universal-sex-symbol status. Miguel’s music is sexy, but the artist himself is frequently unconvincing (and infamously uncoordinated). The Weeknd’s music videos almost exclusively feature white women. Before the New Edition series, Luke James wasn’t close to being a household name; even afterward, he hasn’t crossed into mega-stardom. PartyNextDoor’s proximity to rap and tech-ified production dilutes what little sex appeal he does have. Frank Ocean resists the theatrics of Ginuwine-inspired (hyper)sexuality. Bryson Tiller has never been seen without a Nike fitted, so it’s unclear whether his hairline actually exists. Trey’s inability to simultaneously mature and endure as the genre’s biggest young sex symbol also leaves a noticeable gap for black female R&B fans. Brown is a volatile figure, his sex appeal marred for many by a host of issues including alleged drug addiction and a history of violence against women. (Songz is due in court in September to face charges alleging he assaulted a police officer, accusations that may be less likely to draw ire from his black female listenership.) At 38, Usher is as much family man as he is sultry crooner. Even as rappers like frequent Songz collaborator and preeminent simp Aubrey “Drake” Graham continue to blur the distinctions between hip-hop and R&B, their standing as universal heartthrobs is tentative at best.

That Trey is still touring and releasing projects makes the absence of his once pre-eminently virile presence feel all the more jarring. That his star power is hidden in plain sight feels all the more unfortunate for Songz, his fans, and those who love R&B in all its forms. Rather than hone his songwriting or demonstrate personal growth in his lyrics, Songz insists on remaining suspended in his own mixed metaphors. He isn’t missing, but his magnetic energy has faded. Trey Songz may still be performing, but we’ve lost Mr. Steal Yo Girl.