Everything but the Song: If Ne-Yo v. Johntá Austin provided one lesson, it’s that R&B is the greatest genre out there

(Kevin Yin | Daily Trojan)

Defining a hit song or approximating the formula for a timeless record is nearly impossible. Yes, pop songs are flooding the airwaves with identical arrangements and catchy hooks, but not every record that emulates the last No. 1 single is a guaranteed success. 

As someone who grew up in the 2000s, listening to every R&B album I could get my hands on — “The Emancipation of Mimi,” “B’Day,” “Trey Day” and the list goes on — I know that there are two men (among others) who most certainly have the formula for a hit record: Ne-Yo and Johntá Austin. 

Following previous Instagram Live beat and songwriting battles, such as the ones between The-Dream vs. Sean Garrett and the originators’ Swizz Beatz vs. Timbaland, the two R&B legends went hit for hit Sunday trying to one-up each other with their classic records.

There’s a lot to be deciphered from these battles but most notably that Austin is a criminally underrated songwriting prodigy,

Opening the battle with Tyrese’s “Sweet Lady” it was revealed to me in Instagram Live comments and on Twitter that he wrote the record at the tender age of 15. I did some digging, and the Atlanta native also wrote Toni Braxton’s classic “Just Be a Man About It” and the Aayliah favorite “I Don’t Wanna,” one of the few available on streaming services, before he was old enough to legally consume alcohol. 

Interestingly enough, many of the records Austin penned at such a young age are often categorized as “grown” and “sexy music.” They are ballads that would usually be heard on an urban radio station’s “quiet storm” format or during the tail-end of a summer cookout. 

When I think of other artists who produced such vulnerable music in their youth, more famous names come to mind. Stevie Wonder wrote and co-wrote many songs at a young age, my favorite being Smokey Robinson and the Miracle’s “The Tears of a Clown” at age 17. Adele’s debut single, “Hometown Glory,” the first song she ever wrote, was penned at just 16 years old. 

Although Austin’s solo music hasn’t taken off in the way Ne-Yo’s did, Sunday night’s battle showed us that his writing catalog is extensive. He devoured his competition with Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” and Mary J. Blige’s “Be Without You,” the record Billboard ranked as the most successful R&B/Hip-Hop Song of all time. 

Secondly, what I gathered from the conversation was how simple but effective Ne-Yo’s songwriting is. “You look so dumb right now,” is arguably one of the most basic opening lines in history, but it works for Rihanna’s “Take A Bow.” In Ne-Yo’s writing, there are few double entendres or intensely metaphoric verses found today in the songs of Frank Ocean or NAO.Instead, he writes experiences — ones directly translatable to music videos and conversations on love to be had among girlfriends. My favorite, the hook he sang on Plies’ “Bust It Baby, Pt. 2,” instantly places me in the passenger seat of some guy’s car up to no good. I’ll leave it at that.

Today, there a few artists like Ne-Yo who can bounce vocals from song to song all while leaving a lasting impression on each; his hooks are undeniably great. From Ghostface’s “Back Like That,” Fabolous’ “Make Me Better” to the karaoke ballad “Hate That I Love You,” his crooning and writing are more than just catchy, and you can pinpoint an exact vibe for each song he’s featured on. 

Listening to “Come through the block in the brand new Benz” on the Xtreme-produced “Back Like That,” feels like being an audience member on “106 & Park.” It’s like he wrote directly for music video countdowns and middle school gym dances. 

The final lesson solidified by the Ne-Yo vs. Johntá Austin battle was what I miss about the genre as a whole. R&B has its unique marks and particular styles but crosses over to and plays with pop and hip-hop all the time, and that’s what made it fun and exciting in the late ’90s and early 2000s. 

Although they still exist, rap-sung collaborations aren’t as popular or simply good as they used to be — take Drake’s “Hotline Bling” winning the Grammy Award for Best Rap/Sung Performance. Where is the dynamic between vocalist and emcee? I can’t two-step to it, and I can’t imagine Rocsi and Terrence J rightfully garnering the attention of listeners or introducing it as a No.1 video on “106 & Park” without cringing. 

Rappers today make pseudo-R&B records, but not ones that compliment the genre enough to lend to a successful collaboration with R&B’s artists. It’s as if they want to be the next Ne-Yo and not work with him. 

And although I love today’s R&B artists in their own right, the music can be almost too introspective to produce a radio hit. Records like Mario’s “Let Me Love You,” the eighth most successful single of the decade as ranked by Billboard, simply do not exist. 

In an early iteration of “Everything but the Song,” I wrote about how R&B is not dead, naming several of today’s overlooked talents. The genre isn’t lifeless, but it certainly is not as wide-reaching as it used to be. With more than 70,000 people glued to their phone screens to hear two producers (not artists, but producers), the battle is a testimony not only to the power of music but to the culture of R&B that once was. 

I applaud Timbaland and Swizz Beats for bringing R&B lovers together over Instagram Live with these exciting matchups. In lieu of actual concerts, they serve as a break from the horrors of the coronavirus pandemic, an opportunity to give the people behind the music their flowers and a reminder that music brings people together.  

Ellice Ellis is a senior writing about the music industry and social justice. She is also one of the Arts & Entertainment editors for the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Everything but the Song,” typically runs every other Wednesday.