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A new face, and new chapter, in R&B's unstoppable rap makeover

<em></em>After a whirlwind rise, Dallas singer 4batz has released his debut mixtape, <em>u made me a st4r</em><em>.</em>
Courtesy of the artist
After a whirlwind rise, Dallas singer 4batz has released his debut mixtape, u made me a st4r.

At some point this century, all of the R&B heartthrobs had to make an adjustment. There's no pinpointing the exact moment, but you can see the gears in motion in 2012, when hip-hop's influence on neighboring genres was expanding so exponentially that Billboard was moved to create a new chart. Hot R&B Songs, the magazine said, would supplement the existing Hot Rap/R&B Chart, and highlight "the differences between pure R&B and rap titles in the overall, wide-ranging R&B/hip-hop field." The distinction may have been overdue for other reasons, but the immediate implications were clear: Hip-hop was nudging further and further into mainstream R&B's market cap, and eating away at its sound in the process.

Stand back a little and you can plot this hybridization on an even longer timeline — from new jack swing and hip-hop soul and neo soul to new mutations like the nebulously defined "alternative R&B," crunk&B and pluggnb. And as rappers began to embrace melody more intently, the difference between a rapper and a singer became negligible. How would one define Future's HNDRXX? Or 6lack's Free 6lack? What of T-Pain or Anderson .Paak or Syd? Under rap's broadening scope, with its harder aesthetic values of hood authenticity, every sensualist faced with its impact had to make a choice: define themselves in opposition to those values, or lean into them.

This history feels essential to understanding the breakthrough of the singer 4batz. He had only released two songs when his video for "act ii: date @ 8" went viral on TikTok in 2023. By this January, Kanye West was calling the Dallas native his favorite new artist. By March, "act ii" had a Drake remix, and 4batz announced he was signing to the rapper's OVO Sound record label. It's important to note that the clip in question was not a traditional music video, but a "performance" in the YouTube series From the Block, in which artists — mostly rappers — lip-sync their songs into a hanging microphone in an outdoor setting, usually a city street. From the video's opening seconds, 4batz seems to be playing with the idea of the rap-R&B dichotomy. He flashes cash, dressed in a black beater and balaclava, surrounded by supporters who pose the way you might see behind a drill artist — then steps to the mic and eases out a squealing melody that, if anything, suggests a boyish innocence. The three-act structure of his first song trilogy leaned on this same simpleness and inexperience, its narration of a transactional adolescent romance seemingly playing out within the confines of a snow globe.

4batz's debut mixtape, u made me a st4r (released May 3), exists entirely in that constricted space. It is a saga in miniature, content to simply gesture toward the dying embers of a relationship while conforming to the timeless R&B toolkit of leg-locked embraces and baby-come-back outcries. His songs don't really have settings beyond the bedroom. The tape consists mostly of capsule exchanges — a shopping date, an argument, sex, another argument, more sex, a breakup — whose arrangement feels deliberately cyclical, and the songs themselves are constructed in tight little iterative loops. The only thing breaking the spell is a spoken interlude titled "get out yo feelings ho." The shift in voice is jarring, but the subtext is that a reorientation toward virility is necessary.

For 4batz and artists like him, this dissonance seems to largely extend from old ideas about masculinity: the rigid presumption that a male R&B singer performs a certain vulnerability, while a male rapper performs a certain hard-heartedness. The expansion of the latter into the former's space has forced many artists to more actively consider how they engage with the feminized aspects of their presentation. All the while, the women and queer artists navigating these same genre lines — Rihanna, SZA, Frank Ocean, Doja Cat, Baby Tate, iLoveMakonnen — have shown themselves to be much more malleable. Rapping can occasionally represent a more masculine turn in such instances (in part because rap is particularly combative on the genre scale, and aggression is often coded as masculine in general), but by and large those fluid moments have been embraced, celebrated as liberating. By contrast, there are times where 4batz seems at odds with his own music's mild-mannered sound, and eager to reconcile it with a more roughneck image.

It is fitting that 4batz is signed to OVO, given his label boss's role in the R&B changeover. When Drake first began brute-forcing lovesick R&B melodies into rap cadences in the late 2000s, he was ridiculed for not being rap enough (a perception that lingers today, echoing in Kendrick Lamar's recent jabs contending that he can stomach Drake as a vocalist but not as a tough guy). Today, with the door open wider, 4batz seems to be approaching from the opposite position — rap force subsumed into R&B tone. "I always wanted to be a rapper," he says in a featurette from Apple Music's Up Next series. "What I did was mix what I naturally listened to from my grandma, from my mama, and grabbed that world and brought it to where we are."

You can hear the imprint of '90s Timbaland on much of the staggering drum programming. In sound and sentiment, a song like "act viii: i hate to be alone" isn't too far from "End of the Road." The music's core appeal seems to be its distillation, in tandem, of his sources' respective rawness and tenderness. It's diluted to be sure, and arguably shameless in its calculation — but it is possessed by an intriguing dream-logic interpretation of the past. The most interesting stuff plays around in his own backyard — the murky, distorted OVO world constructed by producers like Noah "40" Shebib, Nineteen85 and PARTYNEXTDOOR. It lacks the bottomlessness of the best PARTY records or the fullness of the early dvsn experiments, but its smoothed-down seamlessness can move frictionlessly through the brain, making it perfectly engineered for algorithmic consumption.

In all the 4batz buzz, a strong undercurrent has been the question of whether he's some kind of industry plant — a topic confronted by the montaged intro track "umademeast4r.mp3," which scrolls through snippets of criticism from rap pundits, one calling his rise "scripted." It can seem as if the singer has come around the bend of every career milestone a step too early, his music still in a developmental stage. Individually, those signal boosts — the viral moment, the Kanye co-sign, the Drake feature and signing, the breathless press — don't register as sinister; it's only when taken together that they start to feel like a conspiracy, each perfectly placed break building upon the next to force this character upon us. Still, even taken at face value, the 4batz hype is clearly tapping into the supposed absurdity of a heartbroken crooner looking and behaving like a drill rapper. Mining the perceived incongruity between a hood aesthetic and a pop vibe has become so cliché that each new attempt feels like a publicity stunt, so it's fair to be skeptical. But in the end, the implication of a calculated push has probably only helped to sell the idea of 4batz as his own expertly streamlined product, when really the signs point to something much more rudimentary. Organic or manufactured, his abrupt ascent may be best understood as a test of how audiences perceive rap and R&B as forces in tension or harmony.

There are two other albums released in recent months that have pushed me to think about the taxonomy of rap-inflected R&B — and the way such artists blur the binary or play into it. Bryson Tiller's 2015 debut, T R A P S O U L, furthered an osmosis already in progress; his new self-titled LP recontextualizes the relationship between bass-boosted swagger and R&B insinuation. It is an R&B album made primarily in collaboration with rap producers that is often directly in conversation with old rap songs, and yet you can see the components of both genres at work. It isn't synergy that he is after, it's dualism: He wants to be both a rapper and singer, but not in unison. If Tiller is a hybrid, then PARTYNEXTDOOR is a transmuter, funneling hip-hop murkiness directly into a sunken, erotic sound. The PARTY mindset can be summed up in a single lyric from his own new self-titled album, titled P4 in short: "I don't wanna be changed / Happier stuck in my ways / Baby, don't you be offended," he sings. The same seems to go for his creative approach, wading around in the same Hennessey-filled infinity pool where he first hit his stride. His recent albums have lost some of the trademark casual apathy inherent in his early work, but he still has a grasp on the corrupt lover boy prototype he developed from various rap blueprints.

Considering u made me a st4r in the context of these albums reveals both its limitations and its draw. The Tiller songs are significantly more functional and intuitive, with a greater grasp of flow and range. The PARTY persona is fully formed and the music carefully tuned to serve that distinct identity, rather than conjuring a formless amalgamation of archival footage. Ironically, the very attribute that makes the 4batz sound idiosyncratic is its self-contained nebulousness. What I read in the title of u made me a st4r, beyond a dig at those who feel his moment was puppeteered, is a focus on the collective "you." That "you" can encompass the ex to whom these songs are written, the OVO patrons who put him on, the artists listened to by his mama and granny and the viewers who made him viral, all overlaid on a single point for his music to pass through. This is his moment, but it isn't about him at all: It's about his ability to put rap and R&B and everything in between on the same frequency.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Sheldon Pearce
[Copyright 2024 NPR]