R&B allows Black women to explore a part of themselves that is often too taboo to touch on, in both subtle and unsubtle ways.
Since the beginning of time, people have included their experiences in the art they make. Sexual experiences are not exempt from that. R&B, in particular, has served as a space for singers to explore their sexual desires, specifically women. Although listeners are most used to hearing women sing about love (and the joy and heartbreak that comes with it) in R&B, the genre has also allowed them to explore a part of themselves that is often too taboo to touch on — sex — in both subtle and unsubtle ways, often to the surprise of listeners who tend to see R&B as a sanitized genre or don’t get the sly, suggestive lyrics being presented to them.
One of the best examples of a woman R&B artist treading the line between directness and subtlety is Janet Jackson’s 1993 album Janet. A step away from being known as the baby sister of Michael Jackson, Janet allowed her to explore her sexuality freely in a way she hadn’t done before. A standout from the album, “Any Time, Any Place,” is a testament to that. On the song, Jackson expresses pure joy in her public displays of affection toward her lover, declaring “I don’t care who’s around” during its chorus in a way that speaks to the pleasure of wanting to touch — and be touched — by a romantic interest.
In a 1993 Rolling Stone review of the album, Touré wrote that Janet is “A significant, even revolutionary transition in the sexual history and popular iconography of Black women.” To see Janet depart from her conservative image and create an album promoting sexual liberation not only served to expand her artistry but also foreshadowed how women would continue to express their sexuality in contemporary R&B.
However, some R&B artists have come under fire their lyrics, especially those that are more explicit. Two years after Janet came Adina Howard’s Do You Wanna Ride?, a fusion of hip-hop, new jack swing, and R&B that included the hit single “Freak Like Me.” Driven by a g-funk beat, Howard channels the bravado and confidence of male rappers, singing about how she needs someone to be just as freaky as her to be satisfied sexually. Unfortunately, not everyone was in support of Howard’s sexual anthem. In a 1995 Washington Post profile of Howard and Do You Wanna Ride?, a handful of Black women spoke about the artist’s explicit lyrics and persona, among them Christina Kirksey, a 17-year-old National Political Congress of Black Women intern who called Howard’s lyrics “nasty and vile.”
“I have to constantly fight against catcalls and sexual harassment on the street and here comes Adina Howard. I need a freak in the morning . . . I cannot stand her because all she does is show her behind,” Kirksey said at the time.
Gregg Diggs, then music director of BET, also spoke unfavorably about Howard’s music, saying: “Because she’s a decent singer with a solid voice, I think it would have been wiser on her part if she had focused more of her energy on her talent and not her sexuality.”
But Howard succinctly speaks to the importance of Black women being able to openly express their sexuality and not having to ignore their inner freak. She shares in the profile: “When people have a problem expressing sexuality, it becomes a bigger problem because a lot of things start in the bedroom. Sexuality should be open, expressive. I’ve never been hypocritical. I’ve never been one of these girls lying too loudly about not wanting to do it.”
This expression of sexuality continued on in 2000 with singers like Jill Scott, who expressed her desires in a way that were direct but also poetic. For fans that were surprised by her viral microphone antics during a live performance in 2018, they clearly weren’t paying attention to songs like “Love Rain” from her 2000 debut album, Who Is Jill Scott? Words And Sounds Vol. 1.
On the track, she expertly blends the poetic and overt. In the second verse, you can hear how Scott is deeply satisfied with her lover, ultimately declaring “Better than love, we made delicious.” Even in name, “Love Rain” plays with innuendo, hinting at sexual acts and experiences that aren’t often mentioned in R&B.
In the 2010s, sexual desire and expression from Black women in R&B has become more common — especially toward the end of the decade. CTRL, SZA’s 2017 major label debut, began with “Supermodel,” a track where she declares that it was the sex that kept her in a temporary love that didn’t end well. There’s also “Doves in the Wind,” where she’s not only hesitant to tell someone how they’re not satisfying her the way she wants (“High key, your *beep* is weak buddy / It’s only replaced by a rubber substitute”), but she yearns for sexually (“I’m really tryna crack off on the headboard / And bust it wide open for the right one”). In 2019, we saw the release of Summer Walker’s Over It and Ari Lennox’s Shea Butter Baby, with the former more along the lines of the alternative R&B of SZA and the latter more traditional R&B. But in both, they’re expressing their wants freely. “Girls Need Love“— which first appeared on Last Day of Summer mixtape — reappeared as a remix with Drake on Over It, with the singer offering a chorus that Howard likely would be proud of, and a first verse that is unabashed in its want for one lover over countless other options. Shea Butter Baby is more reminiscent of Jill Scott, with Lennox offering subtle (but still suggestive) lyrics centered around sex, as is the case with hit single “BMO.” But Lennox also doesn’t hesitate to say exactly what she wants — whether that be on “Up Late” or “Pop.”
So, it’s understandable that Lennox also made an appearance on fellow R&B artist Jazmine Sullivan’s 2021 EP Heaux Tales, with the song “On It.” Lennox and Sullivan are unapologetic in their wants, not only demanding that their lover prove their worthiness but letting them know what what they want to do and what they need to feel satisfied.
It’s a track that highlights how sexuality plays an important part throughout the EP, and how Black women shouldn’t feel shame for that.
“I’ve had my own personal relationship with shame as a Black woman, growing up in church, when it comes to my body and my sexual experience. It’s kind of deeply embedded in our culture for women to feel shame in regards to sex and their bodies,” Sullivan said in an interview with Pitchfork. “…I wanted to be a part of the revolution and evolution of women owning who they are.”
Women in R&B are expected to be soft people who keep the intimate details of their lives shielded from their music. But they aren’t just a vessel to express love and pain. They should be able to freely talk about life’s fun, nasty, embarrassing, exciting, and sometimes terrible sexual experiences, too, in the way they want to, regardless of what listeners expect from them.
Nia Coats is an independent journalist located in the Bay Area who covers topics on music, culture, and life. She has bylines with the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, and her own music and culture publication, Lucky 7 Magazine.