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Have R&B’s ‘Toxic Kings’ Taken it Too Far?

“If I Get Caught,” the title track from the R&B duo Dvsn’s latest album, released last month, is far from subtle in its description of what some might call “toxic” behavior. In the chorus, destined for social media contagion, singer Daniel Daley informs us that “if I get caught cheating that don’t mean I don’t love you.” Apparently, when Jay-Z approved the use of the “Song Cry” sample featured on the track he texted Dvsn saying, “I didn’t think one could make a song more toxic than ‘Song Cry’ / I stand corrected.” In response, Dvsn posted a screenshot of the exchange on Instagram with the caption, “…btw Jay it’s not toxic it’s honest.”

The world of R&B has become riddled with so-called ‘Toxic Kings,” singers who narrate their ventures of infidelity — chasing euphoric highs, avoiding accountability, and instead contorting confessions into a shield from retribution. Dvsn went so far as to pair the record’s release with a live panel on “open monogamy” featuring Dvsn, Nick Cannon, and sex therapist Dr. Tammy Nelson. It was streamed on the group’s YouTube channel. The key takeaway was that if you feel tempted to cheat on your partner, open monogamy might be for you. Most importantly, if you can find consensus with your partner around having other sexual partners, the integrity of the relationship can be upheld.

Of course, “If I Get Caught” does not suggest consensus. In the same panel,  Daley confesses, “I think the reason why a lot of guys actually cheat is cos’ they are scared to tell the truth to the person they do still want to be in a relationship with.” This thought manifests in the second verse of the song. “And to tell the truth, it’ll hurt you more / If you ever find what you’re lookin’ for / I ain’t perfect / Baby girl, I’m worth it,” he coos.

This message, which is found throughout Dvsn’s album, feels like a messy paradox, one increasingly common as male artists become ever more confessional in their music. Kendrick Lamar’s latest release, Mr Morale & The Big Steppers, is framed as a journey through more vulnerable spaces of masculinity and features the Taylour Paige-assisted “We Cry Together”, in which the two play out a heated lover’s squabble. Similarly, the chaos-fueled release of Kanye’s Donda 2 earlier this year was a look at his feelings about his separation from Kim Kardashian laid almost uncomfortably bare. The album notes for Drake’s 2021 release Certified Lover Boy described the record as a “combination of toxic masculinity and acceptance of truth which is inevitably heartbreaking.”

Brent Faiyaz, who begrudgingly carries the Toxic King torch, addressed the term in the intro to his recent album Wasteland. On “Villain’s Theme,” an introspective spoken word duet with Jorja Smith, he presents a male and female’s conflicting thoughts around sex, philosophy, and the concept of toxicity. The track is an attempt to show both sides of the coin, the toxic labeler and the labeled. The concluding question is what Faiyaz goes on to address throughout Wasteland. His dismissal of the concept of being toxic as a whole challenges us to wonder if we should be using the word at all. Is it in fact unfair to brand someone as toxic if they are upfront about their flaws?

“Traditionally, toxicity refers to a set of habits and behaviors which harm others,” Denise Freeman, Founder of Real Focus Therapy, explains.”So when lyrics outline attitudes and beliefs that aren’t desirable to most in society, there’s no need to shy away from deeming them toxic.” She suggests that an individual can be self-reflective but still engage in toxic behavior. Instead, we should be conscious of the potential consequences of music as an introject, which refers to an influence that can unconsciously form our beliefs.

“Music that normalizes cheating may subconsciously lead impressionable young men to adopt this learned behavior,” she says. Of course, song-writing is a cathartic process, and artists are free to express themselves however they see fit. But rather than avoiding the word “toxic,” artists need to stop being defensive about the label and instead take ownership of their behavior — flaws and all. 

Traditionally, R&B has given us songs about falling in head-over-heels, unconditional love, or weeping anthems about heartbreak; but a rise of purported toxicity in the genre has led to calls for a return of a softer R&B. “I don’t think there’s such thing as soft R&B, but old school R&B had meaning, depth, and creativity, which doesn’t necessarily translate in current R&B,” Dr. Syleecia Thompson, author of Rhythm Without Blues told Rolling Stone. “This younger generation is influenced by hip-hop and rappers, and that’s reflected in their music.”

Elements of hip-hop — from the harsh realities it depicts to traditional indicators of masculine power such as wealth, cars, and girls — have inevitably been absorbed into R&B by virtue of the current generation growing up on the genre, and its existing influence on pop culture. “I guess they [current R&B artists] are speaking about their truths… their environment, how they were raised, their upbringing, their non-traditional views.”

Despite a societal urge for men to express their emotions, when it’s served up in all its rawness, it can become indigestible to many. Partynextdoor’s “Savage Anthem” presents an uncensored and unapologetic confessional of infidelity and commitment issues. Drake has a song called “F*****g Fans.” 

But perhaps there is indeed depth to R&B’s rising class of toxic (but honest) men. Freeman maintains that an inability to commit can stem from a person’s own unique experiences of hurt, resulting in an avoidance of attachments as a means of self-preservation. For too long, the dominant trope has been that of a strong man who suppresses his feelings to carry out his duty as the provider. As the stereotype gets dismantled, men have the opportunity, and responsibility, to be honest with themselves about what they actually want from a relationship. At the very least, now their potential partners can make an informed decision whether to take it or leave it. 

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