At this point in pop culture, nothing could be more boring than the perspective of a horny heterosexual male. Maybe it’s because we’re newly flush with the ideas and expressions of a generation of young women who are curious and open about sex, and aware of its power thus rendering centuries of penis-centric narratives artistically, well, impotent. But since hetero sex is still totally a thing, it’s more likely that the default musical male gaze feels boring – particularly in hip-hop and R&B – because it’s never pushed itself much to change.
Thank goodness then, for people like Rihanna and FKA Twigs and St. Vincent, who revel in and manipulate and subvert their sexual power while still making great music. Frank Ocean and Sam Smith, even guys like Lil B and Young Thug, represent mainstream alternatives to the way we see male sexuality, and this line of thinking can even help us understand why vulnerability, in his music and his public persona, is key to Drake’s success.
In his music, desire isn’t nuanced or even particularly urgent, it’s just there for the taking and confident in its assumption, like an unsolicited nude.
Thinking about the ways in which male sexuality has (or, more accurately, hasn’t) evolved, particularly when it comes to R&B, helps me understand why there was a minor collective freakout over Trey Songz singing about eating booty on his very good summer release Trigga. And also why I was so bored at the PARTYNEXTDOOR show last night even though the Mississauga, Ontario R&B singer’s two mixtapes 2013’s PARTYNEXTDOOR and this year’s PARTYNEXTDOOR TWO are fixtures on my playlist.
Last year, after the first mixtape came out a lot of people wanted to compare him to The Weeknd not only because they are both Drake protégés, but because they sang louche anthems about strippers and partying and shared similar vocal textures (bleating might be the best way to describe it). That said the first release was great, a gleaming vector postcard from a Sauga kid who made it to Miami in a rental. But PARTYNEXTDOOR 2 is a lot better; Brathwaite’s vocals sound more relaxed, though they’re still highly processed, and his confidence is up.
Last night’s show at The Mod Club was the second last stop on Party’s first North American tour. It began in Montreal and ends next week in L.A., and so it seemed like there was nothing special about the hometown date – although the hordes of fans lined up since early afternoon proved otherwise. As I’ve argued before, this is a maddening city with a history of ignoring its homegrown rap and R&B stars until they make it, so maybe the date was a pointed gesture. The crowd was thick, and the upstairs VIP section (where T.I. held court) even more rammed. On stage was a white two-seater flanked by two paper-panelled room dividers. I was surprised to see that; it felt a little Usher-esque for someone whose music is so stoic.
The show started around 10:30 and was over 40 minutes later. For the first 20 minutes or so, Brathwaite, clad in jeans, Timbs and a grey toque lodged over his chin-length dreadlocks, barreled through songs from both of his mixtapes starting with “Welcome to the Party” and “Break From Toronto.” It felt like the entire floor knew all of the words to every song. Cheers erupted when, seven songs in, Brathwaite finally acknowledged the crowd and mumbled into the mic that he’d always make quality music for his fans. He sang over a backing track, trailing his hand along the outstretched fingers of girls in the front row while strolling across the stage, occasionally stopping to look out in the crowd and return a fan’s grip.
Eventually a young woman was procured from somewhere and the pair sat on the couch and Brathwaite sang “Persian Rugs” – whilst barely looking at his designated companion. The lights (expertly designed by Thomas and Matt of the Mansion crew) twinkled in back. The girl was excited (she even took a few selfies), but for what was designed to be a climax it was disappointingly lackluster. I didn’t come to a PND show expecting shirtless, pelvic thrusting (that’s what Miguel is for) but given the trysts charted on his mixtapes, I expected to feel some sexual energy. And there was none.
And that’s when it hit me that Brathwaite wasn’t just kinda devoid of charisma or maybe still unused to the stage: he was just being that boring straight male artist, content to basically do nothing on stage and eliciting screams for it, nonetheless. In his music, desire isn’t nuanced or even particularly urgent, it’s just there for the taking and confident in its assumption, like an unsolicited nude. Perhaps it says something that later on, after P. Reign’s cameo, when Drake finally emerged from the wings for “Recognize,” the energy picked up and the screams reached piercing.
I like PARTYNEXTDOOR. I like his music – though I think I like it better on my headphones than live – and I enjoy the way he blends today’s rap trends with R&B vocals. I’m from the 905 as well, so I want him to be successful. I like that Drake continues to co-sign young artists from this city, although I wish he’d engage with artists who are less silo’d than the Weeknd and PND. Maybe it was an off-night for Brathwaite, and I don’t think his young fans cared about anything beyond being there and seeing him, but eventually, there will come a time when they’ll want more.