The Musician Who Wants to Be the ‘King of R&B’

The Atlanta singer Jacquees continues staking a bold claim with his ’90s-influenced second album.

Krista​ Schlueter / The New York Times / Redux

Last year, the Atlanta-based singer-songwriter Jacquees posted a lofty declaration on Instagram just six months after releasing his debut studio album, 4275. “I just wanna let everybody know that I’m the king of R&B right now—for this generation,” he said in the December video. “I understand who done came and who done did that and that and that, but now it’s my turn.” The claim drew swift criticism from fans online, as well as from music-industry veterans such as Diddy, Tyrese, and Tank.

Amid the flurry of negativity, the 25-year-old singer held his ground, telling Rolling Stone soon after the controversy, “I definitely know that R&B can depend on me. I’m the king. I’m in first place of my generation.” For all his braggadocio, the singer, born Rodriquez Jacquees Broadnax, is also a good-humored entertainer; in the same interview, he admitted that his favorite meme is one in which his trademark melisma is compared to the sound a faltering car might make. On Friday, the artist released his new album, which is fittingly titled King of R&B. The record is at once a winking acknowledgment of criticisms levied against Jacquees and a refreshing work of classically inspired R&B at a time when the genre is heavily populated by more experimental sounds.

The 18-track album opens with a T.I.-assisted song called “King,” on which Jacquees plays the audio from his contentious December video before crooning about how easily he sells out shows. After “Round II,” a slow jam about exactly what its title suggests, Jacquees again pokes fun at his detractors in “EEeee,” which is how online jokes tend to phoneticize his vocal runs. The album’s third track, “EEeee” features fellow Georgia native TK Kravitz, a 22-year-old vocalist who first attracted attention as part of the duo TK-N-Cash. King of R&B is peppered with other young Atlanta features, including the rappers Lil Baby and Lil Keed, as well as the singer Summer Walker, whose debut album, Over It, soared to the top of the Billboard 200 chart last month. “Verify,” a single featuring Young Thug and Gunna, is a highlight: Jacquees’s vocals are mellifluous enough to make the line “Yes I love your physical / But it’s your energy” seem sentimental. The interplay between Thug and Gunna is dynamic and layered, a welcome return to the kind of rap-R&B collaborations that were everywhere in the early aughts.

On King and in radio interviews, Jacquees seems well aware of the position he occupies in both R&B and the music industry writ large. His sound, like that of Walker and fellow R&B darling Ari Lennox, is a youthful interpolation of the genre’s beloved hallmarks: soulful grooves, borderline-saccharine romantic sentiments, and sultry bops. Jacquees’s music is full of longing (and his lyrics sometimes skew lascivious). There is no ambivalence in his songwriting, or in his voice; he makes R&B that begs, R&B that sways. On King, Jacquees refuses to dial back his signature vocal flourishes, and the record is better for it. He is admittedly breathy at times, and at others his pitch could use some modulation. But these are forgivable imperfections that, when taken alongside his exuberance, signal an artist with undeniable—if still unrefined—talent.

Compare Jacquees’s output with the music of the other artists most often invoked as generational titans: the Virginia-born singers Chris Brown and Trey Songz. The 30-year-old Brown has made a habit of releasing bloated, directionless albums, and his recent collaborations have been cynical productions (not to mention, he has a lengthy history of assault). Now a father, the 34-year-old Songz is still a heartthrob, but his latest album was a strange arrangement of sexified clunkers that lacked the verve of his previous records. For the young R&B listener today, what’s appealing about a singer, even one who “invented sex” 10 years ago, calling you an animal while being offbeat?

Though plenty of newer artists are making the genre their own, the case for Jacquees is fundamentally an argument for the continued relevance of the kind of R&B that was popularized in the ’90s—the music that soundtracked long nighttime drives to a lover’s home, the ballads that would turn up the heat at any party, the songs that featured music videos in which leather-clad men pleaded for women to return to them. 4275 was threaded together with a clear appreciation for the music of Jodeci and Boyz II Men, and of forerunners such as the Temptations. This inclination reverberates throughout King of R&B too, but Jacquees avoids using nostalgia as a crutch, which his sometime-collaborator Tory Lanez has been guilty of.

Jacquees’s lyrics are more modern than those of his predecessors, but some of the most market-friendly alliances across King of R&B are predictable. On “All You Need,” for example, the Migos rapper Quavo provides a lethargic verse on which he sing-raps in a forgettable cadence. Future appears on “What They Gone Do With Me,” another filler track that doesn’t deploy either artist to noteworthy effect. King could’ve easily trimmed five tracks from its roster, but when Jacquees focuses on his strengths, he’s an indisputably compelling performer. He may not be the king of R&B yet, but he’s getting there.