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The R&B Duet Is Making a Comeback

To say R&B duets are making a comeback would be to suggest that there was ever a time where they were truly missing. Since the genre’s peak in the 90s, the R&B tradition of two voices harmonizing together waxed and waned in the mainstream, with memorable duets like Brandy and Monica’s 1998 hit single “The Boy Is Mine” and Usher and Alicia Keys’s 2004 anthem “My Boo.” A few years later, Chris Brown tried his hand at a couple duets of his own, joining the newly minted American Idol Jordin Sparks for “No Air” in 2007 before releasing “Superhuman,” featuring Keri Hilson, in 2008. 

R&B’s start in the 2010s was shaky. Brown went quiet for a few years following a felony assault charge, and other veterans, like Ne-Yo and Usher, began pivoting to pop. Artists like Melanie Fiona, Jazmine Sullivan, and BJ the Chicago Kid kept the tradition alive at the start of the decade, albeit mostly in the shadows—but the work they did laid the groundwork for singers like Daniel Caesar, H.E.R., and Bryson Tiller to thrive later on. 

Now, when a Caesar duet peaks at No.1 on the Hot 100—something he achieved three times at the end of the last decade, via collaborations with Kali Uchis, H.E.R, and Brandy—it means that newcomers will have the green light to do even more. One of them, Lucky Daye, recently released Table for Two, an EP full of duets. Daye is just one of a crop of artists, including Ari Lennox and Tiffany Evans, who are keeping duets shining this year. 

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In 2019, we spoke to Daye ahead of the release of Painted, his debut album. At the time, he revealed how much he was inspired by Marvin Gaye: The “e” at the end of his stage name is an homage to the soul singer, and the similarities don’t stop there. Table for Two, which Daye released this month, is a seven-track EP featuring all women vocalists. The format is a page ripped straight from Gaye’s playbook. 

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We know Gaye from some of the most popular songs of the 70s, like “Let’s Get It On” and “What’s Going On.” But much of his early success within Motown a decade prior had been predicated on his skills as a duet artist. Gaye signed with Motown Records in 1961, but it would take five years and several collaborations—including songs with Mary Wells, Kim Weston, and Oma Page—before he found his musical partner, Tammi Terrell. On songs like “You’re All I Need to Get By” and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” you can hear the striking chemistry they shared: sensitive and yet delicate, mingling feminine and masculine energy. By all appearances, Terrell and Gaye seemed to be two people who cared about each other in the real world, as much as they did in their songs. 

Part of what made musical marriages, as heard with other duos like Teena Marie and Rick James or Ashford and Simpson, is how they recorded. Mono tracking meant both artists were singing on the same track, literally—allowing them to respond to each other’s energy in real time and blend their voices organically rather than stacking them. Unlike today, technology didn’t allow for music to be recorded and sent back. Gaye and Terrell became an exception to that rule, with Gaye forced to record alone after Terrell’s brain cancer diagnosis in 1967. Unfortunately, due to Terrell’s sudden death in 1970, their partnership was short-lived. By the close of the decade, the D.C. singer had accrued an extensive enough catalog of collaborations to release Marvin Gaye & His Women, a compilation of songs featuring Diana Ross, Wells, Keston, and, of course, Terrell. 

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Table for Two functions in a similar fashion, with Daye using the project to reunite with women he’s collaborated with before, like Queen Naija and Mahalia. But the best parts of the EP are the ones that find him exploring new unions, like “How Much Can a Heart Take,” a slightly salty offering featuring Yebba; “Ooh, this shit is trash / But I’ma give it right back because that’s what I’ve been getting from you,” she sings. “On Read” channels a similar energy, with Tiana Major9 musing on how humbling it is to find yourself on the other side of an unanswered text. 

Table for Two, which was released ahead of Valentine’s Day, is not what you put on when you want to set the mood. It’s pugnacious and even petty at times, which makes it more of a companion piece to 2021 love-gone-bad Valentine’s day flick Malcolm & Marie, or something to listen to when you’re not on the best terms with your significant other. Still, it’s an impactful collection of how perception works in a relationship and what happens when ego prevents both parties from seeing clearly. 

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The new wave of R&B duets is also anchored by women. This month, Tiffany Evans, half of the duo Jawan x Tiffany, returned to the scene with a video for “Finally,” a song that offers us an intimate glimpse inside their real-life relationship. Last week, Nasty C also released the video for “Black and White,” which technically skews more rap-adjacent, but is made softer by fluttering vocals from Ari Lennox, who also appears on Table for Two (“Access Denied”). 

If Lucky Daye is fashioning himself as the new king of the duet, then Ari Lennox is the queen. In 2019, she elevated BJ the Chicago Kid’s “Time Today” by providing a woman’s perspective; a year later she joined Kiana Ledé’s “Chocolate,” which felt like a candid piece of girl talk. Their pandemic-style video underscores the familiarity between the two artists as they simulate a FaceTime call between friends. But her best collaborative work yet can be found on Jazmine Sullivan’s “On It”, where the pair trade risqué metaphors line-for-line, like rappers. Here, we’ll give her extra credit for the Love Jones reference: “Be the Nia to the hood Larenz Tate,” she croons. 

Over the years, the duet has been caught in the ebb and flow of the industry, adapting and modifying itself to the times. With R&B back at the forefront of the conversation, and artists like Summer Walker, Victoria Monét, Lucky Daye, and countless up-and-comers using their music to capture the best and worst of our emotions, there is no limit to the permutations.

Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.

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