Earlier this year, Brian McKnight went on a, shall we say, daring and experimental journey as an artist and a musician.
As the 43-year-old, Buffalo-born, Los Angeles-based R&B veteran is about to tee off at the Los Angeles country club where he is a member, he explains over the phone what inspired him to go rogue musically.
“If you listen to the music of today, or have heard any of the music that’s out there, it’s really easy to see that anything goes,” he says.
“I was at a club after one of my concerts and a song came on called – something that had to do with making the (expletive) sweat or something like that. And the girl that was standing next to me, she was singing all of the lyrics.”
One night last April, he had enough of what passes for contemporary R&B today and decided to take action by coming up with a scintillating, explicit number of his own.
Via a YouTube clip, McKnight sat at his keyboard and previewed a new song he was working on called “If Ur Ready to Learn.”
But before you could think McKnight was going to perform another one of his patented, destined-for-lite-FM slow jams, he sang the chorus. It’s too racy for a family publiction.
The mostly negative, public response to the song was so immediate, with Twitter abuzz with the notion that the multi-Grammy-nominated balladeer had finally lost his marbles, that McKnight took the video down mere minutes after he posted it.
Alarming and amusing
“I was actually doing something that I thought was funny that people, I guess, that take themselves too seriously – and take me too seriously – thought that it was,” he says.
McKnight, who says the song about a woman’s conversation with a sex toy “is one of the most creative songs I’ve ever written,” found the reaction both alarming and amusing.
“My point was if we’re gonna categorically deny lyrics or this kind of music, then do it across the board so nobody’s allowed to do it anymore,” he says. “Don’t be mad if people you think shouldn’t do whatever you think they shouldn’t do go ahead and do it.”
The folks at comedy viral-video site Funny or Die thought the song was funny, and they eventually got McKnight to do a full video for it.
Another website that called McKnight was YouPorn, which asked him if he could do a theme song and accompanying video.
He ended up recording a song even racier than “Learn,” which also includes rap verses from his own sons – up-and-coming musicians Brian, Jr., 22, and Niko, 19. The video didn’t feature McKnight; a bald, black dwarf took his place.
“That doesn’t make you laugh?” he asks.
“I did a theme song about a porno website. You think it’s gonna be about love?”
Some thought McKnight was going off the deep end and others took advantage of McKnight’s newfound down-and-dirty side.
The man himself says it was all a joke.
And people who’ve seen his more tongue-in-cheek side during live performances should’ve known that.
“Let me ask you a question,” he says. “If any of this happened on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ would you have a problem? Would anybody have a problem?”
Well, no one on “SNL” has had a history of doing straight-faced, adult-contemporary ballads.
“Hold on! Hold on! You say that, but Justin Timberlake was on there and he did a song called ‘(expletive) in a Box.’ So, don’t tell me it doesn’t happen, because it does.”
Believe it or not, McKnight says he was also reminding young recording artists that they don’t have to pander or sell out.
“To me, it’s not really about this song or whatever,” he says.
“It’s really about, you know, what are we gonna do to try to make this better for the kids who are out there who really want to write about something, who really want to sing about something. We have completely gone away from those kids.
“Because, now, they’re gonna be forced to sell their soul and do this kind of music to make it in this business, and that’s the part that’s sad.”
McKnight, who has a new album due in January, says that this little, interesting experiment of his is over.
So don’t expect him to sing his recent, risqué tunes at any of his live shows, especially his show at the N.C. State Fair this week.
“I said that I would never perform it live,” he says, “and I’m sticking to that.”