Baby boomers who grew up loving the sweet, exuberant sounds of Motown may find the suggestion little short of blasphemous, but here goes: We're experiencing the greatest flourishing of black musical talent since Berry Gordy Jr. built his musical empire.
It's as if rock 'n' roll once again reflected the energy and originality of the '60s British Invasion or jazz regained the innovation of the bebop era.
This new wave of R&B and hip-hop vitality has been building for years, thanks to OutKast, Dr. Dre and others. But the music of Alicia Keys, Usher and Kanye West has spun us into a whole new era. Blessed with both remarkable talent and a collaborative spirit, these artists are poised to be pivotal figures in the evolution of mainstream pop well into the next decade. Even the notoriously conservative Grammy voters get it. Keys, Usher and West go into tonight's telecast with 26 nominations among them, including one each in the prestigious album of the year category, where they are competing against Ray Charles and Green Day.
The trio of twentysomething artists is at the forefront of a new synthesis of styles, a mixture of hip-hop and rhythm and blues that is so interwoven it's surprising no one has come up with a new term for it. Hip-rhythm and blues-hop doesn't quite cut it. Urban soul?
Whatever you call it, no less a figure than Gordy himself acknowledges a new golden age: "I see a lot of brilliance."
There's certainly a lot of dominance: R&B and hip-hop artists accounted for a striking 70% of the records on Billboard's list of the 50 singles that got the most airplay on U.S. radio during 2004.
"Today's musicians are beautiful, man," says 27-time Grammy winner Quincy Jones. "I know people are always talking about how much better everything used to be, but I just don't agree."
While some might see a Motown-style renaissance, Jones reaches back to other heralded figures and eras: "I loved Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and Ray Charles, but to me the rappers are on the same level. They have the spontaneity and imagination of the beboppers. If Charlie and Miles were here today, they would be working with these artists."
Besides making memorable hits, West, Keys and Usher exude a generous spirit that is rare in the competitive world of pop music. Even though they're competing for top honors tonight, they appear to take genuine pride in one another's work and often make appearances on one another's records, forming a creative community reminiscent in its own way of the old Motown.
"I feel part of a special time," Keys said. "I think it is definitely inspiring to be part of this musical community, and I think it helps us all to be able to work with other artists even if they aren't on the same label. Of course, there's competition, but there's also a bond between us. It's like we are on this mission."
That mutual respect led Usher and Keys to sing together on "My Boo," a cuddly song from Usher's album that went to No. 1 last year. West co-wrote and co-produced Keys' "You Don't Know My Name," another No. 1 hit, and rapped with Usher on the remix version of "Confessions." And so it goes -- dozens of such all-star pairings. Usher and West also toured together extensively.
This interchange was virtually unheard of in earlier pop eras because record companies resisted their artists' going into the studio with those from other labels because they didn't want to split royalties or, perhaps, help boost the rival artists' careers.
But today, far from discouraging the crossing of label boundaries, some label executives encourage it.
"You don't want to endanger your relations with artists by putting up roadblocks when they want to work with someone on a project," says Antonio "L.A." Reid, chairman of the Island Def Jam Music Group. "You want the best record, and that often comes out of a collaboration. It'd be shortsighted to say you can't make that record just because one of the artists is on a different label."
The difficulty of comparing
It's always hard for one generation to pass the torch to the next. In rock, most people over 40 react with disbelief at the thought that new bands -- from Nirvana in the '90s to the White Stripes today -- are inspiring enough to have stood alongside the best groups of any era.
Motown fans often become defensive if you suggest the best of today's R&B and hip-hop artists reflect the imagination and craftsmanship of Motown. They'll challenge you to name anyone today as captivating as Stevie or Diana or Marvin. The problem is that it's hard to compare musicians -- or athletes -- who are generations apart because of dramatic shifts in musical styles.
It's easier to see the excellence of today's key artists simply in the quality of the music. West's "Jesus Walks," Jay-Z's "99 Problems" and Usher's "Yeah!," which are all nominated for record of the year in tonight's Grammy Awards, would have been considered classics in the Motown era as well as today.
Beyond debate is the impact of this music.