It all started on Lip Service, an interview show run by New York radio luminary Angela Yee that features hour-long conversations with singers and rappers about their sex lives. Tank released a new album on Friday, titled Elevation. He’s a practiced interviewee, with a sonorous voice and plenty of self-deprecating quips, so he visited Lip Service as part of his promotional run.
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Just three minutes into a conversation about men lying to their partners, the discussion took an unexpected turn.
“I definitely had a guy say to me before, ‘But I don’t lie to you — I’ve only lied to you a couple times about women,'” said Lore’L, who sometimes hosts along with Yee.
“I hear what he’s saying,” Tank replied, speaking in soothing tones. “He’s not a liar, he just lied twice.” He searched for another comparison. “I’ve done construction a couple times, but I’m not a construction worker.”
But Yee, who is better known for her role on the Breakfast Club, a rap radio institution in New York City, wanted the conversation to be more combustible. She reached for a more extreme comparison. (A rival radio host, Ebro, later told Tank, “She went to trap you, she tried to get you.”) “Let’s say a guy sucked a dick one time — say twice,” Yee prompted. “Does that make him gay?” Tank replied that he didn’t think so; conservative parts of the internet erupted; and the singer spent much of the rest of the week leading up to Elevation‘s release defending his statement on social media.
But Tank was in high spirits by the following Wednesday. “You know what’s crazy?” he asked, with an “R&B Money” hat — his label name — pulled tight over his head, while he munched on a Cronut. “They’re like, ‘Oh, he’s just stirring this [controversy] up because he’s got an album coming out.’ I didn’t do this.”
“You’re not that good,” joked J. Valentine, Tank’s friend and longtime collaborator.
“I’m not that good,” Tank agreed. “The internet,” he sighed, “what can we do?”
Internet shit-storms are now commonplace, but Tank is in a rare situation for anyone in pop music: At age 43, he’s coming off the biggest hit of his career: “When We,” a detailed chronicle of a sexcapade delivered in surges and slow drips, was certified platinum last year. And it’s had a two-year-long tail (and counting) — the track still got played close to 600 times last week in the radio format known as “Adult R&B.”
Tank’s platinum breakthrough came after a pointed recalibration. “How people hear has shifted, with the mainstream becoming more simplified,” he explains. Vocal dexterity is not prized in R&B the way it was when Tank emerged in the early 2000s — the glass-cracking falsetto and wordless ad-libs that open one of his biggest singles, 2007’s “Please Don’t Go,” are hard to find in the genre’s hits today.
So in 2015, Tank took stock of the landscape and “had the tough conversations.” He explains his new mindset as, “let’s make sure I’m not just singing for the guy in the mirror.” “I did that for a long time — I’m listening to it, having the time of my life, and everyone else is like, ‘I don’t get it,'” Tank continues. “So I dialed it back. Let’s make music for everybody, not just the seven percent who understand.”
Tank works fast — Elevation is his seventh album in the last 10 years (six solo, one with Ginuwine and Tyrese as TGT) — and he believes the constant running is a necessity if he wants to maintain his position in the R&B pecking order. Not even the strong performance of “When We” was enough to let him cool his pace. “It’s like, ‘Let’s celebrate. Where’s the champagne?’ and then you’re having a party that lasts a little too long,” he says. “And while you’re partying, somebody passes you by and takes your spot. No way.”
“When We” frequently serves as a blueprint for the songs on Elevation. “Dirty” and “I Don’t Think You’re Ready,” are effectively sequels: The lyrics are meticulously libidinous, while the production remains skeletal. “WWJD,” which is repetitive but effective in its single-mindedness, could work in the right club setting, with vocoder-warped backing vocals spilling behind the lead in the manner of old Blackstreet or Zapp singles.
Once again, Tank’s rejection of the man-in-the-mirror approach to singing has paid off. “Dirty” is among the top 15 most-played songs of the year at Adult R&B radio, with over 33,000 spins. As of this week, “I Don’t Think You’re Ready,” is Top Five in the format.
Still, there is more work to do. Much of the audience that listens to Adult R&B — “I Don’t Think You’re Ready” reached around seven million people last week — does not stream, so it can be tough to turn those listeners into paying customers. “The R&B grind is a different grind — it’s just not the same as hip-hop,” Tank says. “It’s a very different chart position, a different radio landscape. The idea of [rappers] going door-to-door isn’t the same — they can skip a few steps. In the promotional grind of it, we have to hit everything. E-ver-y-thing. And we still may never get to that chart.”
So Tank did the rounds, dropping by as many shows as he could, including Lip Service. “Somebody grabbed a clip from the interview — completely isolated — and then they started writing the wildest captions that they could think of,” the singer laments. “It went from, Tank’s opinion about what Angela Yee was saying to it being personal: ‘Tank sucked two dicks.'”
The singer refused to back down from his initial stance. But as an R&B singer whose income depends largely on his ability to arouse female desire, he repeatedly felt the need to clarify his own sexual preferences. He was also forced to address the Lip Service interview again during a visit to another New York radio institution, Hot 97. “I think it’s OK to live whatever life you want to live,” Tank said. The radio host Paul Rosenberg replied, “I think what you got exposed to is the community that enjoys Tank is not as forward-thinking on this issue as you and I.”
All this precious time could have been spent talking about Elevation. But maybe the distraction will end up bringing in more curiosity clicks? “Couldn’t have happened at a better time,” Tank jokes. “I’ll take it.”
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