“Bad”, a song by the New York-based alt-R&B artist Cal Maro, is Schrodinger’s Bedroom Jam: it is both sexy and non-sexy at the same time. Everything about its Vaseline-smeared sound and hungry come-ons suggests sensuality, but there’s a bleariness and a desperation to it that makes it more than a simple let’s-get-it-on playlist selection. It’s a common dynamic in alt-R&B, which is as much about subverting the genre’s typical tropes as it is imitating them.
Artists like Autre Ne Veut and How to Dress Well imitated the slinky bump-and-grind of R&B while displaying a disarming fragility–you get the idea that they’re the sort of guys who would burst into tears after, or even during, sex. FKA twigs has spent her whole career playing around with sexuality, whether she’s embodying an imperious love goddess, comparing herself to a sex doll, or showing the artistry of pole dancing. Even a pre-fame The Weeknd got in on the action; he was unafraid to make sex look desperate, even ugly, as he made sleep-deprived booty calls and narrated a drug-fueled gang rape.
Cal Maro’s approach is less artsy and experimental than those artists, but he still picks up on the through-line that connects them all: vulnerability. Over the lo-fi shimmer and thump of the beat, he sings in a falsetto so intimate and needy that you can practically feel his breath on the back of your neck: “Yeah, you know I want it so bad.” It’s the kind of sentiment you’ve heard countless times in songs like this, but they’ve never sounded this thirsty for it; coupled with the woozy production, it feels like Cal Maro is so overwhelmed with lust that he’s about to faint. After all, the blood in his head traveled elsewhere in a hurry.
The lyrics of “Bad” can get silly, but that’s the case with a lot of these sex jams, and they end up working in context. There are a bunch of free-associative metaphors and come-ons (“taking on a vine/I know you can’t wait to climb on me”), along with some clunky references (“deeper than Paris”–it’s unclear if he means the city or Hilton) and some inexplicable dirty talk (I don’t even want to know what “cotton candy” means in this context). Still, it ends up working in the song’s favor; we get the idea that Cal Maro is so worked up that he’s just running his mouth, letting out vaguely sexual word salad in hopes that something works.
If it sounds like I’m making fun of this song, I’m not. I like “Bad” a lot, because it’s not afraid to show the neediness and vulnerability behind this sort of bravado. There are so many braggarts and Casanova wannabes out there that it’s refreshing to hear the reality of sex reflected in a song. Sex is not always a gauzy softcore porno with candles and rose petals; a lot of the time, sex is two people, desperate for connection and intimacy, trying very hard to please each other. “Bad” understands that, and that’s why it works.
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