In the age of collaborations, it seems there’s an unspoken rule that for an R&B artist to have a major hit, they’ve got to spice it up with hip-hop or water it down with pop.
But Detroit’s Kem spent most of his career skirting trends in favor of classic-sounding R&B, soul and smooth jazz. The commitment hasn’t hurt him. Kem has two Top 10 singles on Billboard’s Adult R&B chart – “It’s You” and “Nobody” – and he is pleased that after being overtaken by pop, traditional R&B still has staying power.
“I’m happy there’s a light shining for R&B music,” says Kem, who plays Ovens Auditorium Friday with R&B singer Joe. “Those of us that make R&B can’t take our listenership for granted. We have to set out to make incredible records and put on incredible live shows to keep the legacy of traditional R&B music strong.”
The R&B he speaks of shouldn’t be confused with the retro soul revival, which has enjoyed a steady climb during the past decade; rather, it’s true old-school, grown-and-sexy R&B, the type that ruled the airwaves in the ’70s and ’80s.
“We grew up listening to the Isley Brothers, Patti LaBelle, the O’Jays and the Whispers,” Kem says. “We’re carrying the torch for them.”
Kem isn’t beyond taking risks, though – if a song calls for it. Ronald Isley appears on his new album, “Promise to Love.” So does Snoop Dogg, whose appearance marks Kem’s first hip-hop collaboration. (Kem recruited him for the track “Downtown” after seeing Snoop and 2 Chainz break into his song “Can’t Stop Loving You” on YouTube.)
“It’s very surprising for a lot of folks,” Kem says of the guest spot. “It’s not something I do every day. It’s not something I feel I need to do to maintain my thing. I serve the song. When I write a song that requires a rapper, I’ve done (the rapping) myself. But after I saw the video with Snoop in it, I thought, ‘Why not get a real rapper?’ ”
Two other themes that have always colored Kem’s work are spirituality and romance. Yet he comes off as more captain of love than preacher.
“My faith is my foundation,” says Kem, who was once a homeless drug addict. “I’ve been through a lot of things, and I owe victory over those things to my faith. ... Everybody is going through something. We have an opportunity to help someone else heal and overcome. I look at it not as a career, but as a ministry.”
In that regard, he injects positivity into his music and writes about love – whether he’s in it or not.
“Even when we’re not in love or in a relationship, we all know what love is and what we want it to be,” he says. “We all know how it felt the first time we fell in love. We all know the language of love. ... If I’m writing and I’m not in love, my songs are a wish list of what I’d like it to be, or it’s memories of good love and times had.”
“The other aspect is when I’m writing a song, I show up and let the miracle happen, so to speak. I never know what’s going to come out. I don’t sit down with something specific in mind. It’s a gift.”