Something wot I wrote in an e-mail re r&b/hip hop's image, plus some music-related thoughts:
I think what was (and I use the past tense semi-deliberately) interesting about the Hype Williams era of R&B/hip hop (aka the Timbaland era) was how certain "objectively bad" tendencies were turned into attractions and selling points. The apotheosis was the video clip for Missy's "She's A Bitch" - basically taking "soulless" and "gaudy" and turning them into a robo-apocalypse; "try hard" was no longer a diss because Missy and Hype in one stroke rendered trying hard the point of the game, and made it seem effortless (and consequently everything else seem half-hearted).
The problem is that the bar can only be pushed so far - I haven't yet seen a video which surpasses "She's A Bitch" in that regard, in fact if anything Williams has consciously retreated from the edge - and now R&B/hip hop lives in the shadow of itself ideologically, tenting itself within the brilliance of past excesses, but in the process sacrificing the brilliance and leaving only the excess... and it's a safe and familiar form of excess anyway, a much more identifiable take on living large with far less space robot suits per low-cut dresses.
I'm only talking about the image/aura side of the music here, but I guess it sort of applies to the music as well - Sterling made the point some time last year that a progression in an aesthetic is not the same thing as an aesthetic of progress. With the ideas tap drying up production-wise, and audiences and artists both seeming to tire of heavily narrative-based songs (recent R&B's secret weapon) R&B artists and producers are casting around for other ideas, eg. the worthiness of Alicia Keys, the trad-chanteuse pleasantness of Ashanti, the unchallenging-but-satisfying simulacrum-funk of all the recent Neptunes productions. It's probably healthy for the scene in a broad sense, but without the unity of purpose R&B feel less exciting than it has in years, pretty much returning it to where it was circa 95-96 - ie. heaps of great music as usual, but no meta-context to render it urgent and key.
Again it's a bit of a retreat from the edge: the music still sounds succulent and pearly-pert, but with little of the dangerous oddity of the past few years. Again, its "excess" is pasteurised and homogenised, relying on an intimate understanding in order to discern all the circular babysteps being taken. R&B needs to be more outrageous again, not via immorality but by a commitment to the shock of the new, which need not be connected to sheer technical proficiency - my favourite R&B track this year has in fact been decidedly retro, but the charismatic over-performance and quasi-bootleg approach of Latrelle's Bowie-sampling "Dirty Girl (Remix)" achieves the same level of disorientation and wonder that we love getting from Timbaland productions. It's without a doubt the most excessive R&B track of 2002 so far.
Hip hop's a tougher kettle of fish to deal with - one of the problems being that, Nelly excepted, very few major players seem to have even released anything this year. The only new thing I can discern is the neo-classicism of The Blueprint catching on with tracks like Cam'ron's "Oh Boy" and Styles P's "I Get High" - the results are much better than I would have expected, thankfully. It will be interesting to see meanwhile if the brutalist minimalism of Clipse's "Grindin'" starts a few fires as well.