Things are so much more complicated than they were back in the days when Aretha, in her never-ending quest for respect, demanded her propers, and when Gwen Guthrie told would-be suitors without a J-O-B that there wouldn't be anything going on but the rent.

As Madonna predicted, it's becoming more and more of a material world. And material girls who just wanna have fun know that, more than ever, fun costs.

Big time.

Which means that somebody has to pay. And if you've been listening to the recent spate of R&B songs hitting the Top 40 lists, you know that these material girls don't believe that somebody should be them. Witness Destiny's Child, a quartet of high-school-age warblers who demand in the finger-wagging, head-rolling, hands-on- pubescent-hips ditty "Bills, Bills, Bills":

Can you pay my bills

Can you pay my telephone bills

Can you pay my automo-bills

If you did maybe we can chill

But I don't think you do

So you and I are through . . . "

After all, keeping the pager, cell phone, SUV and Tommy Hilfiger duds in good order requires no small infusion of greenbacks--or, at the very least, a gold card with a five-figure limit.

There was a time when singers of these female anthems to cold, hard cash cushioned their messages with coy metaphors. Today's troubadours are nothing if not blunt. Raps Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, in her sophomore CD, "Da Real World": "I'ma dig in your pockets,/ dig in your wallets,/ money I'm founding,/ yeah you got my heart poundin'/ . . . I be loving you like instantly."

The words hit harder because these are harder times; a certain cynicism pervades much of today's music. Under that cynicism wafts the hint of despair. Hip-hop writer Joan Morgan observes that young inner-city men who don't expect to see 25 may find it hard to grasp the notion of commitment. And young girls who missed out on demonstrations of how grown-up love works turn into young women who are profoundly ambivalent about their ability to take care of themselves.

"It's very easy to look at the songs and blame things on the music," says Grammy-winning songwriter Gordon Chambers, who recently penned a song for Beyonce of Destiny's Child. "But the writers are trying to give a commentary on the state of young black heterosexual relationships. When you look at relationships today, there's a lot of madness. There aren't many young unions that are in it for the old school, 'Let's stay together no matter what the inclement weather.' "

Or, as Kandi Burruss, the 23-year-old lyricist behind "No Scrubs" and "Bills, Bills, Bills," puts it, "I don't write too much about love and 'Oh, you make me see the sunshine.' That's not reality for me. The world is changing. And I don't see too many good relationships."

Historically, songs like "Bills, Bills, Bills," where male lovers are ordered to pull their own financial weight--and pull the woman's weight, too--strike a nerve with their audience. And ironically enough, the women who sing songs requesting that men fork over the dinero are the ones collecting the cash.

Besides the chart-topping "Bills, Bills, Bills," there's TLC's "No Scrubs," in which the Atlanta trio warns malingering beaus still living with their mamas to step off. And right behind them is singer-songwriter-hitmaker Elliott, who chases after "hot boyz" driving "Lexus Jeep, and Benz Jeeps and the Lincoln Jeep, nothing cheaper, with the Platinum Visa."

They describe a world where love suffers from the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately syndrome, where affection is metered out in stingy doses. And more than anything, they reflect a world where the perennial male-female tug of war is filtered through the dirty prism of '90s-style materialism and rampant spending.

"These people want money, honey," says cultural critic bell hooks, the author of the forthcoming "All About Love: New Visions." "When I interviewed Lil' Kim, I asked her, 'Why are your lyrics never about love?' She said, 'Love, what's that?'

"It says so much about this culture that someone from a poor background has a better chance of becoming a millionaire by the time they're 30 than ever knowing love. How can they sing about love? They don't have a clue."

Or maybe they're just looking for love in all the wrong places.

"This is an extremely materialistic generation," says Morgan, author of "When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost . . . My Life as a Hip-Hop Feminist." "Their sense of what's fly and what's love is fueled by music videos. It's not about being lazy or gold diggers. They really measure the amount of affection a man has for them by what he gives to them. If he gives me the keys to his car, which is a Lexus, he must really love me a lot. If he gives me the key to his hoopty [beat-up car], not that much. It's sad but honest."

Not surprisingly, some men take umbrage with such honesty. Women pump their fists in the air; men tighten their jaws. Men bemoan what they see as a proliferation of greedy women, forgetting the fact that everyday, real-life women get up and go to work, taking care of themselves and their loved ones with no expectation of a cash cow showing up to save the day. Rap has long been a male-dominated domain populated with misogynistic stereotypes of bitches, 'hos and chickenheads (the hip-hop version of a gold digger). Kool Moe Dee conjured up images of a money-hungry Robin Givens and a beleaguered Mike Tyson in the mid-'80s hit "They Want Money." In the late 1980s, Ice Cube summed up the male exasperation in N.W.A.'s "I Ain't tha 1": "Give you money, why bother?/ 'Cause you know, I'm lookin' nut'in like ya fatha."

A decade later, they're no less resentful. New York-based rap trio Sporty Thievz released "No Pigeons" as a sharp-tongued retort to TLC's "No Scrubs." And in his new CD, "Double Up," Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs protege Mase complains about women who just love him for his loot. But he's part of the problem. In "Get Ready," he tells a groupie: "Let's be real/ I know you got bills/ So how about one night and I'll just give you a mil."

Call it crass, but this male-female musical dialogue has always existed, says Nelson George, hip-hop journalist and author of the "Hip Hop America" (Viking). Soul Singers Carla Thomas and Otis Redding went toe-to-toe in "Tramp." And blues singer Bessie Smith sang "Money Blues," a cautionary tale about Samuel Brown, a man from way down in Tennessee, whose beer money couldn't keep pace with his wife's champagne tastes.

But these days, you can forget about little red Corvettes and Bessie Smith's sly references to men who serve up "nice young pig meat." Notwithstanding the R. Kellys and the Maxwells who continue the tradition of tender love ballads, rappers and hip-hop-influenced singers serve up reality raw and unvarnished.

"The romantic notions of love [in music] that a lot of us grew up on are just that: romantic notions of love," Nelson says. "The hostility was always there; today they're just more explicit about it. The fact that women are being more challenging and combative is fine. It might not be good for guys, but it's fine for the women."

Indeed, you can debate endlessly whether or not these anthems will create a rash of money-grubbing chickenheads. Or a new generation of women who speak their minds and ask for what they want. Art reflects life, but it's hard to measure how much one influences the other. Gangsta rappers didn't create the violence they rapped about, even though, in the case of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, they sometimes fell victim to it. More often than not, they served as griots commenting on the often-ugly realities of urban working-class life.

"I love 'Bills,' " Morgan says. "Girlfriend is saying, 'You're being trifling and driving my car.' A lot of women battle with that. We've gotten so much flak for being the quote-unquote breadwinners, and I don't think that's ever a role we wanted. These are anthem songs, songs that women can rally around."

And then there are those who don't get what the fuss is all about.

Says songwriter Burruss, a former member of the R&B group Xscape: "I don't mind helping a man if times get hard, I just don't want times to be hard all the time, know what I'm sayin'? Too many people are taking these songs personally. I like writing songs that make people say, 'What did she say? I can't believe she said that.' "

Mission accomplished.