I talk often about my discontent with the state of R&B and missing what it used to be, so after seeing an Instagram post by Boyz II Men’s Shawn Stockman, I felt it would now be a good time to write about the state of R&B.
Remember at one time when rap was allegedly pronounced dead or a little unconscious and auto-tuned pop songs had taken over the charts? Has this same thing happened to R&B? The genre has certainly seen icons like Patti LaBelle, Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross, Marvin Gaye, and many more come through, but what is the current state of R&B now? Perhaps discordant sounds and hyper-sexual themes have moved us from baby making music to a pop or hip hop blended kind of R&B. The genre has gone from “I’ll Make Love To You” to “pull your panties to the side”. It seems to be more about making a quick hot single than making a lasting and indelible mark on music. If it’s about money only and making “popcorn music” then one’s artistry is already at jeopardy. R&B is having an identity crisis.
Many artists have spoken about the genre and why it seems to be dying compared to the hip hop and popular genres. Some believe that R&B has lost its way compared to the dominance it held in ’90s. Another argument is songs lack real vocals, real emotion, live instrumentation, and love. R&B should not be “pull your panties to the side and these hoes ain’t loyal” but it is right now. R&B was a genre that gave you great vibes and evoked emotion in ways that no other genre could. R&B shaped the music industry for decades, but now it seems to have abandoned the amazing foundation it was built on (think ’60s,’70s, ’80s, ’90s). Interesting enough genres like country music have been able to stay true to their roots and continue to sell and win big.
Boyz II Men was recently awarded top R&B group of the century by the RIAA. Boyz II Men’s Shawn Stockman stated “If no one else is gonna say it, guess I will! It’s simple, the songs are too damn raunchy! You cannot play half the rotation from black artists on prime time radio because the songs are too suggestive! There’s no mystique, nothing romantic or gentlemen-like in the lyrics! Yeah, it might get you turnt in the club, and a small group of people may support it, but it’s not enough to get airplay in those formats that matter! And despite what advertisers to stations may think, I personally don’t believe that all young kids want to hear is that type of music all day. Change the songs producers, writers! You are the taste makers, not the labels! And then you will see a change!”
He went on to say, “What’s with R&B singers trying to be thugs? Cut that sh*t out and make some good music.”
Stockman also commented on why artists like Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke are dominating the R&B genre right now. “While bruh bruh’s in the club talking about sluttin’ chics out calling them b*tches, JT and Robin are in the lounges romancing them.”
What happened to real R&B? I’m talking that ’60s-’90s R&B feel. What happened to timeless classic R&B, when people were really singing, true vocals, a cappella tracks, sick vocal runs, live instrumentation, love songs, sensuality, the funk, the new jack swing, the neo soul, doo-wop, the tight harmonies, the sick vocal arrangement, funky bass lines, ballads, when vocals or even production alone would give you chills or raise the hair on your arm or even make you cry with emotion? It’s incredible how you can play songs from years ago that still make you “jam” because the timeless quality of the music. But where is this kind of R&B? R&B’s role in both American and black culture is too crucial to let it fade to black or conform.
The genre has gone completely pop or hip hop. The rappers are singing or the songs sound almost techno. Today’s production such as auto tune and things of that nature also affect the soulfulness of the music. R&B production, composition, and vocals at times are a little monotonous now. Sure there are some truly talented singers keeping the genre alive such as Fantasia, Marsha Ambrosius, John Legend, Jennifer Hudson, Pharrell, Chris Brown (at times), Frank Ocean, Miguel, The Weeknd, Bobby V, Neyo, Trey Songz, Melanie Fiona, TGT, Sevyn Streeter, and Usher just to name a few, but how could something so amazing fade to black or be on life support as a genre. Veteran R&B solo artists and groups are still touring and making music such as Beyonce, Toni Braxton, Babyface, Mariah Carey, R.Kelly, Mary J.Blige, Maxwell, Eric Benet, Kelly Price, The Isley Brothers, New Edition, Boyz II Men, Jagged Edge, 112, Silk, Dru Hill, K-Ci and JoJo and many more but even still, for some, the efforts seem to be scattered or come across as an afterthought in relation to mainstream success sometimes.
Even at a time when artists like Jodeci, Mary J. Blige, Timbaland and Aaliyah, Total and Biggie married hip hop & R&B you still felt the presence of R&B. Now many will argue that there is not a lot of separation.
As a journalist who just turned 26 I have been fortunate to make some amazing strides in 5 years as I have talked to/(and or interviewed) Boyz II Men, Jodeci, Dru Hill, Jagged Edge, Silk, 112, R. Kelly, Babyface, Teddy Riley, TLC, Donell Jones, Kelly Price, Eric Benet, The Isley Brothers, New Edition, Kenny Lattimore, Brandy, Monica, Faith Evans, Nicci Gilbert, Xscape, H Town, Shai, SWV, Ginuwine, Tyrese, Tank, Keith Sweat, Mint Condition, Monifah, RL, Angie Stone, Mariah Carey, Jermaine Dupri, Bryan Michael Cox, Chante Moore, KeKe Wyatt, Case, Charlie Wilson and many more amazing artists and producers that were influential from the 60-90s/early 2000s era. Many talked about how amazing R&B used to be and what they are doing to continue to keep the style and genre afloat. The key phrase is “used to be” showing their acknowledgement of the fact that there has been a change or shift. Some have remained positive and optimistic by saying that R&B is in a good place, and it’s evolving.
R&B Group Silk stated that R&B is missing love. John Legend stated that he continues to write love songs because they come naturally to him because he grew up on them. “I grew up on Marvin Gaye. There’s something about it. It’s so universal. Everybody feels these things,” said Legend. John Legend’s “All Of Me” is a top record and its just his vocals and the piano proving that R&B still has a place in people’s hearts and it’s still amazing enough to be supported.
At the 2013 Grammy’s Chris Brown stated to Ryan Seacrest, “A lot of the music nowadays, I love it, but it’s very gimmicky. Even some of my music is gimmicky,” he laughed. “But I just want R&B to go back to the real music—a lot of instruments, the real band, essence of being able to perform and be an entertainer.”
What happened to radio and record label support for R&B? What happened to artist development? Nowadays a R&B artist would be lucky to get their song heard on the radio. Some stations are strictly hip hop format and others claim to be hip hop and R&B but may only spin a few R&B songs a day or play songs that are rap with a R&B hook or R&B featuring a rapper. Consequently R&B is confined (when it comes to radio) to what have been labelled the old school stations or online playlist stations like Pandora, thus making it a generational gap for exposure to real R&B as the “old school” stations cater to/ attract an older demographic. R&B, without elements of other genres or overly sexual themes, seems to be a risk to record labels nowadays.
Some say that people don’t want to hear what they used to hear in R&B. Although music is supposed to evolve I believe that this is false. People absolutely still want to hear what they used to hear in R&B music. R&B used to have that magic that made you want to be in love. It had that magic to speak to your emotions or something you were going through. It was timeless so it would take you back to a time in your life each time you heard a song. Where are the story tellers? Where are the completely amazing bodies of work? Where is the music that makes you reflect on life and love?
If R&B and its support don’t go back to focusing on quality not quantity, in a couple of years the genre could be defunct.