Exactly three years ago rapper Nas controversially proclaimed that ‘Hip-Hop Is Dead’. Fast forward to the present and the same bold declaration can arguably be applied to R&B too. Indeed, with today’s industry churning out an increasingly homogenised sound, one which largely seems to favour the Pop genre, the future (or lack thereof) of R&B as we’ve known it does not look promising. The question remains, though: is this a bad or good thing?
Birthed in the 1940’s, R&B music saw its journey to mainstream prominence really pick up in the 1960’s with the Motown movement. Furthermore, the 70’s ushered in a host of wildly successful R&B acts such as Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and Aretha Franklin. Though the likes of Prince, Sade and Chaka Khan continued the trend in the 1980’s, it was the 90’s which saw the true boom and arguable peak of R&B. If in doubt, the names and successes of Lauryn Hill, TLC, Mary J. Blige, Boyz II Men, R Kelly, and Toni Braxton, to name but a few, speak volumes.
Yet despite the dizzy heights it once enjoyed, R&B today no longer occupies its once-pole position in the musical sphere. For evidence of this, one need not look further than the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Charts, where songs topping the chart often struggle to make any impact on the all-inclusive Billboard Hot 100. Though fans and stans oft cite the successes of their favourite act on the R&B/Hip-Hop tally, any such success is arguably limited to the Urban arena – one of the smallest when compared to other genres.
If the format is truly in decline, then what happened R&B?
On a surface level, the fusing together of R&B with other genres such as Pop and more recently Dance/Electronica can be heralded as a (positive) testament to the ‘coming together’ of the world’s many cultures and societies. Yet, R&B and Urban music more generally, seem to have drawn the shorter end of the stick in this cultural exchange. For, while both the Pop and Dance genres have benefitted greatly from flirting with R&B, they have also managed to remain successful genres in their own right. R&B, unfortunately, has not. Today it’s almost laughable for both new and established acts to release ‘pure R&B’ and anticipate any chart success (see: Mariah’s ‘Memoirs’ and any new act NOT jumping on this Euro-Pop bandwagon).
Yes, there are exceptions such as Maxwell and Sade, both of whom have enjoyed critical and commercial success this year, releasing music with their trademark (R&B) sound. However, it’s wholly believable that the hype surrounding their comebacks largely factored in to them defying the odds.
More so than any other factor, the industry’s gradual move to a more Pop-dominated mode-of-operation seems to have dealt R&B what could prove to be a fatal blow. Traditionally even the most R&B of R&B songs were sprinkled with Pop sensibilities i.e. catchy hooks and hummable melodies. However, what used to be a quality-rich genre seems to have been replaced with what long caused Pop music to not be taken seriously – the idea of image over substance. No longer are vocals or the establishing of artists who will inspire future generations the priority of labels. Instead, we now have models posing as singers topping the charts (“eh eh eh”). Even undeniable talents such as Beyonce, whose first album was an all-R&B affair, have moved further away from the genre in favour of an almost-entirely Pop sound. These occurrences have consequently birthed a culture of fast-food music made for fickle audiences, who see artists as only as good as their last hit.
The idea of R&B being dead may be premature and somewhat pessimistic. However the likelihood of its eventual demise is becoming increasingly evident with each new generation. As an advocate for innovation and the blurring of musical boundaries, it would be endearing to see R&B in its pure form return to prominence and co-exist alongside its diluted incarnation.