The R&B Renaissance

I.

“Rhythm and blues music” has always been a rather slippery expression. Essentially replacing “race records” as the terminology used by the industry as a catchall idiom for music made by, and for, black America, some would say it has been more of an ideal than a fully functioning genre. At different times soul, funk, blues, and rock’n’roll have all been a part of the R&B sound. Over the years it has swayed from live instrumentation to synthetic drum beats and from afro-sporting guitar maestros to slick, all singing, all dancing entertainers –what other genre could claim both George Clinton and Bobby Brown? But regardless of the sound fashionable at the time, rhythm and blues music always had precisely that: rhythm and blues.

In the late ’90s and early ’00s, however, a cross-pollination took place between R&B and hip-hop that all but swallowed up both genres. Rap had spent the previous two decades gathering such a commercial head of steam that by the turn of the millennium its artists were the new pop stars. Hip-hop became hook-heavy, with the biggest sellers often employing the services of R&B singers to provide the radio-friendly choruses on their tracks. Once mighty rap stables like Death Row became more or less defunct, the void they left behind was filled by softer versions of the formula. Labels like Murder Inc. and So So Def pinched the same template by signing up a whole host of talent and matching them up on various records, while employing more pop-oriented producers and their own R&B singers, ensuring their work was consumer friendly. This epiphany came just before the bottom dropped out on record sales, and the albums sold by the millions

While rappers took a couple of giant steps towards the softer R&B sound, the singers themselves reciprocated. Looking at the hip-hop star persona as the key to commercial glory, artists like R. Kelly and Usher toned down their sensitive sides, and cranked their thug way up. With street cred a necessity for success, R&B as we knew it was run off the tracks. But having toiled in the doldrums for all this time, the genre has been experience its first boom in 15 years. A clutch of new artists are bringing the rhythm, the blues, and, perhaps most importantly, the soul back to R&B. And they’re doing it without rehashing sounds of bygones eras.

II.

While the term “R&B” had been knocking around since the 1940s, it wasn’t until the ’80s that something resembling a cohesive genre began to form. R&B became less of an ideal and more a fully functioning musical style. Over the previous decade the classic Motown sound had been largely phased out. By the end of the ’70s, disco had all but chewed up most of the remaining soul men. When that fad crumbled there was a blank canvas on which talented emerging stars could form a brand new sound. Producers began switching from recording entirely with live bands to more artificial production methods and contemporary R&B became distinguished by a drum machine-backed rhythms. Artists like Michael Jackson, Prince and Luther Vandross harnessed the new style and took it to the highest peaks of pop music, breaking through the racial barriers that caused the need for an expression to define what was essentially black America’s pop music. In Jackson’s case, he famously infiltrated the almost entirely white-only MTV rotation with his cinematic videos. Subsequently, Thriller would become the best selling record of all time.

While Michael would set an archetype that R&B stars have attempted to emulate ever since, his sister Janet was almost equally influential, setting a new standard for gritty, empowered female vocalists. Before the ’80s, many of the most successful female R&B singers had been larger-than-life divas with huge voices. Janet’s voice was never particularly strong, especially when stacked against old fashioned, pure vocalists like Etta James and Aretha Franklin. But those who examine her technical failings are missing the point. Her ’80s records, thanks in large part to the production of Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam — who themselves had come up in the Prince-backed group the Time — formed the DNA for R&B music until its fall. Fifteen years later, tracks like TLC’s “No Scrubs” and Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Woman” still revelled in these trends, while Whitney Houston, who had achieved success almost simultaneously with Janet by singing old fashioned romantic ballads, even came to the party with “It’s Not Right (But It’s OK)” in 1997.

When R&B was given a huge shove into the pop spotlight in the ’80s, the idea of merging the new genre with hip-hop did not go unexplored. “My first real memory [of hip-hop and R&B combining] was when Oran ‘Juice’ Jones came out with ‘The Rain’,” says Cey Adams, who served as Def Jam Records’ Art Director between 1987 and 1999. Released in 1986, “The Rain” reached number one on the Billboard R&B chart for two weeks, making it the first #1 R&B hit put out by Def Jam, which was then still in its infancy. “That was, to me, the first time R&B merged with hip-hop. Even though it was deeply rooted in traditional R&B, it definitely had that gangsta edge. What made it popular with hip-hop cats it had that rough edge to it.”

Rap’s ’80s evolution towards a mainstream audience was something pop artists couldn’t ignore. Michael Jackson put rap verses on a number of tracks from his sprawling 1991 album Dangerous. The bulk of the record was produced by Teddy Riley, who would help create new jack swing, a dance floor friendly amalgam of hip-hop and R&B at the time. He would later state that before new jack swing, “Rappers and singers didn’t want anything to do with one another,” because “singers were soft, rappers were street.” Riley’s new style blended “sweet melody and big beats”.

But while new jack swing borrowed from hip-hop and R&B equally, it existed only briefly and in its own bubble. Both genres were allowed to continue their natural evolution and disconnected from the new jack swing sound. The R&B that had emerged the previous decade still thrived and developed. The ’90s was a golden time for the genre with great new acts and producer emerging on a seemingly weekly basis. You had Boyz II Men’s traditional sound and extremely well written ballads, while groups like Jodeci provided a more grown up, sexually charged alternative. En Vogue formed over a mutual love of fifties girl groups, but their intelligent lyrics and funky jams made them icons of modern R&B. “I loved the stuff that En Vogue did because they reminded me of those early girl groups,” says Adams. “The sound might have been a little more contemporary but they had that same style.”

As the nineties progressed, the lines between hip-hop and R&B began to blur. Mary J. Blige spotted early the potential of tiptoeing between both styles and proclaimed to be the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul”. The best example of this hybrid sound was Method Man’s heartfelt rap ballad “I’ll Be There for You / You’re All I Need to Get By”, which features Blige’s soulful vocals throughout.

Throughout the early ’00s the merging of R&B and hip-hop only intensified. While Ja Rule sported a white cardigan in a video that paid homage to the movie Grease for the soft ballad with Ashanti, “Mesmerised”, R. Kelly — the self-proclaimed “pied piper of R&B” — traded in his soul man image, rebranding himself a “R&B thug”, cutting records with hip-hop heavyweight Jay-Z. Usher, who first arrived on the scene as a teenager chasing girls on “Can You Get Wit It”, hooked up with crunk overlord Lil Jon on his what would prove his signature hit, “Yeah”.

“For the most part, hip-hop completely killed R&B,” Adams exclaims. “I think once hip-hop really got hot, that was the death of traditional R&B. All that stuff with the stylistics and the dramatics, a lot of R&B got pushed to the side. It all went towards a cooler sort of image where the guy was the tough guy, having two or three girlfriends. Honestly, it never really went away.”

Adams also believes that current R&B singers seemed less passionate about their craft. “I think a lot of today’s R&B singers don’t have the passion that Marvin Gaye had or Al Green has. I’m not saying all of them. I love R. Kelly, because R. Kelly always has that passion. A guy who has that passion today who reminds me of the old guys is Anthony Hamilton, and certainly John Legend. When those guys sing you feel like you’ve been transformed back to the old days when songs had emotion.”

Julie Dexter is an Atlanta, Georgia-based singer/songwriter and founder of Ketch A Vibe Records. She embraces the old fashioned ideals of R&B, soul, and jazz music, but admits there is often pressure on singers to harden their image for more commercial viability. “The pressure comes from different places, not necessarily from yourself but from people in your camp advising you,” explains Dexter. “The pressure comes in the form of ‘dress this way, look this way, sing about this’. It’s almost like ticking off each formula. If the formula is correct you’ll make it. If not, they won’t back you.”

While R&B and hip-hop spent a decade joint at the hip, guys like Hamilton and Legend — along with Erykah Badu, Alicia Keys and Bilal, among others — were dubbed “neo-soul” artists to differentiate them from the seemingly never-ending production line of young, slickly-produced R&B pop singers. These artists kept the torch burning for the more traditional genres. But more recent, new artists have managed to channel the spirit of bygone eras while flipping the script completely.

So what’s caused this recent spike in R&B inventiveness?

III.

So what’s caused this recent spike in R&B inventiveness? A general softening of commercial hip-hop music has certainly played a part. On his album 808s & Heartbreak, fashionable rap mogul Kanye West sang instead of rhyming to help convey the emotional anguish he was experiencing in his personal life. Utilising Auto-Tune technology to hide his voice’s limitations, Kanye built a cold, chilly, detached sound around his digitalised voice to maximise its impact.

808s & Heartbreak has proved central to recent interest in updating the R&B genre, but Kanye was not alone. Since 2007, The-Dream has gone about shedding R&B of its hip-hop elements. Before turning his attention to a solo career, The-Dream, aka Terius Nash, along with writer and production partner Christopher Stewart, was at the frontlines of the R&B/hip-hop/pop highbred. The duo became, as a result, much sought after for their ability to adapt the sound and create extravagant smash hits for the radio. Their first collaboration was Britney Spears’ duet with Madonna “Me Against the Music”, a balls-out, sped-up pop song built around a furiously strummed acoustic guitar. An original in Spears’ diminishing back catalogue, it was somewhat forgotten amongst the furious adoration her next single “Toxic” received. But with Rhianna’s “Umbrella”, the pair created a critical and cultural smash. Coupled with Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”, Stewart and Nash together have shown a propensity for creating outrageous tracks with R&B rhythms and huge pop hooks — “ella-ella-ella-eh-eh-eh” in the case of the former, “oh-oh oh-oh-oh-oh-oh” for the latter.

But while the duo has become the go-to-guys for hit-making, Nash has made a significant run for unaccompanied success as The-Dream. His debut single “Shawty is a 10” actually opened with a verse from rapper Fabolous, but this proved to be something of a red herring as he has rarely incorporated hip-hop into his music. For the most part as The-Dream, Nash embraces a far softer sound than the bombastic beats he’s paid to create as a producer. Instead, he utilises gentle key taps and finger snaps to build his precise arrangements. A naturally gentle speaker as well as vocalist, The-Dream hasn’t been afraid to show his sensitive side. His three albums to date are titled Love Hate, Love vs. Money, and Love King, and the subject matter on each have very much followed suit. In “Nikki” and “Nikki Part 2”, he’s recorded two heartfelt odes to his ex-wife Nivea. Despite his somewhat chaotic love life (that has included a second failed marriage to singer Christina Milian), for the most part, The-Dream has removed much of the misogyny that urban music has been criticised for underlining.

While The-Dream injected some soul back into R&B, his sound has not simply a rehash of the soulful sounds of bygone eras. This is in part to his soft voice, which doesn’t carry the same warmth or glow as, say, an Al Green. But Nash knows how to utilise his style. His minimalist arrangements emphasise the vast sonic landscapes that he has purposefully left barren. It’s no coincidence then that one of his heroes appears to be Prince. “Fast Car”, from his first album, was reminiscent of the Purple One’s ’80s output in sound and subject matter. If anything, he revisited the same themes and leaned even more on Prince on “Yamaha”.

The-Dream

Similarly, Frank Ocean has surrounded his voice with a frosty emptiness to heighten the emotional impact of his lyrics. A member of hip-hop collective Odd Future, who themselves have achieved significant notoriety by draining their distinctive rap style of any pop features, Ocean has been doing the same with his style of R&B. His album Nostalgia/Ultra is a delicate collection. Early on the record, he addresses his dismay at the state of the genre and what he perceives as an overuse of AutoTune, comparing the soullessness of the technique to the emotional numbness that is sometimes associated with using Viagra: “Even when I’m fuckin’ Viagra poppin’ / Every single record AutoTunin’ / Zero emotion, muted emotion, pitch corrected, computed emotion.”

On the album’s highpoint “We All Try”, Ocean unveils his thoughts on, among other things, love, war, the moon landing, and abortion. “I believe a woman’s temple / Gives her the right to choose, but baby don’t abort,” he gently sings over a simply constructed track that helps ensure his voice takes centre stage. Given his already acknowledged dismay with the “zero emotion” exhibited by some of his peers, trying to pack in so much subject matter he’s passionate about could be read as a one-track protest to the state of contemporary R&B.

Perhaps even more enigmatic than Ocean, the spell-check unfriendly the Weeknd mysteriously dropped the free album House of Balloons earlier this year, then another offering Thursday more recently. Without a face or name to put to the music, journalists and bloggers began to suspect Young Money rap-crooner Drake was involved. These rumours turned out to be false, but the Weeknd — or Abel Tesfaye as he is known to his mother — does display a similar sound to his fellow Canadian, who thus far has achieved success with a more emotive hip-hop/R&B hybrid.

Like Ocean, the Weeknd focuses more on a cold, isolated style, as though Tesfaye laid down his vocals in an empty warehouse. This sound is becoming increasingly popular outside of mainstream hip-hop and R&B rotation. It may be a polar opposite effect than the warm, embracing horns of classic Motown, but it’s no less effective in injecting composition with real sentiment. House of Balloons expertly samples two tracks by indie heroes Beach House, who themselves have also owed a certain debt to classic ’60s soul. Like Beach House, the Weeknd’s music is dreamy, and the marriage between the artists proves to be R&B perfection. Whatever his guise, Tesfate is a pure and exciting talent.

Frank Ocean

IV.

In the 21st century, artists like The-Dream, Frank Ocean and The Weeknd sound fresh and exciting, even if they are just picking up where their musical forefathers left off 20 years ago. When producers first decided to experiment with digital production methods, it wasn’t their intention to extract the feeling from R&B music. Consider Barry White, one of R&B’s most romantic figures, who incorporated disco — perhaps the poster genre of overly-produced dance music — into his sound and sealed his legacy.

The future success of these guys is far from certain and might depend on a paradigm shift in the makeup of the modern pop star. Hip-hop is still a commercial heavyweight in the world of modern pop music. Without R&B it would be lose the softness required to appeal to the masses. Let’s hope for a compromise. We all need a little soul.

Life needs rhythm and blues.

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