R&B Isn’t Dead, But It’s Comatose

Marvin Gaye in 1973
I don’t know what’s going on, either, Marvin. We miss your voice. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Watching Good Morning America last week, I saw will.i.am and Kelly Clarkson announce the American Music Award nominees for 2013. I should not have been surprised when head shots of Miguel, Robin Thicke, and Justin Timberlake popped up on the screen. But I was, and I tried to shrug the unnameable disappointment off.

R&B/soul is my favorite genre of music. I pride myself in knowing the most obscure of forgotten groups from the 90s (Blaque, anyone?) There are whole swaths of hip-hop albums I’m ignorant of (for several reasons) mainly because I was knee-deep in Sade, Troop, Tony Terry, Peabo Bryson, Jade, En Vogue, and other talented R&B artists. Their music flooded my ears and provided the soundtrack for my formative years.

I’ll just be frank. The racial landscape of R&B looked drastically different then. Occasionally, a white artist broke through like Robin Thicke and Remy Shand, building on a tradition of blue-eyed soul by esteemed artists, (i.e Michael McDonald). I have tremendous respect for all artists who are dedicated to the sound and aesthetic of soul music.

But permit me a moment to mourn the fact that a genre traditionally dominated by black musicians is now legitimately predominately white. This is not a charge of appropriation, despite the controversial allegations of Thicke borrowing liberally from Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” for the summer hit “Blurred Lines.” This is a fan complaining.

Timberlake performing at St. Paul, Minnesota, ...
Pop is the new face of R&B (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Black R&B is riding on the same runaway train that hip-hop is on. A pattern occurs every two years: an R&B artist gains popularity, rappers take notice, and then said singer features on every new rap single for the next 12 months. It happened with Trey Songz, who featured on 10 rap singles between 2009-2011, but only 2 in 2012-2013. Miguel currently is rap’s golden feature crooner.

Rap bleeds into R&B via phrasing and imagery. Take, for instance, “I Invented Sex,” a wildly popular song where Trey rap-sings, “He ain’t in your world, you can take him off your atlas/ Girl, you on fire can I be the one you match with.” Haha. Clever. But he crams all those words into too-short bars and forces a staccato effect to his singing. Attempts like these to include forced lyricism in songs that have been traditionally well-paced blur the lines (pun intended) between rap and its sultrier cousin. RL from the group Next also noticed this phenomenon.

So where are all the black R&B artists? They’re still out there, but nowhere near as prominent as before. To be sure, the cross-genre popularity of Thicke and Timberlake contributes to their place in the AMA nomination list. Billboard combines the rankings for R&B and Hip-Hop, but a quick scroll shows that there are far more popular hip-hop albums than that of R&B.

As always, the solution is support. I bought Raheem DeVaughn’s September 3 release of A Place Called Loveland, and it’s growing on me. As yesterday’s R&B becomes more of an underground genre, fans will just have to keep their ears closer to the ground for music that brings back that old feeling. Til then, we can only hope R&B wakes up from this coma.

173 thoughts on “R&B Isn’t Dead, But It’s Comatose

  1. Hello there. Very interesting point of vue. Can not disagree with that.
    I was surprised that somebody (you) actually said that. Which is great. However it is not that surprising. R’N’B has lost of it’s true energy and soul since producers started working on the instrumental versions just like a beat maker in rap. By that, I mean that they literally wanted to give R’N’B a very street and urban feel to it. Even more since the 2000’s.
    You are talking about artists such as Sade, Blaque, En Vogue, etc. Most of these people where at the top of their career before 2000. Everything changed ever since. Was it because of the new millennium? To be honest, I believe so and feel that pupeteers in the music industry wanted to make music more… Futuristic and less organic. Even more since 2005. The amount of artists singing over trance and techno sounding tracks is ridiculous. Between Pitbull who left his Dirty South rap for a more mainstream and clubby sound, David Guetta collaborating with Akon, Kelly Rowland and others, I mean, they want to make money easily and fast, which is fair, but at least if they where doing it in a cleverer way and less monetised, maybe I’d listen more to them. But… Not yet. So I agree with you and mostly listen to a lot of music that was created before 2000 (except for electronic music which is getting better each year).

    1. Funny you bring up Pitbull. I was never a huge fan, but I was remarking to my husband the other day about how his career is TOTALLY pop now, with Hispanic tinges. I can’t knock his hustle, but the sound of urban music in general is now urb-pop, with more money coming from a broader audience.

  2. any body remember David Porters’ Hang on sloopy? when the pin dropped from her dress……it was on!!!!!! and I can’t see you when I want to?

  3. Wow I like the urb-pop title, I usually say hip pop. You know, instead of hip hop. It’s saddening. I miss R&B. Times have changed. so has our music. Our music is our soul.But even ppl who love R&B, dont love it enough to purchase Cd’s, they just illegally download or get them from the “cd man”. So no support…and here we are. Buy what you love people! Save R&B! It tells our story.

  4. The following is simply my opinion:

    I’m willing to bet that there has never been an African American who rose to stardom without a large white audience. You can’t build a successful music career on the black audience alone because only about 15 percent of America is black. If you are a musician in America, then it would not be smart to create music or any product with only one race or group in mind.

    The real issue here is the artists’ bravery, values, and individualism. Jill Scott is adored by people of many races because she is amazing and her music is real. In order to be recognized, artists like her have to make better music than a pop or hip hop artist because they keep it real despite what the industry has decided is “in.” Someone that brave will either defeat all odds or go unseen due to very little backing or exposure. What would you do? Keep making real music that no one hears while your children go hungry? Or give the people in power what they want so that everyone is happy? I’m not saying that everyone would or should do the latter, but most people do and it is what it is.

    I found this post because I was sad to see Delvin Choice leave the voice. His voice gave me chills on some of his performances and now I bet I won’t see him use that instrument to its full potential because he won’t be recognized. So as it stands, we must dig deep to find music that moves us. We can’t rely on the radio or television. There isn’t even a record store in my mall! The internet is a good tool. Ofcourse, without forgetting to purchase the music that is found!

    1. Ooh, you said a lot here. Most of which, I agree with. I just have to stop being lazy and LOOK for music I like, rather than it coming to me via the airwaves or music stores.

      You have any recommendations? 🙂

  5. I fee it’s just harder for the young kids to digest r&b and soulful meaning lyrics, when all they see or hear is negative, sexually, aggressive, violent, misogynistic ,lyricism with the visuals to match.

  6. I don’t believe that it’s comatose but rather that it’s not as popular as it used to be. This implies that there’s no money in it like before. It would appear that the new generation of young people prefer hip hop and rap music. This is a shame. Music as an art form evolves over the years but I honestly believe that it is degressing due primarily because of reality TV, social media and different attitudes of the younger generation. We loved R&B/soul back in the 60’s and 70’s because the music told us stories about love and the heartaches that accompany it plus great music. We don’t seem to get that anymore. Occasionally an artist pops up to remind us of a bygone era like Remy Shand etc. Alas!!

    1. I don’t know if I can contest its popularity…it’s certainly never disappeared outright. I know plenty of R&B fans, but I can’t vouch for their numbers.

      And I really do miss the storytelling, the occasional social responsibility, and I DEFINITELY miss the love. Love songs!

      1. Your not kidding! I just watched Standing in the Shadows of Motown and it honestly brought a tear to my eye. I miss this type of music because of the love songs and the feelings that it arouse in you.
        Gone to a certain extent but never forgotten. Alas ” What Becomes of the Broken Hearted. ” Nice to hear from you. Have a great day!!!

  7. R&B is dead! Gone are days of James Brown, Sly & The Family Stone, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Honey Cone, Ohio Players, Zapp, Parliament and Funkadelic, The Moments/Ray Goodman & Brown, Average White Band, Cameo, LTD, Atlantic Starr, The Emotions, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Switch, Barkays, Dynasty, Shalamar, Teena Marie, Patrice Rushen, Donny Hathaway, Minnie Riperton, Tavares, Rose Royce, SOS Band, Starpoint, Sylvers, Jackson 5, Pointer Sisters, O’Jays, Heatwave, Peter Brown, Midnight Star, Chic, Angela Bofill, High Energy, Sister Sledge, Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Luther Vandross, LaBelle, Lakeside, Aurra, Stephanie Mills, Evelyn Champagne King, Yarbrough & Peoples, Aretha Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, Rufus Thomas, Kool & The Gang, Slave, KC & The Sunshine Band (yes this was R&B music) Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, The Three Degrees, Bobby Womack, The Whispers, The Manhattans, Billy Paul, Tower of Power, Anita Baker, The Deele, Brick The Dazz Band, Betty Wright, Peobo Bryson, Phyllis Hyman,…..Need I say more?

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