Is R&B dead? Addressing the question that just won’t quite go away

It’s no secret that, at The Blues Project, we’re massively biased towards R&B and Soul music. And as stans of the genre, we are excited by the evolution that, R&B in particular, has made from the ‘90’s heyday to its current state in 2019. The big question is, what’s the state of play? Can R&B / Soul in 2019 be said to be thriving?

Evolution of the Sound

Since the 80s, it’s probably fair to say there’s been more focus on the ‘rhythm’, rather than the ‘blues’ aspect of the genre. But the genre has not held back. It has fervently continued to evolve. R&B today expresses itself through a range of contemporary-influenced sounds, whilst still pulling from the tradition and sound of Soul.  Diving into this range and evolution…

’90s R&B

Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo and TLC. All 3 of these legends have in common that they hit the peak of their careers in the ‘90s! For so many of us 90’s babies, these are some of the greats that raised us. The era is often referenced as the foundation of R&B. It certainly existed before, but the ’90s is definitely the height of R&B’s mainstream music and chart domination. Major throwback feels arise when songs like Bobby Brown’s Every Little Step I Take come on at family functions and everyone heads to the danc floor. Generally, the ‘90s gave us a love for downtempo ‘slow jam’ type songs. From Boyz II Men and SWV, to  Toni Braxton and Mariah Carey. But there were also some very present Hip-Hop influences in the genre. Mary J Blige’s Real Love is the example here with its booming beats and Mary’s iconic dance moves.

’00s R&B

Swiftly moving on to the next decade, the ‘00s, saw an introduction of more funk, disco and faster tempo elements used more frequently in R&B. Take Destiny’s Child’s Survivor or Amerie’s One Thing for instance. These use much more upbeat rhythms and signifies a notable shift in the genre. Artists like Chris Brown and Ciara launched their careers, bringing a new wave, more up-tempo sound. Many artists from the ’90s, like Mariah Carey and Usher continued releasing music. And they too embraced the new wave. For example, Mariah’s The Emancipation of Mimi album is a significant sonic pivot from ’90s Mariah. But, nonetheless, the essence of Soul music stayed alive. Alicia Keys’, John Legend, Jazmine Sullivan are just a few of the names who stayed the lane. R&B was also widely popular in mainstream music in the 00’s. And this appears to be the last era where this was so. Nearing 2010, several pioneers of R&B transitioned to other genres for a while, including dance music, and a version of Pop that drew from R&B and Hip Hop. Think Usher’s DJ’s Got Us Falling In Love Again and Chris Brown’s Look At Me Now.

So where are we today?

R&B’s reduced acclaim in the mainstream has led to some theories being passed through the grapevine (shout out to the pre ‘90s legend Marvin Gaye). One argument is that today’s society cares much less about ‘soft’ musical content. And as many lyrics, from original R&B, are often perceived as ‘emotional love songs’, some people have attributed the decline to this. Drake often being ridiculed for being ‘soft’ may be used as an example by supporters of this thesis as evidence of this shift. But, as well connected this theory may seem at first glance, not all artists making R&B fit into the stereotypical ‘soft lyrics’ category. Therefore, this concept is not a one size fits all explanation.

Now that we are in 2019, the genre’s spectrum is at the height of its evolution and is more diverse than ever before! There’s an array of artists delivering quality tunes influenced by a mix of sounds, whilst simultaneously drawing from the soulful heart of R&B. Although the mainstream popularity of the original R&B sound has decreased, the diversity embraced in the genre now is incredibly vast. There are also artists, that have a more established following, in the eyes of the media, who very much owe musical inspiration to the genre. Childish Gambino, Solange, Ella Mai, Sza and H.E.R are R&B. Also, Bryson Tiller’s debut album, Trap Soul, incorporates heavy Trap, whilst also being truly R&B. It personifies how the genre has developed to encapsulate variety over time.

An Ocean of Sounds

On this point, there is also a plethora of emerging artists building this new-age of R&B and Soul music. New Zealand native, Jordan Rakei is an electronic Soul artist, whilst fusing an ocean of other sounds into his music. Eye To Eye is an example of this mashup, as the song begins with a smoother soulful sound, but switches into a folky/electronica vibe in the latter part. In comparison, tracks like Ari Lennox’s Up Late maintain a classic slow jam composition throughout, clearly showcasing that the genre’s roots are not lost. Other upcoming R&B artists include Daniel Caesar, Ella Mai and Raveena ooze neo-soul vibes. Contemporary jazz is also a current sound being weaved into R&B, through the likes of Oscar Jerome and Tiana Major 9. Adding to this copiousness is Joy Crookes who leans more towards the Blues side of the genre. And it doesn’t stop there! African influences are being brought into the genre, through artists and songs like Cleo Sol’s One. This is truly an ethereal feel drawn from the earlier eras of the genre, yet expressed through a different innovative lens. Many of the artists participating in this interpretation of R&B are forming a strong following, often independent of mainstream attention. The streams they receive speak volumes and reveal that the genre is indeed still thriving. Nao is an example of this. She has built a steady following over the years and is increasingly being given more media attention having performed at major festivals, including Glastonbury.

So, with all of this being said, the question stands how do we define R&B in 2019? Well, we can conclude that in many ways, the traditional R&B / Soul of the 90’s & 00’s has given way to a multi-genre with several sub-genres that draw from the richness of the traditional sound. It is much richer in diversity, but the sweet melodies, rhythm and the indescribable essence of Soul still remain at its core.

At The Blues Project, we love the full tapestry of modern R&B and Soul. From Hip-Hop Soul, Electronic Soul, Contemporary Jazz, Contemporary Neo-Soul / R&B and other sounds inspiring the artists under these categories. We are here for all modern forms of R&B and Soul music. From the ‘90s all the way up till this present day. We stan them all!

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