There was a time when R&B music was the most prominent and popping sound and genre that the world was jamming to. Soothing voices, slow jamz, sexy beats and smooth vibes, that was what our culture was about. A lot has changed since then, what once was the most mainstream genre has now become more of a rarity to be heard on radio or seen on the shelves at stores. One has to ask, how exactly did we get to this place?
R&B got its start back in the 1940s when it was birthed and artists would perform blues music at local smoky bars. However, it wasn’t until the ‘60s with the birth of Motown that R&B music really got its mainstream start with artists such as Diana Ross & The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder. Fast forward to the ‘90s when R&B made its mainstream comeback, and it seemed as if every single artist that was topping the charts was an R&B artist. Artists like Boyz II Men, Mary J. Blige, Brandy, TLC, Toni Braxton and R. Kelly to name a few were topping the charts and were unbeatable.
A genre that once topped the charts with no problems now has artists in that genre struggling to even crack the Hot 100 on the Billboard charts. So what exactly was the tipping point for R&B music? The teen pop blast towards the end of the ‘90s was definitely the beginning of this decline. Artists like Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera were all topping the charts with their teeny bopper hits, while still incorporating some of the soul from R&B.
On the surface level, the fusing together of R&B with other genres such as Pop (i.e. Christina Aguilera, Usher, Justin Timberlake) and now in the 21st century with the boom of Dance/Electronica music can be heralded as a (positive) testament to the ‘coming together’ of the world’s many cultures and societies. Unfortunately, it seems as if R&B and Urban sounds and music have drawn the shorter end of the stick in this new era of fusing genres. While both the Pop and Dance genres have benefitted greatly from flirting with R&B (i.e. Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies”), they have also managed to remain immensely successful genres on their own without the help of R&B, while R&B music has failed to sustain itself as a strong genre commercially in today’s market. Today it’s pretty much financial suicide for both new and established acts to release ‘pure R&B’ albums due to the simple lack of interest from the general public.
Brandy is the perfect example of an artist who despite the commercial failures of R&B music, puts her artistic integrity first, before commercial sales. With the release of her newest album “Two Eleven” (released in October 2012), she decided to make a truly R&B record incorporating old-school sounds with some fresh urban beats. While the album was her most critically acclaimed album (Entertainment Weekly stated “Brandy scores when her raspy-sweet voice soars during ballads and slow jams, and that’s what stands out on this intimate, often ethereal collection”), the album only managed to sell a total of 190,000 copies in the USA, compared to her album “Never Say Never” released in 1998 which sold over 4 million copies in the US Alone.
Even more mainstream artists like Beyoncé who released a pure R&B album back in 2011 titled “4”, which only managed to sell a little over 1 million copies, compared to her other albums which have each sold over 4 million.
If not even Beyonce can succeed in R&B music, what does that say for the future of this genre? That question does not quite have an answer, since statistics are not really showing a huge improvement on the sales front for R&B although, R&B songs that infuse Hip-Hop or more general Urban sounds have been proven to be successful (i.e. “Drunk In Love” by Beyoncé and Jay-Z).
One thing is for sure, for up and coming talented young singers who dream of an immensely successful career in pure R&B music, there is not guarantee that they wouldn’t have to incorporate more mainstream genres in order for them to get to where they want to go.
While incorporating a bunch of different genres is fun and enjoyable, it would be endearing to see R&B in its pure form return to prominence and co-exist alongside its diluted incarnation.