Curving the "Repetitive & Bleak"
What happened to R&B? It’s a pretty loaded question but the most noticeable transformation is its style. R&B has undergone constant revisions throughout the years, for the better. Trailblazers like Chuck Berry and Fats Domino were ahead of their time, incorporating elements of big band jazz and rock-n-roll into a bluesy, rhythmic fashion. As the style evolved in the succeeding decades, more prominent distinctions began to bloom under this growing umbrella of a genre. The genius of Holland-Dozier-Holland with mastermind Barry Gordy spawned the Motown era. Transcendent acts like the late, great Aretha Franklin used her background in Gospel to echo louder than any typecast, yet stuck to her roots as a pure singer. Divas such as Diana Ross and Donna Summer welcomed the disco era of the '70s and used the sound to vibrantly add a new twist to R&B. The innovative composition of Quincy Jones propelled the solo career of Michael Jackson, whose voice was incapable of dimming. Prince was Prince, in all his brilliant artistry, showmanship, and technical skill. Whitney, Marvin, Stevie, Luther, Sade; bold acts associated with greatness because of the prolific quality of their work. These larger-than-life pioneers laid the groundwork for Black music - and its effect on pop culture and the world at large - to reach the astronomical heights of influence today.
It could be argued that the last truly memorable era of R&B was the mid-80s to late 1990s, thanks in part to the style of New Jack Swing. Influenced by the burgeoning hip-hop/rap sound, R&B took on a whole new personality. Groups like Jodeci, Blackstreet, En Vogue, and SWV, in addition to being able to carry a note for several seconds, had a confident attitude that was present on a record. If the production was upbeat and demanding of attention, the artist matched the energy and fit into the groove with a lively performance. Songs like “This is How We Do It” can still rock a set in 2018; the mentality of the track strongly emotes the vibe of a house party. It's so infectious, it can evoke any dormant rhythm and lead you to the dance floor.
On the flip side, if the BMPs were at a slower pace, the strength of powerful vocals and relatable tales about heartbreak can make their pain feel palpable. The duality of a strong woman who can curve a trifling dub one minute and vulnerably penning a love song the next. So long are also the days of grown ass men having to beg on bended knee for forgiveness...or angling just to get some that night. The game is the game and the '90s soundtrack was full of life and real emotions. Not to say the previous is completely devoid today, but in comparison '90s R&B had true charisma. Even for one-hit wonders, there was a personality for the entire era that was distinguished, iconic, and worthy of praise all these years later.
Neo-soul powerhouses such as Erykah Badu and D'Angelo kept the pulse for R&B alive after the New Jack Swing style was slowly being phased out (not forgotten), but hip-hop went from fledgling to flying from the mid-90s to early 2000s. In the process, rap music bullied its way to the forefront while the role of a traditional R&B singer on the main stage - aside from the Beyonce’s and Rihanna’s of the world - was somewhat relegated to hooks and took the backseat for a minute. The 2010s have seen a resurgence of popularity for genres in the urban market. Incorporating major elements of electronic music like autotune and synthesizers, as popular music did in the '80s, helped to revitalize (to some) and evolve hip-hop and R&B as a whole. It also helped to globalize their popularity by reaching out to certain groups that wouldn't normally listen.
The past few years of R&B have seen great developments - so much so, that it was on a perceived trajectory to become level with its rap counterparts. "Trap-soul" or "Trap-N-B" had the strongest wave lap upon the shores of recent music by creating a rap-sung hybrid, detailing heartbreaks over 808s and trap hi-hats. If the hook artist isn't completely dead, they have transformed and rebranded themselves as singers that can rap. Ja Rule borrowed harmonies from vocalists at the top of the millennium; current "singers" like 6LACK are boldly attacking the inverse with great success. There are some talented artists but, there's an ever growing sense of malaise hanging over the genre as it becomes to get more popular than ever from a statistical standpoint. There's this dreary trend of singers that create a dark and gloomy aspect and wear it as an aesthetic. Blues have always been a part of R&B; it's a third of the acronym. But 2018 has shone the light on a certain brand of artist that relies on everything but talent. The problem is, singers don't really need to be great vocalists to be considered "great," which is confusing. Autotune and a skilled audio engineer can cover up many impurities. Breathy whispers on a light and airy beat, with lyrics from a Tumblr account of motivational quotes, is passable today. Add a great social media team, some sex appeal, a "minimalist" label, and boom, you have yourselves a microwaved star in the making. The highest of highs from this era can hold a torch to the legends of years past, but the influx of mid is also bringing down the overall integrity of the present.
Despite the collective plateau of creativity, R&B has serious potential to curve past the section of repetitive & bleak group-think for 2019 and beyond. Two recent releases are a sampling of the best that 2018 has to offer. Saturn by NAO, and MihTy both have individual personalities with rich vocals over a lively composition that does not make you want to fall asleep, even when the tempo is relaxed. The performers themselves were not solely dependent on surrounding factors or a perceived image. Production ties everything together, but the artists led the charge and carried the projects with their voice, confident delivery, and precise timing of notes. No matter how regular a lyric that was sung, these collections of songs felt like music with a purpose: a purpose to make the listener actually feel something.
Supergroups were a staple in '90s R&B. The combination of exceptional talent has the potential for a dynamic record to pop off, but there’s also the possibility of egos colliding, creating friction in the process only to yield results where the parts aren't flush with the intended design. Two of the most in-demand singers of this generation, paired with a reinvented musician from last decade, connected to make a statement that'll ring beyond 2018. LA's Ty Dolla $ign and Chicago's Jeremih linked up for a collab tape worthy of high praise. Their joint name - MihTy - even synchronizes well and is indicative of how well they mesh together. The heavy, raspy timbre of $ complements the sharp, distinctive high notes of Jeremih in a way that's chilling and provocative. As Teddy Riley and Guy once did for New Jack Swing, Hitmaka (fka Yung Berg) took a current hip-hop production style and sculpted it to fit instead of the ever-evolving umbrella of R&B. Lyrically and sonically, the tone of the project was set on the album's opener, The Light. Ty makes a triumphant introduction by literally getting down to business, right before Jeremih's chorus pierces through like a beacon of light on a cloudy day, leading into his verses that carry a bounce of a hybrid between a rapper and pure singer. What really adds to each of the tracks is the layering of ad-libs from both artists. Bursts of harmonies and carried out notes of spoken word accentuate the already robust production. Using their voices like elements of inserted kits on FL Studios steadily weave throughout the 30-minute project in a pitch that won't make you cringe.
A description like this may make MihTy seem chaotic, but it's far from that. The three major players are Ty$, Jeremih, and the production; the vibrant sounds of the trio blend together to make a beautiful piece of art out of a blank canvas. Varying styles between the two singers shake up any potential monotony whenever it may approach. New Level (with a quick nod to “In My Bed” by Dru Hill before the beat drops) sees the pairing hit their vocal crescendos on an upbeat banger that'll be sure to liven a kickback. Opposite of that are the slower, more traditional R&B tracks in These Days and Imitate, which firmly establishes their versatility. Instead of letting the down tempo beat carry them, MihTy's range with vocal inflections shines when they could have just mailed it in. They enlisted a couple rappers - French Montana on FYT, an ode to the Bad Boy classic; and Wiz Khalifa (along with Chris Brown) on the energetic Surrounded - in a way shows independence by inviting them into their space. By not having a tracklist laden with rap features, MihTy proves that an R&B group can stand on its own in a hip-hop environment. Hitmaka deserves his roses for a successful rebrand and for the way he held it down behind the boards; his attention-grabbing production should not be understated. With their tales of dirty mackin’ the pairing of Ty Dolla $ign and Jeremih smoothly held notes expertly sang their way to a memorable and enjoyable project.
Powerful is one of the first adjectives that pops to mind when NAO comes to mind. The texture of her voice when she bellows "I guess I'll wait another lifetime" before coolly crooning to the next progression of the chorus can send chills up one's spine. Her debut album Saturn deserves the recognition of high profile singers across all types of music. There's a unique twang in her voice that does not sound awkward. Rather, it fits comfortably in the rest of the captivating production that blends many different sounds without sounding sloppy. Somehow, NAO 1-ups the robust landscape by matching then propelling herself higher than the instrumental with a beautiful voice. The best kind of music attempts to incorporate several styles and package it together cohesively.
If You Ever has a rhythmic bop as an undertone but right before the bridge of wavy vocal notes hit, there's a serene string section that leads into the refrain without a dull moment. The 31-year-old singer-songwriting hailing from the UK had a fitting theme with the name Saturn. Compared to your average releases from this year, there was a colorful balance of dance/pop tracks with substance (Love Supreme, Yellow of the Sun), new-age big band jazz (Saturn ft. Kwabs), and electronic-influenced neo-soul (Gabriel, Orbit) that could function just as an acapella. That last part is extremely important - her voice alone could function on its own. There are some vocoder adjustments but the purpose is to add a twist, not to carry the singer. NAO has the voice of a pure gospel singer whose recorded sound must not deviate too far from her live performance. One of the most interesting debuts in modern R&B may not be as promoted as some of her contemporaries, but in time, she will be a force to be reckoned with.
Seemingly out of nowhere, a huge mess of a debate sparked on Twitter about who the "King of R&B" truly is. Informed takes filtered in, in support of Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and others. Some memes circulated. Talks eventually devolved into a '90s-centric discussion: where a legendary, yet extremely problematic nominee came up several times; a separate Queen of R&B debate - featuring Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, and Mary J. Blige, among others; and group comparisons like Jodeci vs. Boyz II Men and TLC vs. Xscape popped up as well. A lot of healthy back and forth turned into a nostalgic remembrance of how dominant that decade really was. But of course, there were some asinine comments like "Trap Soul is DEFINITELY better than anything Usher ever made," as if Confessions and 8701 were never made, because, Twitter.
Plenty of really good, standout artists have been successful over the last decade, but none have had a prolonged excellence like the soloists of years past., and the ones that did achieved their status by transcending the genre (e.g. Drake, Chris Brown, The Weeknd). Will there ever again be a person or group to reach the same magnitude of star power without crossing over into the Pop world? Are there viable options - like generational talent - for Kings and Queens in modern R&B? Only time will tell how lasting their impressions will be. H.E.R., Daniel Caesar, and Brent Faiyaz are examples of great young talent, but it's way too early to consider them royalty. The 2018 nominees from the Twitter debate was mostly artists that people are vibing to at the moment.
Looking at some of the names from the discourse, it's concerning that the greatness of earlier eras won't be replicated today. That's okay though; they will have their own memorable footnote in the history of music - unless this trend of gloomy, half-assed attempts at singing continues. A true crooner should be able to hit and hold several different notes over the course of a song. The production should complement the vocalist, not carry them. Technique and timing shouldn't fully be replaced by electronic alterations. Charisma, words with real emotions, being able to sing acapella in the right pitch: that'll always be royalty.