This is a guest editorial by Adrian Daniel, a singer/songwriter/producer from Brooklyn, New York. Daniel's newly-released single, "Near You," is available for stream here.
Historically, R&B has been code for “urban black music,” but to me, R&B has never been about the color of your skin; it’s something that came from the soul; a feeling deep down that would shake you to your emotional core. R&B, which stands for Rhythm and Blues, is just that—music that is rhythmic and has the soulful achings of the blues. In the ‘90s it was easier to distinguish if a piece of music was or wasn’t R&B. However, defining the genre today has become somewhat of a challenge.
Longtime R&B heads want the genre to revert to the “good times,” or, more specifically, the ‘90s. I’ve lost count of how many times I wandered across Twitter and saw someone say, “I miss that ‘Singing in the rain, I want my baby back’ R&B.’” In fact, it appears so many traditional R&B fans despise R&B’s current sound, that it makes me wonder, what is the genre supposed to sound like in 2019?
Nineties R&B was full of luxurious runs, assured singing chops, blunt sexual advances, and a ton of singing in the rain; it was a time where great vocalists impressed audiences with their vocal abilities and lyrical vulnerabilities. Today, the approach has shifted to processed and computerized sounds rather than an artist’s vocal chops. That doesn’t mean it has lost its soul, but it has morphed into a crossbreed of genres, one that has allowed space for artists considered “hip-hop” to indulge in their singing dreams.
Like life itself, music should progress with the times, which helps to explain the evolution of R&B. From Frank Ocean, who expresses his version of rhythm and blues with melancholy, folk-tinged, heartbreaking bedroom jams to Drake, who has mastered the formula of combining hip-hop and R&B, to the alt-rock rebel angst of SZA or the hyper electronic heavy bass of Joji, artists continue to push the sounds of the genre forward. Some believe this evolution is what the genre needs to sound and stay fresh, while others believe it means the end of “quality R&B.” As a practitioner of R&B music myself, I believe we should accept all forms.
For those fans who grew up on ‘90s R&B, I understand why this sonic shift is so upsetting. But that doesn’t mean ‘90s R&B isn‘t still impacting the musical landscape today; from Drake (“Bria’s Interlude”) to Tame Impala (“Cause I’m A Man”), ‘90s R&B is present, alive and well. For me, R&B was never about a sound; it was about how a vocal could make you feel. Once considered two distinct genres, artists have successfully merged R&B and hip-hop into a hybrid genre.
Remember when a hip-hop act and an R&B act would come together for a song? It was (usually) magic. Now, it’s widely accepted when a rapper sings their own hook. From a label and publishing standpoint, this approach is cost-effective; fewer people need a slice of the pie. Migos’ rapper Quavo recently tweeted his interest in crafting an R&B album, which, given his guest feature track record, wouldn’t be that obscure. XXXTentacion, the South Florida artist who was facing 15 felony charges for domestic violence before being murdered in 2018, is another example of a “hip-hop artist” primarily singing on his tracks. Over the past two years, XXXTentacion took home Best R&B Album and received nominations in the Best R&B Artist and Best R&B Male Artist categories at the Billboard Music Awards.
I know what you’re thinking: “Quavo and XXXTentacion aren’t real R&B artists.” Well, they are now. Ever since Lauryn Hill stepped on the scene with “Lost Ones,” the lines between hip-hop and R&B have been blurred. In 2009, Drake used that winning combination to begin his ascent into the stratosphere, laying down the blueprint for countless hip-hop acts to follow his lead. Tyler, The Creator’s newly released sixth album, IGOR, with its majority singing and vocal runs, is an exemplification.
R&B’s evolution isn’t a “bad” thing; it’s helped more artists to reach the masses. Say what you will about the purity of the genre, but Drake’s R&B-tinged material has done wonders for the genre—and no, it’s not the same harmonic, super soulful vocals so many of us fell in love with, but it’s keeping R&B alive in the mainstream. Hopefully, given the cyclical nature of the music industry, this will mean that non-rapping R&B vocalists, like Kehlani, Ari Lennox, NAO, Jacob Banks, Miguel, Mahalia, and Pink Sweat$, will once again rise to the top of the charts. A rising tide lifts all boats.
There’s room at the top for every kind of R&B. It doesn’t matter how we define it.