February 20, 2011

R.I.P. R&B

Print More

If video killed the radio star, then modern pop has murdered R&B. Like soul music before it, mainstream R&B has succumbed to pop music trends and lost its genre-defining qualities. Artists who were once labeled as R&B singers, such as Usher, have undoubtedly went pop in search of success. Even new artists who classify themselves as R&B are essentially pop stars. Taio Cruz in particular is certainly not a traditional R&B artist; his sound is indicative of this new hybrid of R&B with pop/dance influences that is ruling the airwaves today. Although the publicly bemoaned transition to 80s and electropop is partly to blame, the origins of this trend can be traced back to the 90s.Considering the state of R&B today, it is hard to imagine that R&B once dominated pop airwaves. In the early and mid 90s, R&B was ubiquitous on the radio. Artists known as has-beens today, such as Janet Jackson, Monica, Brandy, Boyz II Men and R. Kelly, were tremendously popular in the mainstream.Boyz II Men was even named the most influential group in the 90s by Billboard magazine. Mariah Carey started off her career in this period as pure R&B before becoming a pop fixture. This period, however, was memorable but short-lived. With the advent of pop boy bands and female singers like Britney Spears in the late 90s, R&B began its gradual decline. Although it seemed revolutionary at the time, the pop movement was not entirely detached from R&B. In order to find success, pop had to morph to meet the sound of the times, which was naturally R&B. Pop music of the period has R&B influences that were probably not accidental. The up tempos of Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC hit chords with audiences with R&B grooves and their ballads also share similar instrumentals and vocal style as their R&B counterparts, Britney’s signature hit “Baby One More Time” features a slightly funky R&B groove that obviously appealed to listeners. Interestingly enough, the record was intended for R&B trio TLC. Essentially, pop did in the 1990s what R&B is doing right now — adapting to music trends. R&B did make a comeback in the early to mid 2000s as the boy-band appeal wore off. Soul artists like Alicia Keys and Mary J. Blige gained popularity. Artists today that are more pop now had their R&B breakthroughs, such as Rihanna. Rihanna’s original R&B-island sound was once refreshing, before she transformed into a typical pop star. Ne-Yo’s straightforward R&B seemed to show a shift away from a pop-R&B hybrid as well. However, the R&B resurgence didn’t last for long, as pop once again adopted R&B influences. This time, pop took R&B towards a more dance-oriented style as opposed to teen pop. Timbaland’s electro production that ruled most of the 2000s, mostly seen in Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado, showed strong R&B influences. To much dismay, this shift is now internalized in pop music today. Lady’s GaGa’s breakthrough “Just Dance” was a pop, R&B and dance hybrid and Ke$ha’s Tik Tok also has R&B and hip-hop influences with her rap breakdowns. As pop adopts R&B sounds to find commercial success, R&B, unfortunately, has converged to the same model by adopting a pop sound. While pop is a ubiquitous genre that can adopt popular trends without necessarily destroying itself, R&B it loses its genre-defining qualities when it converges to pop. Indeed, popular R&B is quite different from its dominant form in the 90s, so much so that it is hard to classify it as R&B. Specifically, it has adopted dance, synth and electro. Usher’s pop-dance “OMG” style music is virtually unrecognizable from his earlier work like “Confessions.” Although he may claim that he is an R&B artist, he is clearly not. In fact, Usher has arguably not released an R&B single since Confessions in 2004 — that’s about 6 years. “OMG,” “DJ” and recently “More” are purely pop tunes. Usher was actually quoted some time ago claiming British R&B artists like Jay Sean and Taio Cruz are ruining R&B, which is true, except he of course forgot to include himself. The worst case is Jason Derulo, who exemplifies pop, yet markets himself as another R&B male star.Strong language aside, when I say R&B is dead, it technically isn’t — yet. There are still a few artists both old and new that maintain their R&B roots. Recent successful R&B singers like Jazmine Sullivan and Marques Houston are a case in point. Even R. Kelly released a pure R&B inspired album Love Letter recently (scandal aside, it’s actually rather stellar). However, these artists have only found R&B chart success. Gone are the days when the #1 on the Hip-Hop/R&B chart would easily be close to the #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Classic R&B is unlikely to find an audience on pop airplay like Z100. Unless pure R&B makes moves in the mainstream, the genre will continue to deteriorate and converge to pop in order to find success.

Original Author: Matt Samet