This article is part of a series in celebration of a new, dynamic voice in Black America: the NUBIANO Exchange. Brace yourself for the NUBIANO experience.
In the world of R&B, there used to be a day and age when vocal talent, unbridled passion and a powerful message were the sole markers of a great performer. Throughout the past four decades, Ray Charles declared that he had "Georgia on [His] Mind" (1960); Marvin Gaye asked the world, "What's Going On?" (1971); Aretha Franklin took us onto the "Freeway of Love" (1985); and Mary J. Blige informed us of her search for a "Real Love" (1992). While each of the aforementioned artists blessed the genre with their own style and creativity, despite their talents, all they needed, to rock a crowd or make fans swoon, was a microphone and a bit of "soul." Every now and again, the genre would be graced by the presence of someone, like James Brown, who would add a little bit of "flavor" into the mix. But ultimately, the key measure of a singer was the power of their voice and the message of their music.
It is often overlooked that the most successful R&B artists of yore had solid roots in the church. And perhaps, as a sign of the times, they unconsciously and intrinsically understood the need to positively represent the black community. Although facing tremendous pressures as international stars in a white-controlled industry, black artists were keenly aware of the responsibility they had in helping open doors for future black singers. During the past decade, the commercialization of hip-hop has kicked open the doors of opportunity for R&B artists to flourish. Sadly, however, the quality of music, along with the messages within the music, has steadily declined.
Behold, the slow and unfortunate death of R&B.
For the past seven weeks, Fantasia's heart-felt ballad, "When I See U," has ruled Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop charts. Overtaking the #1 spot on July 7, 2007 , the single seems poised for a few more weeks at the top spot. As it stands, the song ranks third behind Robin Thicke's "Lost Without U" (11 weeks) and T-Pain's "Buy U a Drink" (8 weeks), as the longest-running chart-topper in 2007. Fantasia is slowly etching her way into R&B history, with "When I See U" being her first #1 hit on the chart. Despite her success on the R&B/Hip-Hop charts, however, "When I See U" fared less successfully on the Hot 100 — peaking at #32.
What gives? Surely something's amiss, right? Yes, indeed: R&B is dead and R. Kelly, along with a string of contemporary artists, pulled the trigger![SIDENOTE: Before continuing, it must be acknowledged that R. Kelly did not buy the gun involved in the murder of R&B. Black consumer preferences and industry motives also hold much of the blame. Nevertheless, as the "Pied Piper of R&B," R. Kelly's schizophrenic nature greatly compromised the genre, as he flip-flopped between sentimental crooner and light-hearted rapper. His selection of music and artistic imagery would begin an unstoppable trend that would be unfortunately followed and heavily exploited.]
As the most successful R&B male artist of the 1990s, R. Kelly's imprint on the genre is without measure or denial. Hailed as the R&B Wunderkind, Kelly has sold more than 50 million albums worldwide and was the best-selling R&B male artist of the 1990s. With the release of R. in 1999, Kelly garnered his sixteenth Top 10 hit on the R&B/Hip-Hop charts (with half of them being #1s). In addition, by the decade's end, the "Pied Piper of R&B" assisted in the launch of the careers of Aaliyah and Kelly Price, all while writing and producing chart-topping R&B singles for Michael Jackson ("You Are Not Alone") and Maxwell ("Fortunate"). By this point in his remarkable career, there was relatively little left to prove to the industry, his peers, or his critics. Therefore, R&B's No. 1 crooner decided to abandon traditional R&B roots by blending his musical stylings with hip-hop influences.
R. Kelly's future singles (and their multiple remixes) would soon be the home of radio-friendly rappers, especially Jay-Z, with whom he would also later record two full-length albums: 2002's The Best of Both Worlds and 2004's Unfinished Business. Thus, at the turn of the century, gone– forever– was the traditional R&B crooner. And sadly, the future crop of younger R&B talents would follow suit, avoiding the risk of having their offerings marginalized by radio, the industry or consumer preferences. Ironically, though, few of the younger stars have achieved notable success. The most impressive exceptions being Usher, Mario, Chris Brown, and Ne-Yo, although their talents, influence and creativity pale in comparison.
Can the "soul" of R&B be resuscitated? For now, unfortunately, the answer seems to be "no." According to Billboard, R&B sales dropped 18.4 percent between 2005 and 2006 to 117 million units. Although market forces and consumer preferences have been the central reasons, I blame new "R&B" artists for abandoning the genre, in whole or part, and failing to create music that can stand the tests of time. Over the past decade, the traditional thematic elements of R&B have been replaced by those espoused by the burgeoning hip-hop phenomenon. To see the fall and rapid decline of the R&B genre, one only has to look at the financial and marketing success of R. Kelly's career.
With the onslaught of urban pop and crunk & B, is there any turning back? Although consumer preferences, along with industry marketing, have dictated otherwise, the "soul" of contemporary R&B seems to only thrive amongst women who flaunt their sexuality unremittingly and men who are engaged constantly in hyper-masculine posturing.
Consider the career of Beyonce Knowles, who released 15 singles as a solo artists between 2002 and 2007, but only produced two solid R&B tracks, "Irreplaceable" and "Listen," in that time (thanks to Ne-Yo and Anne Preven's credit). To boot, her most successful offerings have strayed from the traditional R&B format and utilized "flavor of the month" beats and radio-friendly hip-hop artists. While it may be pointless to some to compare the talents of Beyonce to the likes of her contemporaries (Faith Evans, Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys, etc.), it must be said that vast body of work created by her peers has more substance, less focus on overt sexuality and a considerably higher level of maturity. Did Beyonce really ask ladies to "pat their weave" in "Get Me Bodied"?
Or consider the career of Usher Raymond, whose most recent singles "Yeah!" and "Lovers and Friends" have reshaped the very contours of the R&B landscape, with the assistance of Southern hip-hop producer Lil' Jon. Although regarded by many as the male leader of the contemporary R&B pack, one would think that his influence, after thirteen years in the industry, would be more profound and deeply entrenched. During the span of Usher's entire career, between the years of 1994 and 2007, legendary R&B pioneer Gerald Levert recorded thirteen studio albums– nine solo albums, one with family-group Levert, two with LSG and one posthumous release with his father, Eddie Levert — and charted twenty-two singles on the R&B charts. Given the substantial body of work created by Gerald Levert and others artists, one may wonder where Usher's focus is, as there is plenty of room left to fill in Gerald Levert's shoes.
Notwithstanding the commercial pressures Beyonce and Usher face, by crossing-over and providing music for a mainstream audience, it appears as if they are being blind-sided by the "trappings" of the industry and more interested in building a brand-name for themselves, rather than creating thoughtful, ground-breaking music for the masses. Both artists cling as tightly to the title of "singer," as they do the following: "actor," "fashion designer," "dancer" and "producer." Taken altogether, considering the fact that Beyonce allegedly recorded her beautifully-packaged "train wreck," B'Day, in two weeks and Usher released his best-selling Confessions without a diverse sampling of songs that appreciated "replay value," do contemporary R&B artists feel compelled to perfect their craft and, simply, focus on the music?
Within the current state of the music industry, is it possible for traditional, contemporary R&B artists to survive without compromising the genre?
Consider the career of Tamia, whose Between Friends (2006) only sold 18,000 copies in the first week of its release, despite favorable reviews– peaking at #66 on the Billboard 200 chart. To make matters worse, despite Tamia's beauty, elegance and vocal chops, the last single that she had on the Hot 100 was 2003's "Officially Missing You," which peaked at #83, although becoming a moderate R&B hit and Top 5 hit on the Hot Dance Club Play chart. In a day and age when vocal talent is not a prerequisite for a record contract or substance a requirement for industry success, it is quite puzzling that Tamia, who possess both, has found difficulty in receiving widespread consumer support, despite the fact that she has had five Top 10 R&B hits over the span of her young career. One would be foolish to say that she has nothing (of quality) left to offer the R&B game; nevertheless, the four-time Grammy nominee released Between Friends independently through her own imprint, Plus 1 Music Group.
Or consider the career of Brian McKnight, whose Gemini (2005) and Ten (2006) became the first CDs in his illustrious career to fail to receive gold certification or have any of their singles chart on the Hot 100, despite the moderate successes of "What We Do Here" (#35), "Everytime You Go Away" (#36) and "Find Myself in You" (#27) on the R&B/Hip-Hop charts. When did marketing a 16-time Grammy-nominated singer, songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist (piano, guitar, bass guitar, drums, percussions, trombone, tuba, French horn and trumpet) become such a chore? Perhaps McKnight's fortunes might increase if he learned how to "pop, lock, and drop it."
So… where does R&B go from here? As it stands, there seems to be nothing to save R&B, except the rare instance that an artist, producer, or independent label decides to put out music that stays true to its traditional roots and can also rally the black community to lend financial support, through purchase, to those artists.
Consider the career of Jill Scott. Although Jill Scott has been nominated for nine Grammys (and won two), her best performance on the Hot 100 has been the #43 slot, where she peaked in 2001 with "A Long Walk," a #9 hit on the R&B/Hip-Hop charts. Despite the fact that both of her studio albums, 2001's Who Is Jill Scott and 2005's Beautifully Human, were nominated for Best R&B album, Scott's music is relatively unknown to mainstream music lovers, although she has had 9 singles to chart on the R&B/Hip-Hop charts, with 4 also charting on the U.K. singles chart. Her career's safety and longevity, however, has been supplanted by her partnership with Hidden Beach Recordings, which "has amassed a loyal and growing fan base., and has garnered numerous awards and accolades for both its artistic achievements as well as its cutting edge marketing exploits"
I believe that the fate of Jill Scott's career will also, ultimately, decide that of the R&B genre. On September 25, 2007 , Scott will release The Real Thing, her third studio album. If successful, the album will not only bring much-needed support, attention, and mainstream success to a cadre of talented R&B artists, like India.Arie and Musiq Soulchild, but also support the foundations of a genre that is in desperate need of a savior. Granted, it goes without saying that Jill Scott does not fit the music industry's mainstream molds of beauty or success. She's assertive, independent, dark-skinned, and intelligent. A stark contrast from other contemporary artists, her success would speak just as much about the world's perceptions of the qualities of black women as it would say about black music. More importantly, Scott's success would serve as a public dismantling of the notion that one has to sell their body, "soul," or image in order to sell a record.
So… is R&B really dead? In all honesty, R&B, if not dead, is on life support. The state of R&B music is a direct reflection of the state of Black America. As the division between the "haves" (those who make it) and the "have-nots" (those left along the wayside) increases, the viability of group cohesiveness decreases. It is troubling that artists and industry insiders that have made it to the mountaintop and experienced great personal and financial success tend to also be the ones that fail to take risks in creating or supporting alternative voices and cultural discourse — lest they too should fall. When did it become impossible or improbable for the world's best-selling black artists to reflect deeply about the world that surrounds them or challenge their listeners to think or expect the unexpected or demand more than a catchy hook laced over a flashy beat? When will consumers, in particular black ones, begin to support artists that address the realities of race, sex and politics as much as those that create mindlessly entertaining club-bangers? Balance is needed, not only in the representations of blackness in music and other mass media but, also, in Black America's reception of the status quo, for Black Americans are not a monolithic people. There is as much room for Beyonce and Usher, as there is for Tamia and Brian McKnight. However, the reality of the situation is this: if Black America looked at itself, naked and unashamed, an artist like Jill Scott would shine back in the mirror. Jill Scott is the truth and her music is honest and reflective of our times, even if Timbaland fails to produce her tracks. If we, as black people, find the music of Jill Scott unmarketable, undesirable and unworthy of our financial support, then what are we saying about the "soul" of us? Perhaps we, too, are dead.
Streaming Video of Jill Scott's "Hate on Me" [Live from SoulStage]. Vh1.com's VSPOT.
Saul Williams' Open Letter To Oprah Winfrey. 27 April 2007. BallerStatus.comPowered by Sidelines