I take no pleasure in writing the following: I completely agree with Tyrese about something. Something totally unrelated to what Tyrese is usually wrong about: gender roles, art featuring Malcolm X baptizing Tupac Shakur, relationships, and the virtues of spell check. Tyrese doesn’t get those things right, but the man who I first noticed singing on the back of the bus in a Coca-Cola commercial knows how to talk that talk about the state of R&B.
During his appearance on the Power 105.1 morning show, The Breakfast Club, Tyrese claimed that the current climate has made many singers question themselves and their musical offerings. “Most R&B singers are not conscious of it, but a lot of us are insecure and we feel like our songs don't get attention, don't get no love on the radio, don't have any fans buying it anymore unless we've got 15 rappers on it,” he explained. “The state of R&B is insecure.... For this Black Rose album to be No. 1 in 15 countries and it's straight R&B, period, it's sending the right message.”
Indeed, Tyrese is projected to move in excess of 70,000 copies of his latest album to top the Billboard 200. Those are not blockbuster figures as opposed to say, Taylor Swift, but very few artists of any genre are able to move hundreds of thousands of albums (or in her case, a million) anymore. Tyrese’s sales are on par with the 76,000 he moved in the first week for his 2011 offering, Open Invitation.
By contrast, Miguel’s Wildheart sold 41,000 in its first week, and another recent R&B release, Tamia’s Love Life, sold 16,000. However, both those albums still secured No. 1 debuts on the R&B/Hip-Hop album charts. By today’s standard, these numbers are par for the course—which makes Tyrese’s sales figure a testament to his loyal fan base, and yes, a love of R&B in its purist form.
However, each of these acts have enjoyed noted success on the radio, so in theory, their projects should feel bigger than they appear on paper. Part of that is the very reason why R&B singers flock to rappers to appear on their singles—often with 90 seconds or so of unrelated babble that serves no other purpose than trying to ride their wave for airplay.
Some, like Tamia, have stayed true to themselves, though that can make things harder.
When asked by Billboard how R&B has changed over the course of her career, the 20-year veteran noted, “First off, R&B doesn't get as much support as a lot of other genres. I do believe there's a lot of great R&B out there. If we're speaking mainstream, it doesn't get the platform that other genres do, and it is a shame.”
I recently wrote about the marginalization of black R&B singers on radio and how even the likes of Beyoncé are not immune to it. Similarly, I’ve commented on how much easier it is for white singers to do black music. It’s a sentiment Tyrese shares.
Tyrese noted, "I had a song called 'Stay.' 'Stay' was No. 1 for 11 weeks on Billboard. Sam Smith had a song called 'Stay.' Sam Smith's song had a full choir on it. [His] record was played on all formats of radio. Top 40, rhythmic, crossover, and urban. Now, Sam Smith ain't stepped foot into any of these urban radio stations, but yet urban radio is going all out supporting it."
The singer-actor made it clear that he was a fan of the British “soul” singer, but reiterated the point. “I'm talking about facts. I ain't got to be politically correct.... If we're showing love on urban radio to Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake, and Sam Smith, who are singing R&B songs—and I'm a fan—then it needs to work on both sides."
He is absolutely right. If Tyrese sang the same Sam Smith single, he would be relegated to urban adult contemporary stations. You know, the stations designated for the older black folk. I’ve heard singer Lil’ Mo routinely try to distance herself from the “urban adult contemporary” label on the TV One reality show R&B Divas. Although there is some irony there—TV One is basically that for TV—the point is still obvious: She doesn’t want to be stuck in that space. Unfortunately, it’s quicksand for a black artist who makes quality music with limited potential.
Ariana Grande could sing a B-side from an R&B single of a 1990s group you forgot long about – Shades, for example – and is nearly guaranteed to make the top five on the Billboard Hot 100. Meanwhile, if you gave the same song to her Black female counterpart, it’d probably only be a hit on Pandora and various radio stations that invoke the phrase “quietstorm” every night.
There is of course, The Weeknd, who presently can brag about having three singles in the top 20 of the Hot 100. However, his music is often categorized as “alternative R&B,” which is stylistically a far cry from the traditional medium (or heavily diluted, to be blunt). It’s often fashioned as “more artistic” and “forward-thinking” as if R&B has not always been diverse in terms of sound and aesthetic. Not to mention, if The Weeknd were not Black, I wonder would whether his art would be considered a part of that.
Regardless of his success, it does not dilute and lingering problem with how Black acts—specifically ones that sing contemporary R&B and soul music—are worse off than they used to be. So while it’s nice to see a real R&B album top the Billboard 200 for a change, it doesn’t change the bullshit racism and double standards R&B singers are subjected to.