The so-called death of R&B has been a topic of conversation for nearly a decade now. The discussion periodically gains steam, somewhat arbitrarily. It’s been the chatter of many Clubhouse rooms as of late, and it was addressed during a Billboard roundtable between Summer Walker, Jhené Aiko, Kehlani, and Teyana Taylor just last week.
Skepticism around the state of R&B originally coincided with a shift in the genre and a transition in the platforms where it was primarily consumed. But R&B isn’t dead. It’s going through an identity crisis. The current definition of the genre is either too restrictive or too fluid, and mislabeling by record labels (plus some artists’ reluctance to be identified as R&B singers) has led to the perception that it isn’t as successful and profitable as it actually is.
R&B was once considered a cash cow, but a series of transformations over the years has altered the public image of the genre. During the late-2000s and early-2010s, music consumption transitioned online. Rap found refuge on blogs, among other channels, and the new medium was quickly saturated: there was never a shortage of websites to find new music or hip-hop news. R&B, however, fell into limbo as it struggled to find new homes. Singersroom and ThisIsRnB.com were two of the only websites dedicated to R&B at the time. R&B-friendly platforms like Essence, Vibe, and YBF covered the genre, but outlets were scarce in comparison to previous decades.
The genre also went through a fundamental shift as the landscape changed under its feat. Two unlikely faces of R&B emerged at the heart of the blog era: Frank Ocean and the Weeknd. Ocean’s Nostalgia, Ultra mixtape was released February 16, 2011, and a little less than a month later, the Weeknd dropped his House of Balloons project. Both were heralded as instant classics. The music was unmistakably R&B, with a new twist: hip-hop DNA with pop, indie, and alternative undertones. The tapes were chiefly championed by indie-leaning publications like Complex, Fader, and Pitchfork. Frank and the Weeknd were more likely to perform at Coachella than Essence Fest (Abel performed at the former in 2012, 2015, and 2018, and Frank was slated to headline Coachella this year but the festival was postponed due to COVID-19).
Frank and Abel stand as blueprints for new age R&B almost a decade later. Kanye West, though he isn’t an R&B singer, also deserves some recognition for the influence 808s & Heartbreak has had on the genre, especially sonically. Drake has also inspired today’s crop of R&B singers.
The “R&B is dead” debate gained traction around 2013, ironically a year after the release of two of the genre’s best albums of the decade: Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange and Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dreams. The two classics reimagined R&B conventions into boundless worlds. Still, there was talk of the death of R&B, possibly because some of the most commercially-viable R&B music of the time wasn’t universally identified as R&B.
Mislabeling plays a major part in shaping the “R&B is dead” narrative. Labels haven’t prioritized the genre much in the past decade, perhaps because they believe it’s no longer profitable. There’s a myth that R&B doesn’t sell, and artists signed to labels are often encouraged to submit music that classifies as R&B under other genres. Columbia Records originally submitted Leon Bridges’ debut single “Coming Home” under alternative. It’s clearly a soul record. Frank Ocean insists on labeling and submitting his music as pop. Even some releases that predate iTunes are mislabeled. Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, MJB’s Share My World, and Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, among many others, are labeled pop on the digital retailer. On the flip side, the Weeknd has become one of the biggest pop stars in the world and his music is still submitted under R&B, which puts a hole in the idea that there’s a stigma attached to the genre. There’s no ceiling.
Mislabeling plays a major part in shaping the “R&B is dead” narrative. Labels haven’t prioritized the genre much in the past decade, perhaps because they believe it’s no longer profitable.
Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” featuring T.I. and Pharrell Williams peaked at No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2013. Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” also featuring Williams, peaked at No. 2 around the same time. Pharrell’s “Happy” and Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” featuring Bruno Mars, also peaked at No.1. The aforementioned songs were labeled pop hits, however, not R&B. Even “Blurred Lines,” which replicates Marvin Gaye’s soul classic “Got to Give It Up,” wasn’t labeled as R&B. Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience was one of the biggest albums of 2013. The project sold 968,000 units in its first week and is certified double platinum. Timberlake himself referred to 20/20 as an R&B album, but it was submitted under pop. Mars’ 24K Magic, released in 2016, is an homage to Funk, New Jack Swing, and ‘90s R&B. It was labeled pop. R&B’s influence on the aforementioned releases is clear. It’s not up for debate. Stars ranging from Michael Jackson to Destiny’s Child always straddled the lines between pop and R&B, but the genre has been confined to strict boundaries in recent years.
Mislabeling is the product of a vicious cycle. R&B stars hardly ever remain associated with the genre once they crossover, which leads many to think there are limitations to making and identifying with R&B music. The mislabeling—whether it’s engineered by record labels or artists—is often a strategic way to escape the stigma that’s attached to R&B. There’s also a belief that R&B doesn’t allow for much artistic growth outside of the genre. In fairness, that may have more to do with race than genres. Black artists generally don’t get to cross genre lines freely. Experimental albums like OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and the aforementioned 808s & Heartbreaks weren’t traditional rap albums, but they were never labeled otherwise outside of the culture.
Parameters aren’t as strictly enforced when it comes to commerce. New releases are submitted to streaming services and digital retailers under a specific genre. It’s part of the system Nielsen uses to tally record sales. Therefore, streams of artists like Frank Ocean, Beyoncé, and Rihanna count towards pop, not R&B. In fairness, they’ve all proven to be three-dimensional artists who shouldn't be confined to a singular genre. But the system calls for every piece of music to be filed in a specific category, so why not R&B? The genre’s market share would get a significant boost. R&B/hip-hop are currently reported as one genre, according to Nielsen. A market share boost would either make the pair that much more dominant, or R&B could be reported on its own and post numbers big enough to dispel the myth that it doesn’t sell well.
The merging of hip-hop and R&B made both genres more exciting in the 90s and 2000s, but the partnership is no longer mutually beneficial, especially with rap becoming so melodic. R&B singers often have to collaborate with guest rappers to generate interest, but with the exception of Ty Dolla $ign and a few others, their hook services aren’t as sought-after as they were in the past. Rappers with melodic chops often handle chorus duties themselves or get another rapper to do so.
Hip-Hop and R&B were once intertwined, but now the lines between the genres are often blurred. The delineation is especially tricky to pinpoint in the age of post-Drake R&B. Artists like Bryson Tiller and 6LACK are hybrids rooted in R&B (though Bear made his bones battle rapping in Atlanta). Bryson, 6LACK, and Drake, among others, can run through the full spectrum between hip-hop and R&B in a single verse, sometimes even within a few lines. Take the first verse of Tiller’s “Exchange” for instance. The opening lines sound like the midpoint between rapping and singing, until Bryson breaks into full croon: “Lord please save her for me/do this one favor for me.” He raps for much of the second verse.
R&B has changed. It’s become a bit of a sponge that absorbs adjacent genres like hip-hop, pop, electronic, alternative, and indie.
Artists like Rod Wave, Toosii, and Don Toliver aren’t hybrids (though Toliver reportedly has real R&B music on the way). They’re melodic rappers. Some think the key to more recognition is for melodic rappers to start identifying as R&B singers. That way of thinking is an affront to purists, though. Singing doesn’t automatically qualify music as R&B. Future’s HNDRXX isn’t an R&B album. It’s a Future album. Drake and Childish Gambino are two of the rare rappers who also make legitimate R&B music. R&B once shared space with rap on popular radio stations like New York’s Hot 97, Los Angeles’ Power 106, or television shows like BET’s 106 & Park. Now, it’s struggling to get attention on the same platforms. There’s already a limited amount of real estate dedicated to singers. Wave, Toosii, and Toliver taking slots away from, say, Giveon and Kaash Paige, would be harmful to the development of the genre.
In this instance, purist ethos is safeguarding the genre, but it’s necessary to abandon old R&B conventions and become more inclusive for it to thrive in the future. Not many of the R&B artists bred in the blog or streaming eras are cut from a traditional mold. Even singers who are classically R&B, like H.E.R., occasionally reveal influences from other genres. R&B has changed. It’s become a bit of a sponge that absorbs adjacent genres like hip-hop, pop, electronic, alternative, and indie.
The identity of R&B and mislabeling aren’t the only issues holding the genre back, though. There are opportunities to strengthen parts of the ecosystem that could potentially put an end to the “R&B is dead” whispers.
The R&B audience is currently fragmented. A big part of the base consists of traditionalists and alternative listeners who aren’t aligned on the definition of R&B. But it’s crucial to unite all fans, artists, and influencers of the genre under one umbrella to show the full scope and strength of R&B.
The genre was in desperate need of new outlets when talk of its death originally gained steam. And its resurgence over the past five years coincides with the rise of a powerful new medium: streaming. Playlists like Spotify’s Are&Be, curated by Mjeema Pickett, and Apple Music’s R&B Now, curated by Alaysia Sierra, have arguably become the two most important destinations for the genre. Sierra is also part of a selection committee for Up Next, Apple’s emerging artist program. To date, 25% of the artists selected have been R&B singers.
There’s never been a better time to amplify Black voices, and what better way to do so than to make sure a Black genre is appreciated for its full worth.
Swizz Beatz and Timbaland’s Verzuz battle series has also become a thriving home for R&B. The series has featured Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Brandy, Monica, John Legend, Alicia Keys, Babyface, Teddy Riley, Patti LaBelle, and Gladys Knight, to name a few. To date, the R&B matchups have been the most popular Verzuz showdowns, with the battles always resulting in an increase in catalog streams for the participants.
There’s still a need for more champions and platforms, though. Mainstream publications may write about R&B stars, but the genre generally isn’t prioritized. Kaash Paige’s “Love Songs” and Foushee’s “Deep End” exploded on TikTok, but the app isn’t exactly a driver of R&B discovery. At least for now. We need more specialty outlets.
Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber’s recent attempt at R&B music is also a testament to the genre’s influence. There’s no reason R&B artists shouldn’t get comparable budgets or support from their record labels, especially at a time when Black music is so dominant.
We have to take control of the narrative, and the responsibility falls on everyone who cares to push R&B forward. Still, labeling may be the most crucial piece of the puzzle. As long as R&B is submitted under other genres, the “R&B is dead narrative” will persist.
There’s never been a better time to amplify Black voices, and what better way to do so than to make sure a Black genre is appreciated for its full worth. In this particular case, the onus is on the labels and artists. Everyone else will fall in line. If you’re a music executive, don’t try to persuade artists to distance themselves from R&B because you think it doesn’t sell. It’s simply not true. And if you're an artist, don’t think of R&B as being restrictive. It doesn’t have to be, especially in a time where so many genres blend together. Having stars like Walker, Aiko, Kehlani, and Taylor embrace R&B, instead of distancing themselves in the aforementioned Billboard cover story, is important.
If all of R&B music is submitted under the proper banner moving forward, the numbers will reflect what R&B truly is: one of the biggest, most influential genres in music today.