Those of us who love R&B rejoice knowing that the zenith has been archived. Many will make the case that the greatest era of Rhythm & Blues existed during the period of Motown, the Detroit based subsidiary started by Barry Gordy. Personally, I’m partial to contemporary R&B; the 1990s was an epoch that gave us “One Sweet Day” by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men, “Creep” by TLC and “Down Low” by R. Kelly, arguably the King of R&B. We were but halfway through the decade when Babyface gifted the world with the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack and Michael Jackson commemorated his historic career with History: Past, Present & Future. Toward the 2000′s, the greats passed the torch to new and equally talented artists like girl-bands, SWV and Destiny’s Child in addition to a male R&B act who would eventually record one of the greatest selling albums ever: Usher Raymond. Take a moment of silence for the ex you think about every time you hear “Burn”. What’s interesting about the year Confessions dropped is that soon after I couldn’t recall much notable R&B albums being released. Some time or another between 2004 and now, Monica dropped The Makings of Me, but it didn’t have the groove of Miss Thang. Toni dropped Libra, but it didn’t have the groove of Secrets. Mary J. Blige, bless her yelling soul, couldn’t buy a new fan even if her albums were selling because she wasn’t depressed and we weren’t having it! By 2008 artists like Kelly Rowland had abandoned R&B and sought after the money-making genre, pop.
By the beginning of 2012, everything that was making noise on music charts was considered pop. Household names in the industry were pop sensations like Katy Perry and Bruno Mars, not to mention crossovers like Rihanna, Ne-Yo and Chris Brown–all whom have roots that trace back to R&B. For years now, there’s been a fine line between the two genres. Perhaps we can blame the Grammys, the AMAs (American Music Awards) and radio stations for cross-categorizing the artists (think back to Tina, Prince, Dionne, Whitney) and blurring the distinction between good R&B and another song for the radio.
Hang in there; I’m making a point here.
So brunch conversations amongst my friends and I are fairly predictable. There’s a discussion about current events, upcoming travel plans, gossip regarding someone who’s knocked up (and likely unmarried) then chatter about B-list celebrities (insert Real Housewife franchise of your choice here). The conversation will generally culminate with a disagreement about music. For the sake of hypertension we leave Whitney out of the repartee. We debate Beyonce’s undeniable status as an icon and successively shade Keri Hilson. Recently, however, one comment stuck to me like the shrimp and grits I tried to down with glass after glass of champagne. An acquaintance, who’s obviously been under a rock since Adele emerged with 21, asserted that R&B is dead. For a moment I agreed, forgetting that all year long numerous artists, new and old alike, have released material that’s reminiscent of the R&B we grew up listening to. Finally I was able to articulate one thought before I dropped my imaginary mic a la Jay-Z: R&B is back.
It’s back–back like it never left. At one point this year I wasn’t able to keep up. I can’t think about summer without thinking about Frank Ocean. Ocean, in turn, leads me to think of Miguel, who is also contending for his first Grammy Award in 2013. Miguel is touring now to promote Kaleidescope Dream, alongside Trey Songz and Elle Varner – another singer/songwriter whose musical contribution to 2012 mustn’t go unmentioned. SWV came back for the first time since 1997 and even Alicia Keys gave us something new. Though I’m not a huge fan, English R&B recording artist Estelle released All of Me in February and received good reviews from Rolling Stones and USA Today. Doubtful that he’ll ever live up to the 8701 or Confessions hype, I was pleased with Usher’s summer release Looking 4 Myself. It’s a strong contemporary album by Usher, an artist who debuted when we were still rocking out to Kriss Kross. Finally, as if it was the year of the comeback, Brandy’s sixth studio album (Two Eleven) marked a solid return to the industry for the seasoned songstress just a couple of months ago. I’ll likely get stoned by her stans for this but it’s not the best thing since sliced bread. Kudos to Brandy for a strong attempt – she still sounds amazing and is looking much better since the box-braids.
Don’t insult these hardworking artists by saying R&B is done. While it’s possible to conclude that it’s evolving to a blend that’s less soul, more pop, the genre is still in rotation and actively influencing music from many of our current favorites. I’ll wrap this up by noting that the hiatus is over. As long as John Legend can still make magic with a Steinway and a microphone, contemporary R&B will be a mainstream genre of music. If, for whatever reason, it meets an untimely demise, might we all seek refuge with a listening party that commences with The Velvet Rope and ends with the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill?