The genre of "rhythm and blues" has been experiencing a major identity crisis over the past few years, but when you dig deeper it becomes clear the uncertainty surrounding this style of music is anything but new. A very jarring, but clear, way to see this is by way of the names that Billboard has assigned to this at-times-vague genre. While it is currently called the R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart (and has been titled some variation of that since 1999), the list has gone through a series of names since its origin in 1942. A few:
The Harlem Hit Parade
Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles
Hot Soul Singles
Hot Black Singles
Hot R&B Singles
These titles not only show how racially aligned the genre has been over the years, but also the various styles of music that this "urban" (don't get me started on this word, not now) medium has taken on.
But it's not just the names. It's also the content included in these charts.
The list of songs that topped the Billboard Hip-Hop/R&B charts in 2011:
Trey Songz, "Can't Be Friends"
Jamie Foxx (featuring Drake), "Fall For Your Type"
Nicki Minaj (featuring Drake), "Moment 4 Life"
Chris Brown (featuring Lil Wayne and Busta Rhymes), "Look at me Now"
Miguel, "Sure Thing"
Kelly Rowland (featuring Lil Wayne), "Motivation"
DJ Khaled (featuring Drake, Rick Ross, & Lil Wayne), "I'm On One"
Big Sean (featuring Kanye West and Roscoe Dash), "Marvin and Chardonnay"
Lil Wayne (featuring Drake), "She Will"
Jay-Z and Kanye West, "N----- in Paris"
Wale featuring Miguel, "Lotus Flower Bomb"
Reading this list for the first time this morning, a few things immediately stood out. With the exception of Miguel, Trey Songz, and Jamie Foxx, nothing else on this list even begins to scream "rhythm and blues." It seems as if the genre has become synonymous with rap songs that have sung, slightly melodic hooks. (Important note: There is a chart just for rap, so know that these songs have their own space. But then there's the whole conversation about the difference between hip-hop and rap, which should happen, but not right now.) It's interesting to look at this list that R&B seems to currently rent space on, especially when looking back on the same chart from 10 years prior, in 2001. Actually, "interesting" is an understatement. It's shocking.
Destiny's Child, "Independent Women Part 1"
Jay-Z, "I Just Wanna Luv U (Give It To Me)"
Mystikal (featuring Nivea), "Danger (Been So Long)"
Outkast, "Ms. Jackson"
Joe (featuring Mystikal), "Stutter"
112, "It's Over Now"
Jagged Edge, "Promise"
Janet Jackson, "All for You"
Case, "Missing You"
Lil' Romeo, "My Baby"
R. Kelly (featuring Jay-Z), "Fiesta"
Usher, "U Remind Me"
Mariah Carey (featuring Cameo), "Loverboy"
Alicia Keys, "Fallin'"
Jagged Edge (featuring Nelly), "Where the Party At"
Mary J. Blige, "Family Affair"
Usher, "U Got It Bad"
Looking at these two lists tells the whole story of what's happened to R&B. For the most part, in 2001, R&B artists were either standing alone or outsourcing a verse to a rapper to give it either (1) crossover, or (2) hood appeal. Over the 11-year period since, the tables have turned. Very rarely is a present-day R&B singer pulling a "Case" and singing verses and the chorus with no rapper to be found. As for the outsourcing process, it has become flipped, with the popular rappers of the day now giving the handouts to singers to croon their choruses. It's unfortunate how it happened so quickly and seamlessly.
I've had many a conversation about what R&B needs to become a powerhouse genre again, and the conversation has often ended with, "You know it would all be fine if ________ would just come back." I've often agreed with that sentiment (along with the one that the core of R&B lies with groups and nothing will change until that cycles back). I've agreed, because rhythm and blues is a nostalgic genre. It often produces extremely (sometimes overly) emotional songs, and people align them with certain times of their lives. There's also the "baby-making music" aspect that has been alive since the Teddy Pendergrass/Barry White era and has marched on (albeit not as loudly and proudly) to the present day.
Two weeks ago, I excitedly wrote on the news that Maxwell was going on tour to play all four of his albums. My excitement was only dwarfed by that of the thousands upon thousands of women who are still screaming because Maxwell is going on the road. Yes, this news was great for Maxwell, and yes, this was great news for the public, but more than anything this was great news for the genre. It needs a boost like this. The excitement surrounding this announcement was something I hadn't witnessed in years for an R&B artist. Sure, people were scrambling to get tickets to see The Weeknd in New York City, but people have been changing their whole summer plans to land in one of the three cities that Maxwell is performing in. This was huge.
And then this morning happened. One of the few living men who could overshadow a Maxwell announcement of that magnitude announced he would reemerge at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans this summer, after a decade in the dark.
Yes, the news that D'Angelo was back in the studio had people excited, but new music after a long break can also be cause to worry. When a man hasn't performed in the United States in a decade, there's no telling what his new stuff will sound like. What you do know, however, is his old stuff, and as long as he hasn't gone all Lauryn Hill on us, D'Angelo cycling through any/all of 1995's Brown Sugar and 2000's Voodoo, plus a few new tracks, could be legendary. In the handful of hours since this announcement was made, I've watched as people frantically look at their summer calendar and online checking accounts to see if they could make a trip to NOLA to see this spectacle. Again, the news of this tour and new music is awesome for D'Angelo and the public, but arguably even bigger for R&B. This is what the genre sorely needs right now. One can only pray that the lead single on D'Angelo's new album isn't a club banger with Flo Rida and Calvin Harris. If that happens, then it's all over. I guess we'll have to wait and see.
Essence Music Festival tickets go on sale TODAY. Act accordingly.
Oh, and there's this, also known as "Reverse Kate Upton"