For decades, rock has been the dominant genre in the U.S., consistently beating out other genres on the charts. Times are changing. As of now, the blended genre of hip hop and R&B is number one. Though this is partially due to a change of a popular medium for consumption, i.e. more people streaming music instead of purchasing C.D.s, it seems that this newfound dominance could also be attributed to the diversification of the genre. Hip hop, or its nearly synonymous label of rap, is a whole topic in itself (check out the first issue of I Am Entertainment coming out this September for a complete history of the genre), but possibly even more complex is the development and evolution of R&B. Where before, R&B was the source of all your favorite slow jams to pine over a breakup or get freaky to, it is a lot more than just that now. Of course, sex and heartbreak is always going to be present; it’s a staple of the genre that no one wants to see go away. We still have the heartthrobs in the spotlight, such as Trey Songz and Chris Brown who scratch that sensual itch we have with their smooth beats and even smoother lyrics.
These are not the only R&B artists getting attention, though. After the late 2000’s and 2010’s, R&B began to be somewhat of a niche interest, falling off a little from the genius that existed in the 1990’s. It was difficult for an artist within the genre to make it unless they paired their sound with EDM bangers, such as collaborations with the likes of David Guetta. The genre seems to have been re-energized recently. We now have new artists, along with their new sounds, dominating the platforms they are on. While artists such as PartyNextDoor and Bryson Tiller still touch on many of the same topics of love and sex, the sound is something new. They play with more nuanced beats, mixing the sounds typical of classic R&B songs with influences from other genres such as electronic, psychedelic, soul, trap and pop. It seems hard to define these artists solely as R&B artists, because they don’t fit so neatly into one category. Frank Ocean is a perfect example of this, with the release his 2012 album “Channel Orange” being a monumental event in R&B history. The songs move seamlessly between anything from retro keyboard runs to poppy beats to subdued drum beats. It truly is like no other album before.
One thing that much of the R&B music we hear nowadays brings one word to mind: trancelike. These hypnotic, ambient beats we hear relax the soul and make the music more of an experience rather than just a song. Artists are getting a lot more creative and daring, composing pieces that you can really feel in your bones. This evolving genre creates music that can simultaneously relax and energize you depending on what you want to take from it. A phrase, “feeling glum in the club” has been used to describe it, and that couldn’t be more spot on. Sometimes quite literally, subdued bass beats echo in the background as if you’re in the bathroom of a club while somber melodies take the forefront.
The realness and complexity of the music changes the face of R&B from smooth heartthrobs to slightly bizarre, vulnerable individuals. There is a realness in both the music and the artists. As mentioned before, sex is no longer the singular topic of interest, adding to the realness. Drugs, personal philosophies, spirituality, and insecurities are just a few other themes that dominate the R&B sphere. As mentioned in my first post on this site, SZA speaks to issues that women in the 21st century face, Khalid touches on the American teenage experience, Frank Ocean dabbles with questions of homosexuality, Solange recounts a personal response to racial tensions, just to name a few. These artists are pouring their whole souls into the music.
Possible another reason why this genre seems so open and hard to pin down is not just because of outside influences entering, but also the affect that R&B has on other genres. It seems that a lot of pop artists, such as Charlie Puth, have a noticeable flare similar to what you may expect of R&B. Even in rap. It may seem like a trivial connection, but it feels like a lot of rappers want to be singers now. The autotuned, melodic rhythm is straying farther from what rap used to be, using artists such as Future, Kanye West and Lil Wayne as examples. Of course, there are a lot of components that go into an individual artists sound, and trying to place them within the confines of a certain genre can be stifling to their creativity, but it’s still an interesting observation to make.
To get my take on the new R&B, listen here: