At last Sunday’s Grammys, Chris Brown, adorned in his best white pimp suit, told Ryan Seacrest he hopes that R&B is headed back to its roots. “A lot of the music nowadays, I love it, but it’s very gimmicky. Even some of my music is gimmicky,” he laughed. “But I just want to go back to the real music—a lot of instruments, the real band, essence of being able to perform and be an entertainer.”
While what he said to Seacrest sounded deep, God help us if Breezy is R&B’s white knight. Luckily, Brown’s sentiments have already been put forth by other artists. Lately, a lot of R&B stars have been complaining about the state of R&B. So, basically, themselves.
Brandy kept going on to BET about “the authenticity” of the genre, recently claiming “A lot of people in today’s time are not into making great albums. They are just into being hot for the moment or making money quick and fast. When money is at the forefront of your artistry then your artistry suffers.”
Yet, quickly her comments clearly become a defense of her own poor sales. “That’s one of the reasons why I am so proud of Two Eleven because I wasn’t afraid to take a chance on where I come from, which is R&B music. Whether it takes me to Europe or not, I wanted to stay true and give back to that genre and give that genre a chance because it’s still alive.”
Two Eleven barely took Brandy to a gold record, much less Europe. But she does underscore the conflict many big R&B stars seem to be naming–make authentic R&B or “sell out” and make commercial records.
Even Beyonce faced this dilemma with her last release, 4, which was hailed as a more traditional R&B album. Recently, she defended 4 and her upcoming record, by saying that she wanted to hark back “to the 90s, when R&B was the most important genre, and we all kind of want that back: the feeling that music gave us.”
Her commitment to 90s R&B already sort of paid off. On Sunday, Beyonce won a Grammy for “Best Traditional R&B Performance” for “Love on Top,” a number most inspired by 1960s Motown and the Jackson 5. Yet, she had to move into the “traditional” category to win. “Love on Top,” while certainly a hit, was by no means a smash by Beyonce standards. And, lest we forget, 4 did lead with “Who Run the World (Girls),” a more contemporary number, as its first single. So, Beyonce’s strategy is to bait listeners with a commercial single, and then make them sit through more traditional work.
She’s clearly found a way to have her cake and eat it too, but hasn’t really provided any insight into making more traditional R&B popular.
One of the old vanguards of 90s R&B had to chime into the conversation. In an interview with Lifestyle Magazine, Brian McKnight had some thoughts on the current R&B market, and the dominance of hip-hop. “I think that it’s melded itself into a hip hop/singing category. We don’t have a name for it but I think that because there are people singing over these hip hop tracks, people tend to call that R&B, ” he said. McKnight continued, lamenting that “there are those of us out there who are now in our late 30’s/40’s who are still making it, unfortunately, that’s not mainstream enough.”
McKnight does make a fair point about the dominance of hip-hop. The rap/sung collaboration, introduced into the mainstream in 1995 when Mariah Carey (who has remained silent on the state of R&B) collaborated with ODB on “Fantasy,” also tends to dominate R&B radio.
A few artists have been touted as saviors of the genre. Frank Ocean, Ne-Yo, and Miguel to name a few. What these artists prove though, is that a throwback just to throwback isn’t the answer. All of these artists are actively inspired by older R&B, but still use modern, more commercial stylings. Take Ne-Yo’s biggest song, “Let Me Love You,” which arguably features the closest thing we have to 1990s “slow jam” vocals. Yet, the beats underneath are nothing like the 1990s.
The answer is not for singers to become R&B martyrs–abandoning commercial music and sales for artistry–but rather decide what aspects of the genre are worth saving. With new albums by Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, Ne-Yo, McKnight, Brown, and others on the horizon in 2013, hopefully that is a question that will be considered.