As I go through my mental record shelf of albums from the last 10 years that I’d like to feature in the event series, I’m not only alarmed by the lack of classic albums in R&B, but how stagnant and complacent the genre has become. There have been a few R&B artists and albums of note in the last decade, while in Rock and Hip Hop there have been significantly more. In the last ten years there have been major movements, fragmentations, and developments within Rock and Hip Hop while in R&B few. What’s missing is a progressive spirit within the mainstream and underground where contemporary R&B artists challenge modern conventions ultimately creating their own paradigm like generations past have. Music has always worked this way where each generation tinkers with and changes the previous generation’s model. A crucial example being the late 70’s early 80’s where the invention of the drum machine challenged artists to adapt to a new technology that inevitably changed music production. This change bought an updated approach to R&B where a new generation would have a sound and style that signified their youth as previous generations had (acoustic to electric instrument, Motown, etc).
Who were the trailblazing artists of the last ten years that not only defined R&B, but influenced music as a whole? The few successful acts pushing the envelope in the last 10 years did so with moderate attention compared to contemporaries in other genres. This argument pertains to both the mainstream and underground where innovation has been lacking. In the mainstream there was a super producer hangover with producers doing their best impression of The Neptunes/Timberland production or artists going directly to the source (unfortunately both production teams are past their prime). The prevailing influence of Hip-Hop is involved as well (good and bad which we will cover). In the underground most R&B artists have recycled J dilla style beat after J dilla style beat and rehashed the same themes of the last ten years. Underground fans have contributed by forgetting what drove them to progressive music in the first place by supporting recycled music and shunning innovation by established artists. If your criticism of Erykah Badu’s “New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)” is “its not Baduizm,” then you are part of the problem. The genre has also had no “Kanye West” transcendent artist who challenged artistic expression within a larger commercial framework. What there has been is the death of the R&B album, short lived singles, unrealized potential, record company bungling, disappearances, tired production, wtf’s, and luke warm fanfare.
In comparison to other genres in the last ten years there haven’t been many R&B acts that have taken the lead from artists of the previous decade continuing with their own direction enriching the art form and inspiring future artists. A few acts evolved sonically, but no one conducted an all out assault on the genre where the industry, and collective public had to stop and recognize it. After careful review of most national music media “Best Of The Decade” features I have come to the conclusion that these lists are R&B anemic. Of course a good amount of these outlets don’t know the genre like niche publications or sites that cover R&B, but it says something that few R&B albums got the attention of the national music media in 10 years.
Thinking about 2000-2009 the following questions come to mind…
Where were the new producers who would shape a new sound and direction?
Why didn’t artists pay attention to the few contemporary acts in the underground/mainstream who took creative chances and follow suit?
Why wasn’t there a label or scene that galvanized the public for an extended period of time and through this create a movement?
How much influence does fragmentation and the crumbling of the major label system have in this?
Who will lead the next movement?
A History Lesson
To levy this type of criticism I have to review major players and artists from the last 30 years that had a hand in creating what we know as R&B today. With this context in mind I can then dissect the era and discuss (and diss) what’s happened in the last ten years. By no means is this a history of modern R&B. It’s a snap shot (albeit a long snap shot) of the most critical moments in my opinion. We’ll begin where my generation and later ones know as the starting point for modern R&B…
Whitney Houston, with the help of legendary music executive Clive Davis, becomes one of the biggest R&B stars of all time with her self titled debut album going Diamond (were taking Michael & Janet Jackson out of the equation because they were pop quasars, beyond R&B). Houston’s debut album brings R&B to the general listening public’s attention going straight to the top of the pop charts.
Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and Babyface & LA Reid emerge from their respective groups, The Time and The Deele (JJ & TL are fired from The Time by Prince for missing a gig). Both duo’s proceed to be involved in majority of the major works of the 80’s collaborating with artists such as Janet Jackson, Pebbles, Alexander O’Neal, Vanessa Williams, and Bobby Brown. Both production duos are credited with helping to modernize R&B with their ability to effectively blend new technology and live instrumentation. Unfortunately their creation fragmented and branched off into hazardous territory getting into the wrong hands.
Teddy Riley of the R&B group Guy creates “New Jack Swing” a style of music that effortlessly combines R&B melodies with Hip Hop swing beats. Before this R&B and Hip Hop were like Church and State. They stood independently as their own separate entities. Riley produced the critical album “Don’t Be Cruel” by Bobby Brown which bought a Hip-Hop swagger to R&B changing the Marvin Gaye soulman role into the one we know today of the brash and braggadocios loverman.
MCA records becomes a major player in the R&B arena releasing some of the best R&B albums of the 80’s, continuing into the 90’s (including “Don’t be cruel” which went platinum 7x).
Uptown Records is formed by Andre Harrell. Uptown’s early roster includes Guy, Al B Sure, Jeff Redd, and Christopher “Nino stabbed me” Williams. With its close association to Riley, Uptown positions itself as the era’s New Jack Swing label. Through its Hip Hop inspired R&B releases and the stewardship of Harrell, Uptown releases some of the most progressive R&B records of the 80’s.
Labels: MCA, Uptown, Arista
Leading arists: Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown, Keith Sweat (produced by Riley), and Guy
Producers/Executive Producers: Babyface & LA Reid | Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis | Teddy Riley | Clive Davis | Andre Harrell
You had a international superstar in Houston. A pop star with thuggery edge in Brown. A soulful New Jack Swing crooner in Sweat and a R&B group that resonated heavily with the urban demographic (Guy). Two production teams that were involved in 80% of the era’s commercial and critical successes. A new sound (NJS) that incorporated Hip Hop allowing R&B to update its sound. From the international stage, mainstream, and the streets the genre was represented. The seeds were sown for…
With a commanding share of the R&B market MCA further entrenches itself, partnering with Uptown records. MCA provides Uptown with the use of its distribution and marketing arms. Uptown is later purchased by MCA.
Babyface & LA Reid form Laface Records and partner with Clive Davis’s Arista Records. With Atlanta as its label’s headquarters Leface brings a national spotlight to the local music scene signing and developing acts such as TLC, Toni Braxton, Usher, Tony Rich, and Donnell Jones. Laface becomes one of the most successful R&B leaning labels of the 90’s. The label’s early 90’s adult contemporary sound becomes a smooth R&B counterpoint to the swinging boom bap R&B of Uptown Records. Babyface & LA Reid also write and produce the Boomerang soundtrack which included the song “End of the Road.” Laface sells a billion records throughout the 90’s (I was to lazy to look up the actual figure).
With MCA Records backing and the emergence of Sean “Puffy” Combs, Uptown becomes one of the most prolific labels of the 90’s. The Label signs and develops a few of the biggest artist of the decade: Mary J Blige and Jodeci. The label also releases records from Heavy D & The Boyz, Father MC, and Soul For Real. Uptown works with these new artists and continues work with their first wave of artists Al B Sure, Aaron Hall, and Guy (Not that shabby of a roster..oh and they released Notorious B.I.G’s first single “Party and Bullshit”).
Major Moment: Shepherded by Puffy, Mary J. Blige takes the crucial step of singing over straight Hip Hop beats taking what New Jack Swing had hinted at to the next level. Her debut album “What’s the 411” is credited as being one of the first Hip Hop soul albums. Puffy ever the opportunist and genius that he is pairs Blige with Method Man on the “Your all I need (Puff Daddy Remix)” track. Blige is crowned the queen of Hip Hop and still resides on the throne.
R.Kelly (The albums: 12 Play / R.Kelly / R). Great albums. I’d rather leave it there because you can’t break down kellz in 3 sentences.
Teddy Riley forms the group Blackstreet. Their hit “No Diggity” is #1 on the billboard charts forever. Around this time a young Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo find themselves at Teddy’s Virginia Beach studio learning the ropes and helping him craft hits (“Rump Shaker” by Wreckx N’ Effect , “The City is Mine” by Jay-Z).
Emerging from Jodeci’s camp at the same time that Pharrell & Chad are in Riley’s stable is the production and writing team of Timothy Mosely & Melissa Elliott also known as Timbaland and Missy Elliott. Timbaland and Elliott go on to produce and write for everyone throughout the mid to late 90’s churning out hit after hit and releasing their own successful solo albums (Even though Timbaland’s solo/Magoo album track record is sketchy as hell). They make their biggest mark writing and producing for…
Aaliyah bursts onto the R&B scene with her first album “Age Aint Nothing But A Number.” Produced by R. Kelly the album fares well commercially and critically. Aaliyah’s second album “One in a million” largely produced by Timbaland and Elliot is critically praised for its direction and progressive take on R&B which was being bogged down in what was by then old New Jack Swing production values. Working with Timbaland and Elliot, Aaliyah produces her biggest hit with “Are You That Somebody” which critics have pointed to as a point where R&B evolved away from New Jack Swing’s influence.
Kedar Massenburg coins the term “Neo Soul” and builds the movement around new artists D’Angelo and Erykah Badu both signed to his Kedar Entertainment label. Although there had been a slew of Neo Soul artists across the pond in the early 90’s (Soul II Soul, Omar Lye-Fook, Brand New Heavies), his artists were the first Neo Soul acts to break through internationally and commercially. Badu, D’Angelo, and Maxwell’s debut albums scored well with mainstream audiences looking for a organic alternative to the popular mild electro/studder step R&B that Timberland & Elliot were pioneering.
Labels: MCA, Uptown, Arista, Laface, and Kedar/Motown
Vibrant R&B scenes: NYC and ATL
Leading Artists: TLC, Toni Braxton, Aaliyah, Missy Elliott, Badu, D’Angelo, Mary J Blige, Jodeci, R. Kelly, En Vogue, Mariah Carey, Blackstreet, New Edition, Maxwell, Lauryn Hill, Whitney Houston, Destiny’s Child, Babyface and a bunch of one hit wonder artists
Producers/ Executitive producers: Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis (At the height of their prime and work with Janet Jackson)| Timbaland & Missy Elliott | Teddy Riley (fading towards the late 90s’, especially after The Neptunes leave due to uncredited production) | Sean “Puffy” Combs | Andre Harrell | Clive Davis | whoever runs MCA at the time | Kedar Massenburg | Babyface & LA Reid
I think its safe to say the 90’s was the golden age of modern R&B. A lot of people seem to forget that Lauryn Hill’s “Miseducation” album came out in ’98. So thats in there as well. The amount of talent on the creative and business side in this era was amazing. The promise of modernization within R&B in the 80’s was realized and manifested during the 90’s in some of the best recorded works not just in R&B, but pop music. While the music was changing in daring ways with artists like Elliott and Aaliyah, Neo Soul was revisiting conscious ideals and themes of late 60’s early 70’s music providing a critical snapshot of the African American experience for a new generation. The genre also dominated the pop charts with artists like TLC, En Vogue, and Mariah Carey. Not only did the 90’s produce some of the best albums but it also represented a time where shallow and conscious ideals could co-exist on a radio station playlist. Destiny Child’s anthem “Can You Pay My Bills” could be played on the same station as the Quiet Storm set favorite “Ascension” by Maxwell. With a updated approach to a previous generations style (Neo Soul), a new emerging sound (Timberland/Elliott), and domination of the pop charts (Mariah Carey, TLC, En Vogue) all bases were covered. This was the golden age of modern R&B.
The last 10 years
After a decade like the 90’s how could any decade following it compare? The initial seeds planted by the 80’s pioneers took root and flourished in the form of a multi million dollar industry. With the emergence of the drum machine and synthesizers in the 80’s every style of music had to update and R&B was no different. A lot of established artists didn’t translate well (ex: ALL R&B artists of the 70’s other then Prince). Thanks to Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Babyface & LA Reid, and Teddy Riley as well as the new artists at the time, R&B was able to modernize for a new generation. Hip Hop helped provide a grit that R&B did not have before allowing it to speak to this new audience. The degree of innovation in the 90’s made R&B matter commercially, critically, and allowed it to resonate with various demographics. Reviewing the 00’s seems lackluster in comparison to the 90’s. Although we can reference great artists and albums from the 00’s, the degree of unrealized potential, tragedy, and missed opportunity is amazing. Check the technique:
In 2000 D’Angelo and Badu release what many consider the greatest albums of the their career’s, “Voodoo” and “Mama’s Gun” respectively. Both albums are seen as a progression beyond “Neo Soul” with “Mama’s Gun” and “Voodoo” garnering mainstream audiences and critical acclaim. Two years later D’Angelo goes into the abyss that he’s still in and Badu gets a case of writers block, releasing her next official album 8 years later. Maxwell disappears and doesn’t reappear until 2009.
The production team The Soulquarians consisting of Questlove, J Dilla, James Poyser, and D’Angelo forms. The Soulquarians produce “Voodoo” and “Mama’s Gun” as well as the Hip Hop classics “Things Fall Apart” by The Roots and “Like Water For Chocolate” by Common. Things fall apart (pun!) as quickly as they came together with the group dissolving 2 years after it began. D’Angelo falls from grace and J Dilla leaves to concentrate on a solo career. The decade is robbed of one of the most progressive and commercially successful production teams of the era.
The LA scene of the mid 00’s is greatly influenced by The Soulquarians weird electric R&B. The scene consisting of J*Davey, Sa-Ra Creative Partners, and Georgia Anne Muldrow make a splash and earn their hype within the blog cycle. J*Davey signs with Warner Brother Records, Sa-Ra signs with Kanye’s label, and Georgia Ann Muldrow signs with Stones throw. Due to label mismanagement, small budgets, spotty release dates, internal fighting and the passing of opportunity, none of these groups fulfill their potential. We missed out on a potentially great assortment of progressive R&B artists that could have succeeded commercially. Between the crew’s eccentric style, daring music, ability to write catchy songs, and industry connections I think they would have made “weird” and being unabashedly materialistic as cool as Kanye West has made it today. This funny story about the LA electric soul scene Questlove wrote sums up the collective frustration of everyone who pulled for this crew.
MCA records is absorbed into Geffen Records in 2003 and stops focusing on urban music. Kedar Massenburg’s label is absorbed into Universal Records and he is fired from his position as president. Andre Harrell resigns from his post with Uptown Records in ’98. The label is later absorbed into Universal Records. Laface is dissolved and its artists are moved into the Zomba Music Group label. Clive Davis is fired at Arista in 2000 and the label is later merged with BMG. This consolidation led us to where we are now with no prominent R&B focused boutique labels (with major label backing) that know how to develop artists.
Raphael Saadiq releases two of the most slept on albums of the 2000’s “Instant Vintage” and “Ray Ray.” Universal Records drops the ball by not promoting or marketing “Instant Vintage.” Industry rule #4080 also affects his protege Teedra Mosley’s superb 2005 album “Complex Simplicity.” Let’s add Ryan leslie to this list of artists that signed to crummy labels that did not understand or know what to do with their talent.
Lauryn Hill goes off the deep end and R.Kelly becomes more known for his legal troubles and hipster irony.
Timbaland and Missy Elliot perfect their sound and approach. After dominating the mid to late 90’s producing singles for various artists everything comes together in their work with Aailayah for her 2001 self titled release. “Aaliyah” sonically and thematically is leaps and bounds ahead of her previous efforts. Aaliyah had matured into a beautiful woman and was set to become an R&B icon her generation as Whitney Houston had for a previou generation. Unfortunately she dies in plane crash months after the release of her album. After Aaliyah’s death Timberland and Missy attempt to find a new muse, but no one comes close to the level of work that they did with Aaliyah.
The Neptunes pen plenty of pop/R&B singles for different artists (Timberlake, Spears, Stefani) but the R&B artists on their label, Star Trak never see their albums released. Star Trak manages to release Kelis’s first two albums “Kalidescope” and “Wanderland,” but they never take hold with radio or the mainstream. Things finally hit with her third album “Tasty” and the single “Milkshake” produced by The Neptunes. Before they can capitalize on the mainstream hit and the work of two previously ignored albums, Kelis and The Neptunes have a fallout in the midst of their creative primes. Now she makes whack house music and Pharrell has a mustache (again!).
TLC, Toni Braxton, Jodeci, En Vogue, Blackstreet, and various other big names from the 90’s fade. Mary J Blige takes the position of R&B elder statesman. Whitney Houston fell off of the map and sweated a lot. Destiny’s Child went through internal strife kicking members out. Beyonce works with the greatest producers of the era, but her material doesn’t resonate critically.
Alicia Keys (discovered by Clive Davis) was one of the only new artists at the time to do well commercially and critically. While Alicia is beloved by the masses you can make an argument that her first album was her only consistent great album. The other albums suffer from filler.
Here we are
The gains of the 90’s were dissipated due to industry bullshit, creative friction, the peak of established artists prime, bad luck, and lack of executive visionaries such as Davis, Puff, LA Reid, etc. You can also point to the lack of innovation where artists from the mainstream and underground didn’t embrace new ideas and approaches, instead recycling pop formula’s or standard low grade Soulquarians inspired production.R&B needed the influence of Hip Hop to help it bridge the gap. This influence helped the genre update and enabled it to speak to a Hip Hop generation in a language it understood. This blend has given us memorable albums and experiences. The problem I have today: you can’t tell the difference between the two. What’s the difference between an R&B song and Hip Hop song today? Their production values are the same. Between singers being featured on Hip Hop tracks and rappers featured on singers tracks you don’t know where the R&B starts and Rap ends. I would submit an argument that contemporary R&B artists are more influenced by rappers then their peers who sing.
Hip Hop has certainly been influenced by R&B as well. Since the styles began to really mix in the mid 90’s, rappers have begun to sing more. The invention of autotune has made it that every rapper now sings. At one time (two years ago!) a rapper needed a singer for the hook. Not anymore, they can do it themselves. Today there are rappers like Mos Def, Drake, Kanye, and Andre 3000 that can sketch melodies without autotune. They’ve eliminated the R&B singer from the equation entirely. Hip Hop is now R&B. The Love Below and 808’s and Heartbreaks was the beginning of rappers taking on both duties. Drake will soon release an album comprised of him exclusively singing becoming the first rapper to release a Hip Hop and R&B album in the same year. The line that was once solid between the two styles became visibly faint and then disappeared. What was once church and state is now peanut butter & Jelly mixed (eww). The president is now the pope. Today’s R&B remix features the biggest names in Hip Hop (current example: Deuces remix by Chris Brown featuring every top tier rapper possible). When a Hip Hop song is remixed do they get the biggest names in R&B to sing over it? No. Just one reflection showing Hip Hop’s commercial and cultural influence within R&B. This intertwined relationship has stripped R&B of the sovereignty it once had. R&B now evolves through Hip Hop’s framework. That in itself has kept the genre from being able innovate outside of Hip Hop’s influence. If we are ever going to see commercial and critical success like the 90’s again, R&B has to have its own individual culture while still taking influence from Hip Hop or any other style.
Two of my favorite R&B artists of the last 10 years are The-Dream and The Foreign Exchange. While they are different they share commonalities. Both challenge their respective peers in the mainstream and underground with consistent albums that are as enjoyable as their singles. Both are sonically daring always surprising listeners with subtle and sometimes bizarre musical direction. They have a small but rabid fan base devoted to their music. Both acts consistently change up their style from album to album and write and produce for other artists. They also suffer from the same things. Neither has the physical tools that fulfill the shallow requirements that we demand of R&B artists. Phonte of The Foreign Exchange is not a physical specimen like D’Angelo was during Voodoo. The-Dream is not as young or in shape as mainstream artists like Chris Brown. What they lack in physical requirements and polish of yesteryears R&B they makeup up for in pure artistry and musical individuality. These attributes have garnered both fans and respect, but not the widespread influence or due they deserve. Both artists incorporate Hip Hop like other artists but they’ve did it within the terms of their style. It is my opinion that these artists are creating a new modern R&B. One that we are in need of as much as we were in need of it when a 21 year old protege appeared on Johnny Carson or when Puff asked MJB to sing on a remix. One that is recognized as its own separate entity. One that exerts influence due to its outstanding works.
What’s modern now is old like the Doo Wop era Motown style that was out of date by the 80’s. We need daring artists to create this new R&B for a new generation. We need executives to nurture this type of artistry and understand that their in lucrative positions by aligning themselves with that “new.” We need a bizarro Teddy Riley to severe some of Hip-Hop’s influence on R&B so it can exist on its own regaining independence. We need cities that breed scenes like Atlanta in the 90’s. We need consistent albums from artists. We need dominate producers to create new movements/sounds and define this current decade. We need underground artists to take cues from mainstream artists and vice versa. We need a resolution as baby girl said.