Watching Good Morning America last week, I saw will.i.am and Kelly Clarkson announce the American Music Award nominees for 2013. I should not have been surprised when head shots of Miguel, Robin Thicke, and Justin Timberlake popped up on the screen. But I was, and I tried to shrug the unnameable disappointment off.
R&B/soul is my favorite genre of music. I pride myself in knowing the most obscure of forgotten groups from the 90s (Blaque, anyone?) There are whole swaths of hip-hop albums I’m ignorant of (for several reasons) mainly because I was knee-deep in Sade, Troop, Tony Terry, Peabo Bryson, Jade, En Vogue, and other talented R&B artists. Their music flooded my ears and provided the soundtrack for my formative years.
I’ll just be frank. The racial landscape of R&B looked drastically different then. Occasionally, a white artist broke through like Robin Thicke and Remy Shand, building on a tradition of blue-eyed soul by esteemed artists, (i.e Michael McDonald). I have tremendous respect for all artists who are dedicated to the sound and aesthetic of soul music.
But permit me a moment to mourn the fact that a genre traditionally dominated by black musicians is now legitimately predominately white. This is not a charge of appropriation, despite the controversial allegations of Thicke borrowing liberally from Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” for the summer hit “Blurred Lines.” This is a fan complaining.
Black R&B is riding on the same runaway train that hip-hop is on. A pattern occurs every two years: an R&B artist gains popularity, rappers take notice, and then said singer features on every new rap single for the next 12 months. It happened with Trey Songz, who featured on 10 rap singles between 2009-2011, but only 2 in 2012-2013. Miguel currently is rap’s golden feature crooner.
Rap bleeds into R&B via phrasing and imagery. Take, for instance, “I Invented Sex,” a wildly popular song where Trey rap-sings, “He ain’t in your world, you can take him off your atlas/ Girl, you on fire can I be the one you match with.” Haha. Clever. But he crams all those words into too-short bars and forces a staccato effect to his singing. Attempts like these to include forced lyricism in songs that have been traditionally well-paced blur the lines (pun intended) between rap and its sultrier cousin. RL from the group Next also noticed this phenomenon.
So where are all the black R&B artists? They’re still out there, but nowhere near as prominent as before. To be sure, the cross-genre popularity of Thicke and Timberlake contributes to their place in the AMA nomination list. Billboard combines the rankings for R&B and Hip-Hop, but a quick scroll shows that there are far more popular hip-hop albums than that of R&B.
As always, the solution is support. I bought Raheem DeVaughn’s September 3 release of A Place Called Loveland, and it’s growing on me. As yesterday’s R&B becomes more of an underground genre, fans will just have to keep their ears closer to the ground for music that brings back that old feeling. Til then, we can only hope R&B wakes up from this coma.