I already wrote a piece on the whole king of R&B conversation, but it’s still on my mind because it’s created so many new questions. People have been questioning the talent level of this generation, and that particular inquiry has got me thinking. Where are we really when it comes to R&B? Better off or far from where we used to be?
Last year, 2017, there was a large part of Twitter who wanted to crown it as a golden year for the genre. Releases from SZA, Daniel Caesar, H.E.R, dvsn, and Future (yes, HNDRXX was R&B, fight me) were just a few of the many well put-together collections by the crooners of today. It was admittedly a standout year if we are looking at the previous decade, but is that just because the genre has been lacking?
It’s easy to be a prisoner of the moment and say R&B is the best it has ever been after one good year, without taking into account the fact the business has changed and we haven’t seen the story fully unfold. On the flip side it’s easy to say the current stars don’t compare to the legends because they haven’t put the time in. We have lived with the greats’ content for years upon years, and watched it age. There is too much nuance to have this conversation, but I’m going to really try this time.
I recall the 2006-2007 school year. I was in 6th grade and my mom would drive me to my middle school in Hoboken every day. She would play The Steve Harvey Morning Show, where Steve would primarily play newer R&B cuts but like the same eight. So, on most days there was a 75% chance I’d hear “If I Was Your Man” by Joe, “Please Don’t Go” by Tank, “When I See You” by Fantasia, “Change Me” by Ruben Studdard, or “Just My Imagination” by Boyz II Men.
I’m not exaggerating when I say 11 year old me was in his bag, singing along while staring out the window thinking about either the last girl who played me or the new one I was falling for. I don’t think I was alone in this feeling, whether among fellow 6th graders or adults. Hell, I can take it back earlier to 2001 when 112 dropped Part III and five-year-old me would cry any time my dad didn’t play it on the way to school. “Peaches And Cream” was my favorite song and music video, and I guess it got me hyped for kindergarten?
Those songs, at five and 11 years old, all had a certain sting because you could literally feel each artists’ emotions and passion put into the song even as a child. Those songs are timeless because the feelings they evoked will always be present in someone, from youth to adulthood. Each artists sound was also unique. Do today’s artists not also put their hearts into their songs, though? Are their feelings not relatable? Will I not be dancing to “Best Part” at my wedding fighting back tears so I can make fun of my wife while she bawls?
Artists like Jazmine Sullivan, Ginuwine, Beyoncé, Usher and R. Kelly could all co-exist and maintain relevance because there wasn’t the inherent competition found in R&B that manifests itself within rap. These artists all catered to certain niches. They also didn’t have the expectation or pressure to drop often. The genre, to most, still felt genuine, raw, and true. This is to take nothing away from the ability of the artists of today, as many do lay it all out there on their work. There is much talent, but the landscape is different. I feel like people don’t take the change in landscape into consideration, and are rather too quick to dismiss artists of today.
There is a severe inconsistency among fans of today. We incessantly look for something fresh and or the next best thing, but then after we’re done with them we switch up and focus on what’s lacking in them that our beloved older artists possess. I have no issue with someone disliking anything, but I’m skeptical due to the pattern I’ve noticed.
You would think the new age Trap R&B spearheaded by 6LACK and Bryson Tiller would be something celebrated, and it was for a period of time. In some ways, they remind me of T-Pain and Trey Songz though their styles are significantly different. They sprinkled slight nostalgia into a tray of new concepts and sounds. What was once celebrated has now become a question of their vocal ability. The shiny new toy is the source of contempt. The innovation we crave quickly becomes the change we hate.
It’s a numbers game nowadays, driven by singles primarily but it’s also a game of keeping attention. Some artists like Ty Dolla $ign and Ella Mai have opted to maintain a presence by staying in your face with music and collaborations. A larger volume of music available for consumption increases the potential for streaming success and being what is flowing through fans’ ears. Others, like Frank Ocean or Beyoncé stay quiet until it’s near their time to release, prime their fans with their rollouts and then drop their music off before going back into hiding.
It’s a concentrated tactic, with large impact in a shorter period of time and more focused on the quality or concept of the music. This can cause projects to live with fans longer because of the entire experience created. It is obviously worth note that both Queen B and Frank have elevated themselves to the upper echelon of the genre, so anything they do with cause a large impact for a long period of time.
Every generation has those people we can look back on and be like “man they really were a gem” but we have to allow time to pass before people can be regarded in that way. The same way you need some time away from that annoying friend to realize you do truly enjoy their presence, we need some time apart before we can look at the artists of today in the same way. This is not to say every single singer out right now will reach the levels Bobby Brown or Chris Brown have, but time will tell.
I don’t think we should be quick to push aside the talent of today, and often times I think we have an unhealthy attachment to what has past so much so where we have trouble fully letting in new acts. Us fans can be a tough bunch, and with so many different tastes I am not surprised as how many artists need to take time away because pleasing so many people is draining. With the critique and slander now easily visible at the swipe of a screen, it’s even harder. Is it worth putting your all into music if that still isn’t enough for fans?
I don’t speak for everyone but I do look at certain discourse with sympathy for artists of today. It’s a nasty game out here. I have love for a lot of them, but I equally have my critiques. I have my love for the elders of the game, but I equally have my critiques. This whole King of R&B conversation has revealed a lot, but I hope it leads to more music from everyone who chimed in with a Tweet or Instagram video. It would be exciting now, and 10-15 years down the road could immortalize an artist for responding well under pressure from their peers and fans.