Is R&B Having an Identity Crisis?

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Recent comments from musicians show anxiety about the genre's popularity—and about black artists' place in it.

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The-Dream performs in Charlotte, N.C. AP Images

The-Dream has written dance-pop hits for the likes of Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Mariah Carey, but his solo career has largely been about recording R&B. So he knows a thing or two about the phenomenon he recently complained about in the pages of The Guardian. "What's crazy is that blacks can't do soul records any more," he said. "We love Adele singing it, but Beyoncé singing it? No, the tempo's too slow, gimme the club hit. Now the blacks in America are responsible for the pop records, and everybody else is singing soulful records. It's weird to me. We're pigeonholed over there."

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What's striking, though, is that only a few days later, Stephin Merritt—singer for the decidedly un-club-friendly, un-R&B indie-pop act The Magnetic Fields—voiced similar concerns to LA Weekly. "I like Adele, though I have some reservations about why people like her," Merritt said. "She really has a lovely voice, but I only get suspicious when people get excited about British people who sound like American black people."

"Basically she sounds like Anita Baker," Merritt continued. "And people are not, you know, wild and crazy about Anita Baker. And I think about the whole, with the racism, when people love when British people sound like American black people."

Both remarks sparked criticism. Some questioned The-Dream's own role in the state of soul, while others charged Merritt with hypocrisy (he's faced accusations of racism, himself). And plenty of Adele fans were quick to argue that the singer's success comes from the quality of her music and the fact that it sounds different from anything else on radio. What's inarguable, though, is that the two men's statements speak to larger, widespread anxiety about the state of modern R&B—and black peoples' place in it.

It's not that there are no new black R&B artists. Singers such as Jazmine Sullivan, whom Adele beat out for Best New Artist at the 2009 Grammys, offer music just as soulful and introspective only with a minuscule fraction of Adele's fame. The same can be said about a gifted vocalist like Ledisi or Miguel. And it remains to be seen whether a newcomer like Stacy Barthe will enjoy Adele's success or turn out to be the Sharon Jones to her Amy Winehouse.

The problem, many black R&B artists say, is the way that in-vogue club pop sounds have infiltrated the genre they love. So-called R&B radio stations play music that, save for tracks from the likes of Trey Songz or Mary J. Blige, aren't actually R&B—yet get labeled as such because black artists are singing on them: tunes like Drake and Rihanna's "Take Care" or Usher's "Climax" (which Usher calls "electro soul," whatever that means). Earlier this year, Boyz II Men, who at their peak scored several megahits off their soulful tracks, made this point. On the state of contemporary R&B, member Shawn Stockman said, "It's taken a step to what I think really isn't R&B. It sounds more electro pop, I think the only reason people call it R&B is cos black folks are singing it."

In 2010, Erykah Badu turned off her radio and took to Twitter to complain as well about the "electro pop" turn R&B has taken, writing: "They playd 6 in a row today- #pop techno songs back to back with so called r&b and rap artists... on the [hip-hop] station. Where I been? Like I said, how y'all gone STAND by and let our music turn into pop techno cornball ass music?"

She went on: "I like the idea of no distinction in race when it comes 2 music, but SOULkeepers, U dont give up the boom bip and the hump 4 the payday."

Trey Songz, one of the few successful artists where the R&B tag is actually applicable, echoed Badu's thoughts in an interview with the Power 105.1 radio show, "The Breakfast Club." "The success of crossover is something we all want to attain, but the route to get there is what's important to me," Trey said. As for why so many of his peers have changed their sound, he acknowledges that it was "the easy thing to do right now to get a hit." Indeed, Trey noted that, "It's not cool to be an R&B singer no more."

As a child of the '80s, Trey can remember when it was cool and how soul singers didn't have to go so left to enjoy certain successes. He said he could recall "a time that Luther Vandross could sell out Madison Square Garden four nights straight with straight soul music and be in the top 100, but that's not what it is right now."

On that same show this week, another R&B artist, Dawn Richard (Danity Kane, Diddy-Dirty Money), spoke about trying to bring innovation to the genre but opting to start off independently releasing her music. It seems label reps would tell her they liked what they heard, but found the sound too risky to offer a record deal.

Rationalizing their ambivalence, Richard asked: "Why would you take a risk on a brown girl? There's no brown girl considered pretty right now poppin' in the game. A dark skinned game. Kelly Rowland? There are, but I'm talking about in that crossover world. They're not allowing it."

What has been allowed, though, is what's selling on radio. The traditional notion of R&B may not be dead, but it does seem destined to live in obscurity until popular tastes change again. As Badu put it, "I love house and techno as a side dish. But now it's served as the main course AND that's ALL u gone get."

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Michael Arceneaux is writer based in Los Angeles who has contributed to VIBE, XXL, Ebony.com, Salon, and The Root. He also writes on his personal site, thecynicalones.com.

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