Is R&B Having an Identity Crisis?

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."

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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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