"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." - Charles Mackay
Tuesday, July 12, 2005
R&B identity
R&B: Evolving to Regain Its Identity

By Mark Anthony Neal,

Resembling very little of the classic Rhythm & Blues style from which it takes its name -- and commonly viewed as the stepchild of soul, R&B has always had to fight for its legitimacy. The music that we call R&B today was the immediate product of corporate America's takeover of the black music industry in the 1970s. Much of the takeover's blueprint was contained in a mysterious document called the Harvard Report, essentially a class project done by a few Harvard Business School students in 1972. R&B was the ultimate corporate marketing plan devised to reach a wider spectrum of black audiences (and consumers), particularly an emerging black middle class, and as such so-called urban radio would play a pivotal role in its development. For nearly 30 years the genre has been synonymous with big-market urban radio; therein lies the tragic state of contemporary R&B.

Luther Vandross emerged as R&B's first legitimate superstar with his 1981 debut release, 'Never Too Much,' and it's a testament to how segregated the R&B audience was that Vandross was six albums into his solo career before he crossed over to the pop charts in the late 1980s. By that point R&B was in a transition (largely inspired by Teddy Riley's "New Jack Swing" production style), laying the foundation for seminal '90s R&B acts like Keith Sweat, Mary J. Blige, R. Kelly, Faith Evans, Jodeci, Gerald Levert, Maxwell, Jaheim and Ashanti.

The critical figure here is, of course, Blige, who with the help of folk like Sean "Puffy" Combs, Chucky Thompson and Dave Hall, helped marry R&B with hip-hop (a process begun when Rakim dropped some lyrics on Jody Watley's 'Friends' back in 1988). What Puffy and others like Dr. Dre (post-Death Row), Timbaland and the Neptunes did was give hip-hop a presence on mainstream urban radio that it never had, but that success came at R&B's expense. As hip-hop began to dominate the pop market, R&B was forced to sell its "soul" in order to compete with hip-hop in the paper chase. Acts like Ashanti, Ciara and Usher became the face of the genre -- artists whose commercial success was in large part predicated on their alliances to hip-hop producers (Lil Jon) or prominent posses (Murder, Inc.)

But chart-topping hits like 'Yeah' and 'Goodies' only explain part of the story of the current state of R&B. Much of commercial radio is now dominated by major entities like Clear Channel, Ennis and Radio One, and the competition for "rotations" on urban radio has intensified. As a result, the major labels (also going through a process of intense consolidation) have been the ones best positioned to get their artists on the air, and it has been much more difficult for smaller and indie labels to get their artists heard. Arguably, some of the best R&B of the last five years has rarely been heard on mainstream radio --the music of Eric Roberson, Joi, Rahsaan Patterson, Lalah Hathaway, Amel Larrieux, Goapele and Kindred are prime examples. Urban radio's conservatism, at least as expressed in terms of its non-diverse playlists, explains why artists such as Van Hunt, Res, Martin Luther and even Me'Shell NdegéOcello have had to explain that they are indeed R&B artists and not funk-rock mutants.

Thankfully the space of contemporary R&B began to open up with the success of John Legend's 'Get Lifted' earlier this year. Tellingly Legend came to our attention because of his collaborations with hip-hop producer Kanye West, but while the lead single was a Kanye special that didn't go anywhere, it was the sparse and sublime 'Ordinary People' that broke through to the masses. Legend's success probably has more to do with audiences tiring of the R&B pabulum on urban radio than anything to do with his talent (a few listens to Stevie Wonder's 'Innervisions' makes this point). But alas, R&B was allowed to be thoughtful and creative in ways that it rarely has over the past few years. While R&B stalwarts like Gerald Levert and Brian McKnight seemingly phoned in their recent releases, Legend and Martin Luther ('Rebel Soul Music') have tried to push boundaries.

The story is just as hopeful on the other side of the gender divide. While fans await Mary J. Blige's next project, Faith Evans, Tweet and Amerie have released solid recordings. Evans' 'The First Lady' hints at her evolving maturity as an artist and person, now that she's loosed from the Puffy factory. And for the record, 'Mesmerized' sounds like the ghost of Lynn Collins. Like her debut 'Southern Hummingbird,' Tweet's 'It's Me Again' is probably too restrained -- and dare I say sophisticated -- for run-of-the-mill R&B audiences. But the fact that she is getting support from her label suggests that it believes an audience exists for her music. Amerie's 'Touch' is the least interesting of the recordings, but '1 Thing' is the most affecting R&B single since Beyoncé's 'Crazy in Love.' Of course, both songs share the production vision of Rich Harrison who seems hell-bent in having go-go music finally break through to the masses.
posted by R J Noriega at 3:49 PM | Permalink |


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