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How Childish Gambino, Janelle Monae, H.E.R. and More Made R&B New Again

R&B has been riding a roller coaster over the past few decades, swooping from its commercial and aesthetic peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s to a low point around 10 years ago, when it was little more than a melodic appendage to rap’s rhythms and rhymes. What was once a cultural signpost — a sound that helped define black life, love, culture and protest — had become a sidebar due to the preeminence of hip-hop. 

But thanks to hip-hop’s dominance on the radio, a cross-fertilization has taken place and the genre has found renewed life by mixing with both rap and alternative music, vaulting out of “adult contemporary” territory via a new wave of diverse, distinctive soul singers such as 2019 Grammy nominees Childish Gambino (aka singer-actor Donald Glover), Janelle Monáe, Khalid, Solange and SZA and newcomers like H.E.R. — who scored a whopping five nods — Ella Mai, Daniel Caesar and Jorja Smith.

“R&B may have fallen out of fashion because it became too predictable, with nothing to surprise us,” says Peter Edge, chairman and CEO of RCA Records, home to Grammy-anointed Gambino, SZA and Khalid as well as genre matriarch Alicia Keys, H.E.R. and Normani. “Our artists now don’t quite fit in what was previously considered R&B — we have less of a tendency of putting artists in specific boxes or genres.”  

Although Edge, one of the executives most familiar with the U.S. R&B terrain, is British, his history in the genre reaches back to the mid-1980s, when he founded the Cooltempo label (releasing records by such artists as Eric B. & Rakim, Monie Love and EPMD), and later Warner Bros. in the U.S., where he worked with Meshell Ndegeocello and the Jungle Brothers. Given that background, “we’re not turned off by our new artists walking untested grounds” at RCA, he says.

Indeed, the Sony Music-owned label is leading the charge on a crop of singers whose influences span genres and generations, combining music the artists were raised on with the limitless listening possibilities available since the advent of streaming services. To wit: Jorja Smith, 21, has a sound that plays like a fusion of Amy Winehouse, Sade and early Erykah Badu; she cites Nina Simone and Nas — played regularly by her parents — as the soundtrack to her childhood. The same can be said of Khalid, who “grew up online, and took advantage of that, but with a mother who sang classic R&B,” says Tunji Balogun, RCA’s exec VP of A&R. 

Khalid, who has performed on five top 20 singles before reaching his 21st birthday, says he signed with the major because RCA “understood my vision and could help me find ways to amplify it.” He adds, “It was important that I was given the freedom to be myself creatively.”  

That creativity is reaching more ears than ever: Together, R&B and hip-hop claimed 31% of total album-equivalent volume for the first half of 2018, surpassing rock, which is the second-biggest genre at 23%, according to Nielsen Music. On the radio dial, among people 18-49, the average quarter-hour audience share of Urban Contemporary stations has increased by 15% in the past four years. In fact, African-American listeners make up 13.5% of the total national radio audience (people ages 12 or older), and listenership among African-Americans is up 5% in the past half decade. As a group, African-American audiences interact with radio more than any other medium, according to a study that appeared in Forbes.

Perhaps the best proof of the movement’s peak in the past couple years is the number of artists who are being recognized by the Grammys for advancing the medium — and they’re not only nommed for R&B and Urban Contemporary awards. Gambino, Monáe, H.E.R., Smith and last year’s multi-nominee SZA (who scored four nominations this year for her featured soulful singing on Kendrick Lamar’s “All the Stars,” from “Black Panther”) all earned nods in the awards’ big four categories. 

So what brought R&B back? The caliber of the artists, contends Derrick “DC” Corbett, program director at Philadelphia iHeartRadio R&B stations Power 99 and WDAS. “Last year, we saw with Bruno Mars, H.E.R., Ella Mai, Jacquees and Daniel Caesar that the younger audience is more accepting of this art form because the quality of the music is simply better,” Corbett says. ” Mai’s “Boo’d Up” was one of the biggest singles of the summer. “It’s not melodic hip-hop or trap soul or some of the monikers that have been passed down to avoid the R&B title,” Corbett continues. “This new stuff is just good R&B music that happens to lean on [1990s-era] forefathers like D’Angelo, Usher, Alicia, Mary J. Blige and Babyface in its styling.”

One of those predecessors, Angie Stone, witnessed firsthand how hip-hop diluted R&B. Stone started her career as part of hip-hop trio the Sequence, worked with D’Angelo and then went solo as an R&B artist in 1999. “At the beginning, I felt like Madonna, as [label executives] catered to me as an R&B artist, concentrating on my craft while everything from my hair and wardrobe was handled for me,” she tells Variety.

But Stone believes the merging of pop and hip-hop superstars — particularly “Jennifer Lopez hooking up with Puff [Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs]” — placed focus on looks and marketability. “After that, in came Beyoncé, Christina [Aguilera], Alicia Keys and Justin Timberlake. From there, R&B only stayed relevant if it was connected to hip-hop,” says Stone. “That’s how hip-hop became what it is now. It had to gather elements of the mainstream to get, and stay, on the radio. R&B got smothered loaning itself to hip-hop.”

R&B music resurgence
CREDIT: Gary Kelley for Variety

Terrence “Punch” Henderson, president of Top Dawg Entertainment, home to Lamar and SZA, is about as influential a hip-hop tastemaker as they come. He too sees the melding of the two genres as a way to gain greater exposure overall. “What attracted me to SZA initially was the distinct nature of her voice,” he says. “When I paid attention to the lyrics, she approaches ideas as a rapper would, and what she was saying was raw and honest. Everybody on a global scale can relate to that.”

An emphasis on personality is another key element of the genre’s resurgence, notes Joie Manda, exec VP of Interscope Geffen A&M, which has invested heavily in R&B in recent years with artists like Grammy nominee Mai, 6lack, Summer Walker and Ari Lennox. Unlike many hip-hop and pop fans, the R&B audience isn’t looking for just a song, Manda says, it’s looking for a star, an artist it can fall in love with and see in concert. “Fans want to know that artists in the R&B space can perform and put on a show,” Manda says, referencing the genre’s long lineage of showmen and -women. “When you look at R&B artists and go back to the past, there’s been one-hit wonders, for sure. But the ones with legs are judged on albums, what their show is like and their taste. Mary J. Blige made iconic records, yes, but her look, vibe and attitude was equally iconic. In R&B, it’s not just about trying to get a record off — it’s about a point of view, cohesion.”

That perspective is echoed by veteran hip-hop/R&B executives Phylicia Fant and Shawn Holiday, who were named co-heads of Columbia Records’ revamped Urban Music division in December. With a roster that ranges from Beyoncé and Solange to Leon Bridges and Raphael Saadiq to new artists Polo G and Lil Tjay, Fant and Holiday emphasize the importance not just of personalities but of narratives to go with them.

“Right now, I think everyone wants to hear a story, so when you ask how do you market R&B as opposed to hip-hop, it’s about emotion,” says Fant. “R&B is pure emotion: a voice you can feel. And we market R&B through experiences” — live performance.

“Hip-hop gathered elements of the mainstream to get, and stay, on the radio. R&B got smothered loaning itself to hip-hop.”
Angie Stone

“At Columbia, we have new artists who are 16 and 17, but they have lived lives, too, with stories full of pain, joy and frustration,” she continues.

That connection is largely cultivated gradually through the music, rather than immediately via social media or playlists, the way hip-hop and pop are. “R&B playlists don’t have the reach that rap and pop playlists have,” Manda notes. “You don’t see R&B hits go immediately onto Rap Caviar [Spotify’s most popular playlist]. You have to have dedication when you’re dealing with R&B. It’s a slower burn with a longer road and a bigger time investment — you can’t rush it.” 

Equally important, Holiday maintains, is for executives to trust artists’ relationship with their audience and know when to step back. “It’s our job to sometimes let the artist teach us where to go,” he says. “It’s a partnership. That goes for the upcoming Solange album and albums by Raphael Saadiq and John Legend, or records by younger acts like Polo G. It’s about balancing young and old. That’s how you build and maintain new R&B’s legacy.”  

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