R&B Music Today

To say that the way we experience music has changed dramatically over the last 20 years would be a profound understatement. Just in my lifetime, we’ve gone from records to cassette tapes to CDs to MP3s and YouTube clips. We’ve gone from radio to satellite radio to Pandora. Professional recording equipment has become available at commercial prices, and as a result there has never been more music produced annually than is being produced right now. So how have all of these changes affected the music being written and recorded today? Before I go willy-nilly into my own judgments of the current R&B music landscape, I will try to map out the scene as best I can into distinct categories.

Soul. Soul is still alive, barely. Thank god. In my opinion, the greatest music ever recorded is soul music. Ray Charles, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Temptations, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke. I don’t need to continue. Two men are keeping classic soul alive: Raphael Saadiq and Mayer Hawthorne. Saadiq has made his mark in R&B over the course of 20 years or so, from Tony! Toni! Tone! to Lucy Pearl to his solo works of the last decade. If you are familiar with these acts, you know that Saadiq has explored the entire realm of R&B – new jack swing, funk, neo soul, the whole deal. His latest album, The Way I See It, sounds like it came from the 1960s, and that’s why I classify it as soul rather than neo-soul. My favorite tracks include “Love That Girl,” “100 Yard Dash,” and “Never Give You Up.” I hope Saadiq continues on his soul jones. We need it.

Mayer Hawthorne, the other soul evangelist, has little in common with Saadiq. Hawthorne is a newcomer on the music scene. He is white. He used to be a rapper. On the other hand, the two artists’ respective wardrobes show signs of similarity. Mayer Hawthorne’s debut album, A Strange Arrangement, shines from start to finish with its signature soul sound. Its producer deserved a Grammy. My three favorite songs are “One Track Mind,” “A Strange Arrangement,” and “When I Said Goodbye.” There are other artists that dabble in soul, but not enough. Most R&B artists fall under the contemporary R&B/Neo Soul category.

Contemporary R&B basically means any R&B produced in the last 15 years. In the 1990s Neo Soul was a flourishing subcategory thanks to D’Angelo, Badu, and Lauryn Hill, but today Neo Soul tracks are not significant enough/numerous enough to be distinguished as a category. Neo Soul is dead. John Legend has gone poppy, D’Angelo is MIA, Musiq Soulchild has gone techno & b, and Anthony Hamilton hasn’t released anything in a while. Even Maxwell’s latest release has a more contemporary sound than a soul sound. Thus, we have contemporary R&B, which consists of mainstream radio hits like Jaheim’s “Finding My Way Back” and Jasmine Sullivan’s “Lions, Tigers, and Bears,” as well as lesser known tracks like Raheem Devaughn’s “I Don’t Care” and Kem’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Other artists include Dwele, Alicia Keys, Eric Benet, Ginuwine, Tank, Will Downing, Chrisette Michelle, and India Arie. Lots of artists that have produced great material in the past, but are struggling to come up with the goods in this decade.

With every ending there is a new beginning. Neo Soul has been replaced with Techno & B, as best evidenced by the recent songs from Musiq Soulchild and Usher. As we say in twitterspeak, Techno & B is trending bigtime. I use the term techno generally to mean computerized sounds, which may or may not explicitly resemble “techno” music. Essentially, it is dance and/or pop electronica elements infused into R&B. Think Usher’s DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love and Rihanna’s Rude Boys, songs designed solely to be played at nightclubs. Maybe Club & B is a better term. Either way, at some point we have to consider if this music can fall under the R&B headline at all. Another question to wrestle with is that since contemporary R&B has relied on produced beats and instruments instead of real instruments since the 1980s, is Techno & B unique enough to deserve its own subcategory? I say yes.

I would say artists such as Chris Brown, Ne-Yo, Trey Songs, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Ryan Leslie, and The-Dream comprise this category. For the most part, I find Techno & B nauseating, but there are actually a few gems here. Jamie Foxx’s “Fall For Your Type” and Miguel’s “Teach Me” stand out for different reasons but are both brilliant in their own way. Listen to Teach Me a few times, and then check out Me’shell Ndegeocello’s “Love Song #3.” Gotta love the R&B electric guitar…thank you Prince.

Perhaps the real challenge for R&B is more a matter of access than of a degrading product. In general, the music being provided to us just doesn’t quite cut it. With all of the technological developments, music is more widely available but good songs are also more difficult to track down. We have to agressively seek them out. This requires a significant amount of time and effort. So, what can we do? My advice is, when you find a new R&B song you love, share it! Word spreads pretty quickly nowadays.

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