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‘Real R&B’ comes back, seeks to remain

At this year’s Grammy Awards, the narrative focused on rap’s prominence among nominees in the major categories after historically being overlooked.

So when Bruno Mars, one of the most successful pop stars on the planet, bested Kendrick Lamar in every major race, the Grammys were once again seen as favoring commercial acclaim above the rest.

Excluded from the conversation, though, was that Mars had cleaned up with an album of modern new jack swing – a subgenre of contemporary R&B innovated in the late 1980s that connected soul and funk with hip-hop beats.

Such is the story of R&B. Always prevalent, yet often forgotten despite the rise of R&B-infused hip-hop and pop on the charts, on radio and on streaming services.

Yet between Mars’ Grammys sweep and an influx of young fresh faces – Ella Mai, H.E.R., Daniel Caesar, Jorja Smith, Queen Naija – this has been a year in which R&B is a central part of the pop conversation.

“Hip-hop has made this impact. People want to have fun and turn up – but people also want to hear raw, genuine emotions,” says rising R&B artist H.E.R.

For the artists, songwriters and producers trying to make a living in R&B, however, they still must contend with fewer platforms for exposure, hip-hop’s homogenization of radio and a widening generational divide.

Despite its mainstream comeback, R&B remains at a crossroads.

Golden age ends

“For a while, R&B itself was almost like a bad word,” says multiplatinum hitmaker Claude Kelly. “In essence, the genre was abandoned.”

This wasn’t always the case. For decades, its influence was indelible – particularly during the ’90s, an era often referred to as R&B’s golden age.

R&B also set the pace for hip-hop’s ascent as its artists leaned on the defining sounds of the genres – from lush soul melodies to jazz-infused grooves – to provide a crucial framework for rap records via sampling or getting singers on the hook.

Hip-hop’s increasing cultural dominance eventually eclipsed rhythm and blues, and many raced to keep up to the point where modern R&B was impossible to differentiate from rap.

But where R&B artists have really felt the pinch is record sales and radio play.

No genre has embraced the digital era as fully as hip-hop, with its artists leveraging digital streaming and online distribution platforms like Spotify and SoundCloud to get their music directly to listeners.

And no genre had been as dependent upon that old industry ecosystem as R&B.

In recent years, that reliance has shifted by necessity. Album sales have evaporated and, with urban radio dominated by rap and pop, R&B artists have had to learn to pivot in what has become a young person’s game.

What really hurt was physical CDs losing their power as big box stores reduced or abandoned CD displays.

“The demise of physical retail and the shift to streaming put R&B in a bad position,” says Alan Grunblatt, president of urban and rock at Entertainment One.

“An R&B album that was selling 150,000 copies its first week is now selling 50,000. The R&B consumer is still a physical consumer, and the transition has shifted the marketplace.

The radio problem

The effects of R&B’s digital disruption became far more apparent as streaming figures became a key factor in an artist’s sales and chart placement. Services like Apple Music and Tidal brokered exclusivity deals for releases and have, in a sense, become record labels. Sales figures are now measured differently, allowing artists who once thrived only online to land on charts, and it forced urban radio stations to fall in line to remain relevant with listeners. Streaming’s popularity even pushed an institution as unmalleable as the Recording Academy to rethink Grammy eligibility rules.

Mainstream pop radio, however, remains a different beast – one that has grown increasingly biased against R&B since rap infiltrated its airwaves in the 1990s.

Last year, Nielsen Music announced that for the first time in history R&B and hip-hop represented the most consumed genres of music – after combining album sales and streaming figures – outpacing rock and pop combined.

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