R&B isn’t dead, but it has changed over the years. Looking back on R&B over the past two decades, I can see why some may say it’s dying out, but I refuse to believe it. The music scene is constantly evolving, and R&B is no exception. Agreed, R&B may not be in its prime like it was back in the ’90s, but it’s a genre that still has so much to offer and will continue to do so.
The Evolution Of R&B
The much-loved genre of R&B, or “rhythm and blues”, dates back to the early 1940s. So, unsurprisingly, it’s gone through several changes in voice, style and sound throughout the decades.
Perhaps one of the most significant changes over the years was as hip-hop emerged. Somewhere between the late 70s and the early 80s, hip-hop began to take form in the Bronx of New York. With the emerging genre came a major shift in R&B. Artists began exploring different sounds as rapping and DJing became more prevalent in music in the Bronx and beyond. As R&B developed a whole new depth, the new sounds paired with disco and funk rhythmic elements meant R&B was more exciting than ever.
As the 90s saw hip-hop capture the youth’s attention, R&B continued to evolve as solo artists and groups began to merge both their sound and image. As the likes of TLC, Lauryn Hill and Mary J Blige rose to stardom, the new sound was dubbed “neo-soul.”.
By the time the 2000s rolled around, R&B artists had continued to work with rappers and hip-hop producers, filling the airwaves with the new type of sound as the two genres intertwined. As artists like Rihanna, Beyoncé, Chris Brown and Ne-Yo dominated the charts, their music shaped the R&B we recognise today.
Fast forward to now, and the R&B sound continues to draw influences from its rich history paired with influences of the 2010s and present-day music. As artists continue to experiment with different sounds and styles, we’ve seen elements of contemporary jazz, EDM, pop, and rock integrate into what we know today as “contemporary R&B.” In a nutshell, R&B has become more innovative while retaining an essence of soul that will never die.
Granted, R&B certainly looks very different from how it did just ten years ago, let alone 50, but it’s just as good to me. There’s no denying that R&B doesn’t feature in the charts like it once did today, but that doesn’t mean the genre isn’t doing well commercially. From Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange to Summer Walkers Over It, arguably, some of the past decade’s best albums have come from R&B artists.
Discovering R&B Music
If we look back at the early 2000s to 2010s, you’d find millennials sat in front of their TVs for hours on end watching MTV Base to discover the hottest new R&B tracks and artists. From Brandy’s “Baby” to Destiny’s Child’s “Bills Bills Bills”, there are too many iconic R&B videos to count.
As technology has changed, so has music and how it’s released. Today, artists can pump out music at pace thanks to technological advances and platforms such as SoundCloud, YouTube and social media. As TV networks struggle to keep up, they’re no longer the go-to place to discover new music.
As the barrier to entry is now really low, new artists and music are emerging faster than ever; some may say that R&B music has become harder to discover. I would argue that you’re just not looking in the right places. From Tiny Desk and Colors Studio to online blogs dedicated purely to R&B, there are plenty of platforms that have become go-to outlets for emerging artists. Plus, with radio, social media and streaming services, we’re spoilt for choice.
If you don’t know about Tiny Desk, get to know. Tiny Desk was born out of frustration back in 2008 after radio host Bob Boilen and NPR Music editor Stephen Thompson struggled to hear the music over the crowd noise at a bar. Stephen joked that the musician, Laura Gibson, should just perform at Bob’s desk. The following month, they arranged for her to do precisely that as they recorded the performance and posted it online. Over a decade later, Tiny Desk has delivered intimate performances from the likes of Jhené Aiko, Michael Kiwanuka and Jorja Smith. If podcasts are more your thing, they’ve got that covered too - you can find it here.
COLORS was created by Philipp Starcke and Felix Glasmeyer back in 2016. Fusing simplicity and great music, COLORS sees artists take to a coloured cube, designed to mirror a studio session. The platform quickly became a global tastemaker racking up millions of views every month, often springboarding artists to success as their premiered songs go viral. Following her 2017 COLORS performance, British R&B artist Mahalia said: “for emerging artists, it’s the most important platform”. From H.E.R to Rema, you’ll lose hours appreciating the endless talent on the COLORS channel.
Sleeping On Gems is our go-to IG when it comes to staying in the know with all things R&B. From nostalgic throwbacks to celebrating new and emerging artists, it’s a platform with a love of music at its core. If you’re not already following them, it’s about time you did.
R&B Artists To Watch In 2021
As unwavering R&B fans, it’s difficult to choose just a handful of artists to watch for 2021; there are so many emerging artists we appreciate. For now, here are some of our favourites.
If the first time you heard Giveon’s melodies was on Justin Bieber’s “Peaches”, you’re in for a treat. The US R&B artist self-released his debut single “Garden Kisses” back in August 2018, and he’s been releasing gems ever since. Last year, he featured on Drake’s hit song “Chicago Freestyle” before releasing his debut EP Take Time the following month. More recently, he dropped his compilation album When It’s All Said and Done, and it’s nothing short of a masterpiece. Listen to the sweet sounds of Giveon here.
Toronto Native Kennedy Rd has earned her spot in the wave of artists emerging from the city as she re-shapes the sound of R&B. As 90s Rhythm and Blues was the soundtrack to her life, the rising star is recreating the sounds she grew up on. She dropped her EP Still Love for her latest release, made up of 7 tracks that feel like a step back in time as she pays homage to that signature R&B sound. Listen to her music here.
East London's Scribz Riley dropped his highly anticipated debut project Wish Me Luck in October 2020 following the success of his single "East Side", "Mandy", and "Impress Me" which features Headie One. While he's only recently stepped into the spotlight as an artist in his own right, the multi-talented songwriter and producer has worked with J Hus, Chris Brown, and H.E.R. As if that wasn't impressive enough, Scribz also achieved two Grammy awards along the way. Check out his discography here.
At just 21, London’s very own Zion Foster has an impressive discography which is a nod to R&B from the early 2000s. In an interview with Notion last year, the social media sensation revealed that he’s a big fan of American R&B as he said, “that’s really where I got all of my inspiration and passion for music. It was heavily influenced by that whole aesthetic. I just wanted to bring it back.” From his feature on Brandz “Intro” to his most recent release, “No Regrets”, he’s done exactly that. As we patiently await the release of his new EP, listen to his work here.
Nigerian-born Shaé Universe started out uploading covers online, growing her platform dubbed “Shae’s Universe.” As she took fans back in time with nostalgic covers, she began releasing her own music. Establishing her signature sound, Shaé fuses R&B with other genres, including drill on her recent release “You Lose”. Following the success of her singles “No Stallin”, “Melanin”, and “Black Panther”, which saw her rack up millions of streams, we wait on her debut album. Until then, you can listen to her work here.
North London’s singer-songwriter Bellah is leading the way for the UK as the next wave of R&B artists emerge. Bellah introduces an Afro influence to her unfiltered R&B sound with her British-Nigerian heritage, delivering soulful and honest music. Her latest release saw her drop a 7-track album titled The Art of Conversation, featuring “Cause U Can”, a record about her lifelong battle with sickle cell disease. Judging by her Instagram, she’s back in the studio, and we can wait to hear her next release. Listen to Bellah’s music here.
As artists have fewer hoops to jump through, they’re able to experiment with their sound more than ever. So, while genres are more fluid than they once were and innovative sounds are continuously merging, talented artists continue to make great R&B music, and millions of fans are here to appreciate it. From Ella Mai to Enny, these artists deserve their flowers. I’ll say it again, R&B is not dead. Whether you’re feeling nostalgic or discovering emerging artists, may R&B and all its sub-genres feature heavily on your playlists.