R&B Is Back Under The Mainstream Light, Right Where It Belongs

Getty Image/Merle Cooper

Twenty years ago, Usher’s fourth album Confessions assumed the crown of 2004’s best-selling album in the US thanks to nearly 8 million copies sold nationwide. It sold more than double the release that came in second place, Norah Jones’ Feels Like Home. In addition to the immense commercial acclaim it received in 2004, Confessions remained atop the conversation around modern-day R&B in the years that followed. It’s ever-present on “Best Albums Of All-Time” lists while continuing to be mentioned as a body of work that influenced some of today’s biggest artists. Two decades and a diamond certification later, Usher’s Confessions, among his other work, finds itself in the middle of an R&B resurgence.

For roughly 13 minutes, Usher danced and skated all over the Super Bowl LVIII stage as he cruised impressively through performances of “Caught Up,” “My Boo,” “Confessions Pt. II,” “Burn,” “Yeah!” and more. It marked the second Sunday in a row that R&B was under the spotlight in front of a national audience that extended globally. The Sunday before Super Bowl LVIII was the 66th Annual Grammy Awards where Victoria Monét, who was tied for the second-most nominations, walked away with the Best New Artist award in addition to wins in the Best R&B Album and Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical categories. SZA, the most-nominated artist of the awards, secured three wins in Best Progressive R&B Album, Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, and Best R&B Song. Lastly, Coco Jones tasted victory during her first Grammy award show as a nominated as she walked away with a Best R&B Performance trophy. Together, the trio are undeniable representatives of artists ready to lead R&B into and through its next era – one that brings it back to mainstream glory.

The forecast for the future of R&B doesn’t begin with these award wins, as it’s been clear for a while now that the genre’s resurgence was in order. I’d even argue these awards aren’t the validation of an artist’s work, but rather, the celebration of what was already validated. A loss, or even the failure to get nominated, doesn’t nullify its quality or impact. Last fall, Spotify reported a 25% increase in streams of R&B records over the past year, making it one of the platforms’ fastest-growing genres. In recent years, the sound that many called dead progressed into one that could now take centerstage during both music’s and sport’s biggest nights. As a result, its artists have new hardware to place in their trophy cases, received a moment to celebrate and showcase the best of an already-cemented legacy, and found the inspiration to one day achieve the career-highlighting moments that were showcased during the first two weeks of this Black History Month.

When fans mentioned the “death” of R&B, it often pointed to the absence of pure vocalists and a lack of passion and yearning for love in the music. There’s been a shift in tone in R&B over the years since Usher’s Confessions, where some artists now prefer a middle finger and a goodbye over a good ol’ session of singing in the rain shirtless and begging for another chance from a scorned lover. Things were meant to change though as tradition is the repeated commemoration of the past and rarely does the past exist unaltered forever. An expiration date exists and awaits someone who dares to discover it and go against it in favor of starting their own. In the best cases, what once was is never forgotten, but instead, it’s used in the formula to create what’s next.

The best cases exist with Coco Jones’ “ICU,” SZA’s “Snooze,” and Victoria Monét’s “I’m The One” – songs that passionately call for love at each tick of the metronome and let the passion of their requests spill into their vocal runs. Look no further than H.E.R’s “Comfortable,” Lucky Daye’s “Over,” Chloe x Halle’s “Ungodly Hour,” Summer Walker’s “You Don’t Know Me,” Khamari’s “These Four Walls,” and Leon Thomas’ “Sneak” for additional examples from artists who made use of this ingredient. This helped to bring the best of modern-day R&B to the stage it deserved to be on.

The argument in defense of R&B’s state in the past was that the undeniable talent that fans and critics seek lay deep in the genre’s rolodex, overlooked by those who didn’t value the true beauty of the music. You simply had to sift through the mainstream clutter and do the work to find the artist(s) who represented the greatness of the genre. For fans who did this, their eventual discoveries became like precious gems to listeners who feared if and how their new beloved artist would later be comprised if they had too much light placed on them. In came posts expressing how “better” it was when said artist was below a certain popularity threshold. Sure, fans will still discover and hold these precious gems close to their hearts, but hopefully now thanks to the above examples, they’ll be a bit more willing to support and push them into glory knowing what it could bring to their career. Not to mention the bragging rights that exist with being there since day one.

In just two weeks, R&B put forth a convincing showcase of what tomorrow looks like in the genre, and the fact of the matter is people are listening. The yearning ears are back and the genre is providing music that satisfies all listeners alike in a room that is prepared to house a bigger audience than what was once had in recent years. Since Usher’s Confessions, few years have delivered an R&B album that dominated the charts as well as SZA’s SOS did. Then you have an album like Victoria Monét’s Jaguar II which left an impact on the culture that one would be silly to deny. Lastly, Usher received his flowers in an excellent performance of his career-spanning releases on the Super Bowl LVIII stage. It’s a vivid picture of a genre in great health, one that seems primed for might milestones in the coming years.

 


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