Smooth R&B, contemporary R&B, Neo-Soul, and Pop are genres that grew from the feel-good vocals and beats of traditional rhythm and blues. Since the 1940’s in the belly of the south, R&B has always been the candid vocalized expressway singing the true emotions of the heart of the Black community. Whether it is about love, friendship, feelings of hopelessness, or happiness, the irresistible rhythms of the genre is known to make one resonate with the greatness it produces. Capturing and influencing the true essence of R&B are the iconic pioneers that gave R&B artist today a chance to excel in the industry.
The Chicago singer is recognized as a staple in the R&B genre. Sharing her talent with the world, Lavern Baker toured in Europe where she gained popularity. Returning to the states, Lavern Baker signed with Atlantic records in 1953. In 1955, Baker’s vocals dominated the R&B charts with her single, Tweedle Dee. Baker returned with another hit single, Jim Dany in 1956. Baker soon took her vocal talent to Broadway as the star of the play, Black and Blue. In 1990 Baker received the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. In 1991, she became the second female solo artist inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Also known as Mr. Excitement, the Detroit native dominated the R&B genre with his four octave vocal range. Jackie Wilson built his musical foundation in the industry as a member of the early R&B group, Billy Ward and His Dominoes. Branching out on his own, Jackie recorded over 50 hit singles during his solo career. Some of his notable songs are Higher, That’s Why (I Love You So), and Lonely Teardrops. Lonely Teardrops sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA.
Known for shaping the R&B genre, Clyde started his musical career in the same band that launched Jackie Wilson’s Career, Billy Ward and His Dominoes. McPhatter’s lead tenor vocals were responsible for the group’s initial success. After leaving Billy Ward and His Dominoes, then creating a new group (the Drifters) , and returning home from the military, McPhatter set out to start his solo career. In 1956, McPhatter’s single, Treasure of love, was his first number one hit single and topped the R&B Charts. It sold over two million copies and received a gold disc by the RIAA.
With artists like Lavern Baker, Jackie Wilson, and Clyde shaping and identifying the R&B genre, they created a path where other R&B artist would follow and bless the ears of the ones who love the genre today. Emotions and day-day life situations continued to be expressed through talented vocal ranges in the 80’s and 90’s. The blueprint of traditional R&B still remained true through each lyric and arranged beat.
Dominating the 80’s with her majestic voice, Anita Baker became an R&B sensation; wining eight Grammy awards and five platinum albums. Like most artists who came before her, Baker started her career in a group called Chapter 8. Establishing her own path, Baker released her solo album in 1983, The Songstress, and achieved early success. Baker reached higher heights in 1986 when she released her second album, Rapture, under her new label, Elecktra Records. The album sold over 8 million copies worldwide and won two Grammy awards in 1987.
The late singer dominated the 80’s with her robust voice. With her family being in the music business and laying her foundation in the church choir, Houston worked her way to the top of the music charts. In 1985, Houston released her first debut album, Whitney Houston. The album peaked at Number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The album also saw international success in the Netherlands, UK, and Belgium. After the success of her first album, Houston continued to dominate the late 80’s. In 1986, Houston won her first Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Performance for Saving All My Love for You. Alongside her Grammy Award, Houston won seven American Music Awards in 1986. In 1987, she won a MTV Video Music Award. Just like in the 80’s Houston continued to top the charts in the 90’s. She even picked up new opportunities along the way. In 1992, Houston starred in her first movie role, The Bodyguard and In 1995 starred in the popular film , Waiting to Exhale.
As most artists in the early stages of their career, Lionel Richie started his musical career as a singer and a saxophonist for the popular group, the Commodores. The popular soul group served as a supporting act for The Jackson 5 under Motown records. Shifting his career towards the solo path, Richie released his first self-titled album in 1982, Lionel Richie. The album sold over 4 million copies and had three hit singles, Truly, You Are, and My Love. Richie kept the momentum going a year later with his second album, Cant Slow Down. The album was known for its hit single, All Night Long. With over 6 million copies sold, the album won two Grammy awards.
The electrifying Harlem singer started his career in a Harlem based music group, Jamilah. Jamilah helped Keith Sweat tap into his star gift. After branching off and honing in on his solo career in 1987, Keith Sweat released his debut Album, Make it Last Forever which sky-rocketed on the R&B charts and sold three million copies. The biggest hit single from the album was I Want Her, an introduction to the New Jack Swing Era. Soaring in his music career, in 1992, Keith Sweat discovered the group Silk. He helped craft their debut album, Lose Control, which hit #7 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
Grooving out of the 80’s and into the 90’s, it became popular to implement the Hip Hop feel along with R&B vocals. The Blueprint of R&B served as a blank canvas for emerging artists in the 90’s in which they would “break” traditional R&B rules and create masterpieces that would influence the R&B generation today. For R&B, the 90’s served as a transitional era between traditional R&B and new school R&B.
Mary J. Blige
What’s The 411 became Mary J. Blige’s ticket to an everlasting career. The album spawned six singles which charted the Billboard and R&B charts. The album also sold 3.4 million copies and went triple platinum. Channeling her influences from the likes of Aretha Franklin, Anita Baker, and Tina Turner, Mary was soon distinguished as the Queen of Hip Hop Soul. By the release of Mary’s third album, Share My World, Mary was a force to be reckoned with in the industry. With 25 years in the industry thus far, Mary J. Blige is a recipient of nine Grammy’s and 30 Grammy nominations.
This R&B group were one of the main 90’s act that dominated the charts with three consecutive platinum albums. Hailing from the ATL, the group was discovered by top hit producer, Jermaine Dupri. In 1993, the group released their first album, Hummin’ Comin’ at ‘Cha, which earned a number three spot on the Top R&B Charts. Their notable hit singles are Just Kickin’ It, Who Can I Run To, The Arms of the One Who Loves You, and My Little Secret.
Monica is a prime example of artists who embeds the influence of the R&B greats within her. Monica emerged on the R&B scene in 1995 with her first debut album, Miss Thang. Her vocal talent impressed millions and granted her faithful fans along with two hit singles, Don’t take it Personal, and Before you walk out of my life. In 1998, Monica’s second album, The Boy Is Mine, landed her international success and a Grammy award. Continuing her career throughout the 90’s and 2000’s, Monica has sold over 5.3 million albums in the United States alone.
Along with artists such as Erykah Badu and D’Angelo, Maxwell has been recognized for shaping the neo-soul movement which emerged in the late 90’s. The Brooklyn native started singing in the church as a child and began composing music at the age of 17. In 1995, Maxwell released his first album , Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite. The album wasn’t an immediate success until the release of its second single Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder). Maxwell’s album was seen as a breath of fresh R&B air due to the popular hip-hop influenced R&B in the 90’s. After a long hiatus , Maxwell returned with his Blacksummer’s Night album in 2009. The album spawned four singles in which Pretty Wings was the lead single and won a Grammy award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance in 2010.
PRESENT DAY R&B
Today in R&B music, some are questioning if the true art of R&B still exists any more. There are mainstream artists who represent the evolution of R&B in a talented way but that’s only a small portion. Mainstream media today is polluted with artists who lack the mastery of the genre. Technology in today’s studio’s has become so advanced that anybody can “carry a tune” without actual talent. Thankfully, the good thing about social media and the internet today is, artists who are not mainstream (yet) can be found by true lovers of R&B. User’s aren’t waiting for mainstream radio or mediums to push out the next hot artists. We are discovering them through a plethora of means. Yes, in the midst of what mainstream media considers R&B, there are artists today who embody the true essence of R&B in their artistry. R&B is the bedrock of the Black community and its true essence will never deteriorate.
Just like the ones who came before her, the Queen Bee earned her title through every stepping stone in her career. Being in the limelight since 1997, Beyonce was the lead singer of the popular R&B girl group, Destiny’s Child. Branching off and going solo, in 2003, Beyonce released her first album, Dangerously In Love. The lead single off of the album, Crazy In Love featuring Jay-Z, became Beyoncé’s first number one single. In 2004, Beyonce won five awards at the 46th annual Grammy Awards. In 2013, Beyonce released her fifth studio album, Beyonce, which severed as a visual album that illustrated the music concepts conceived during production. In 2016, Beyonce released her sixth studio, Lemonade, which was her second visual album. Lemondade sold 485,000 copies in the first week of its release and peaked at number one on the Billboard 200. At the 59th Grammy Awards, Lemonade won Best Urban Contemporary Album and Best Music Video.
Most do play tug-a-war with what genre Bruno Mar’s artistry fits into but Bruno Mars influences stems from a variety of legendary singers, including legendary R&B and Funk singers. Growing up in Hawaii, Mars spent his early life performing in his family band, The Love Notes. Mars gained performing technique skills that carried him to his success today. Mars was influenced by the greats such as Michael Jackson, The Isley Brothers and The Temptations. Also, being influenced by Jimi Hendrix, Mars learned how to play the guitar. In 2010, Mars released his debut album, Doo-Wops & Hooligans. The lead single off the album, Just The Way You Are, peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100. In 2016, Mars released his third studio album, 24k Magic. The album sampled classic R&B songs from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.
Before Ne-Yo became a successful solo artist, the singer was known as one of the top songwriters in the industry. Ne-Yo’s breakthrough recognition came from writing Let Me Love You, sung by Mario in 2004. The song reached and stayed number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for nine weeks. This breakthrough recognition landed Ne-Yo a recorded deal with Def Jam Records. In 2006, Ne-Yo released his first debut album, In My Own Words, supported by his second single, So Sick, the album peaked at number one on the Billboard 200. Earlier this month, Ne-Yo released the first single, Earn Your Love, off his forthcoming seventh album which is set to be released later this year.
The Philadelphia songstress started singing since the tender age of five years old. Sullivan got her start singing in church choir’s in her hometown. As she got older and grew her network in the industry, Sullivan wrote songs for artists such as Christina Millian, Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia, Tamia, and Monica. Gifted with the pen, Sullivan wrote her first breakthrough single, Need U Bad. The single was off Sullivan’s first debut album, Fearless, released in 2008. She wrote every song on her first album. Peaking at number one on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, Need U Bad was nominated for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance at the 2009 Grammy Awards. Continuing the success, in 2016, Sullivan released her third studio album, Reality Show, which garnered a No. 1 spot on the Billboard R&B Albums chart. Earlier this year, Sullivan was the lead writer for Mary J. Blige’s new album, Strength of a Woman.
Being the grandson of Bobby Day, legendary singer and songwriter, it was destined for the west coast singer to be a talented singer and song writer as well . Eric Bellinger started writing songs for artists under the songwriting collective, The Writing Camp. Bellinger wrote songs for artists like Jacob Latimore, Selena Gomez, and Big Time Rush. In 2013, Bellinger released three consecutive series of mixtapes , Born II Sing Vol. 1, Born II Sing Vol. 2, and Born II Sing Vol. 3. In 2014, Bellinger released his first album, The Rebirth. The Rebirth peaked at number 23 on the US R&B/Hip Hop charts, and 15 on the US R&B chart. Bellinger continued to release more music and mixtapes, which includes his recent mixtape, Eventually. In 2016, Bellinger released Eric B for President : Term 1. Earlier this year in March, Bellinger released the follow up album, Eric B for President : Term 2.
The rising Atlanta based singer has shared the stage with prolific artists including Patti Labelle, Chaka Khan, Babyface, Usher, Jazmine Sullivan, Chris Brown and Beyonce. She has also performed in BET’s Music Matters and at New York’s legendary SOB’s. Finnli has been offering heartfelt tunes since her start in her church choir. With her latest released single, If , catching the ears of true R&B lovers more and more, she is currently working on her upcoming project, on AMH Music Group.
Jake and Papa
The Los Angles brothers “have been singing since they could speak”. The Duo released their first mixtape in 2012, Westernplayalisticamaromuzic, then in 2014 released their EP, Athena’s Erotica. Jake & Papa have collaborated with artists such as R. Kelly, Ne-Yo, and Fabolous. Jake & Papa has performed for Stevie wonder and the late Michael Jackson. This February, Jake & Papa released their new single, Phones, produced by Bizness Boi.
Artists such as Clyde McPhatter, Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston Marvin Gaye, Barry White, Aretha Franklin, Anita Baker and many more, have trail-blazed the R&B world; leaving timeless records and sounds for all to be inspired. Today, artists such Usher, Alicia Keys, Keri Hilson, Trey Songz, Fantasia , Jennifer Hudson, Mariah Carey and the rest that contribute to the genre through the ever changing blueprint of R&B, have been influenced by the R&B greats that came before them and show a huge appreciation by paying homage through their artistry.
As the saying goes, you really can’t know where you’re going, until you know where you’ve been. The shape of R&B today goes in and out of consciousness, touching on a few pieces of the past, bringing us back to that same feel-good, nostalgic era at times, but also pioneering on the waves of a new sound. With folks like Chris Brown, Frank Ocean, Bryson Tiller, August Alsina and more leading the pack, never forgetting of their roots, R&B will manifest itself into something new everyday, although still remaining true.
The difference between then & now, is not that much. This is not Pop, this is R&B: the gateway to the Soul; and you can thank the culture for that.
Cover Image via Seawolf Living