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If McKnight, who has spent two decades penning sensitive love songs, felt he had to address sex in such a crude way to remain relevant, what does that mean for the rest of R&B? At the recent Grammy Awards, black artists who sang traditional R&B were nonexistent. British singer Adele, who’s sold tens of millions of records since her 2008 debut (and is the top-selling female singer of the last decade) was R&B’s best representative on the female side, while newbies like multi-nominee Frank Ocean, Miguel and Bruno Mars held down the R&B fort for the males. It’s not that anything is wrong with them – though Ocean, the darling of the hipster set doesn’t exactly seem to be resonating with the masses – the days of R&B dominance seem to be as antiquated as doo-wop.

Crooners like Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway and Bill Withers dominated the 60’s and 70’s and well into the 90’s, folks like R. Kelly and Usher took up their lead. Female singers like Faith Evans, Monica, Brandy and girl groups like SWV and En Vogue kept R&B relevant as well. Mary J. Blige brought in a new era of hip-hop soul, but even she was a throwback artist who sang traditional R&B themes over New Jack beats. Lately, aside from Jennifer Hudson, the go-to girl for every mainstream event, true R&B singers have been left off the main stage. While it was once hard for singers to “crossover,” from the Black to the pop charts, the success of Michael and Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston and others allowed the mainstream to become a viable place for Black pop artists. Now that Rihanna reigns on the pop charts – she’s sold more records than Beyonce, and the techno dance music she sings is more popular than ever, the slots for traditional R&B artists are few.

On black TV, sure, artists like newcomer Luke James, jazzy soul singer Ledisi and vocal powerhouses like Kelly Price are welcome but those shows are for predominantly black audiences. If Adele can sell 25 million albums doing music that sounds more like R&B than anything else out now, why can’t Black soul singers generate sales that are a tenth of that? It’s because somehow, soul and R&B have become associated with age. Is it because many of its main singers are in their 30’s and 40’s now including former teen stars Monica and Brandy, or is it because music has moved on to a techno sound that better fits a generation of technology dependent youth? But if that is the case, the how does Adele, certainly “an analog girl in a digital world”, fit in?

Her record sales would indicate a yearning for music made with emotion and yes, soul, music made with instruments and songwriting that includes lyrics about more than just sex…. as long as the artists making it aren’t black. Not that this is a first – the Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley became legends recording more palatable forms of the black music that influenced them. But there was a time when a singer like, say Fantasia, would have ruled both the black and the pop charts like her obvious musical godmother, Aretha Franklin, did. And no, Fantasia doesn’t yet have the song catalogue that Aretha had although she has a portion of the chops. But the fact that Jennifer Hudson, with her more “accessible” talent, look and demeanor is the mainstream’s darling tells you a lot about the kind of subtle race positioning that still dominates the music scene.

There is still an audience for R&B. New Edition toured the country twice last year and Charlie Wilson and Mary J. Blige are on the road, as is McKnight, this year. Frankie Beverly and Maze tour regularly still, despite the lack of a radio or digital hit in the last few decades. Now in his 50’s, Prince, although a pop superstar whose music reflects the influence of several genres, has become America’s most beloved musician. (Quite a turn of events from the days when he was reviled for painting “Slave” on his face and changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol.) Prince has pretty much become the Johnny Depp of the music industry – an artist who people respect regardless of age, gender, race or sexual orientation because he’s succeeded mostly on his own terms. He and artists like him are a sign that there remains an audience for music that is visceral and real. Maybe, just maybe, R&B is not dead yet.

(Photo: Brian McKnight official website)

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7 thoughts on “You Keep Me Hanging On: Is R&B Dead?

  1. joldschool on said:

    Yes R&B is dead.Record companies are targeting young people the i pod generation.The music has no meaning no message just a beat.

  2. Gee Ball on said:

    R&B and Soul music were song about love, the closest song that I can remember having sexual overtones was Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing. The real R&B and Soul Music was often referred to back in the day as Baby Making Music artists like The Temptations, Barry White, Earth Wind & Fire, Al Green, Dinah Washington, Aretha, Gladys Knight, Isaac Hayes, The Dells, Marvelletts, Teddy Pendergrass, The O’Jays, Stylistics, The Whispers and the Spinners just to name a few all made real music that has withstood the test of time. Today we have Charlie Wilson, Aretha and a few more that still produce grown folks music. Having been in radio broadcasting over 40 years I can tell you the main reasons we don’t hear more R&B music isn’t because of the artists it’s because the record companies aren’t interested in recording R&B because they don’t feel it will sell. If this garbage that they call music stops selling then may it would dawn on the powers that be in this record companies maybe we need to go back to R&B Music.

  3. Tonya, in the words of Steve Harvey, stop right there! When you write a statement such as “on black TV, sure artists like newcomer Luke James, jazzy soul singer Ledisi and vocal power houses like Kelly Price are welcome but those shows are for predominantly black audiences.” It comes across as condescending. You associate soul and R&B with age but it’s “grown-folk” music. While you mention male crooners like Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers and Donny Hathaway, with the exception of Aretha Franklin, you left out the female crooners. What’s up with that? I’m talking Millie Jackson, Barbara Mason, Mary Wells, Etta James, etc. As for Brian McKnight, nobody twisted his arm and made him compose a crude song addressing sex, which thank goodness never saw the light of day. Except for, no one else would have ever known about it. Brian could and should have borrowed a page from Marvin. Peep this, Mary. J. Blige, Charlie Wilson will have a best of or greatest hits CD. At this point in time, I can’t say the same about Jennifer Hudson or Fantasia.

  4. redbone1954 on said:

    Believe this I will not listen nor buy any of the so called music that is in play today. For those that like it Good buy it I won’t. I don’t care if Adele sells 4 billion records I don’t care if Rihanna sells more music thst Bey because I DON;T BUY THEIR MUSIC, This is exactly why I listen to gospel music and support it.An dtrust and believe there is enough “Old school” music to keep on my ipod for the rest of my life I personally don’t need “new” music.I don’t watch grammy american music awards etc they are all a joke.Just give me some Frankie Marvin Gaye Luther Lakeside Charlie Wilson The Whispers.just to name a few…the list could go on so I am good!

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