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)