Is R&B Under Siege? Tyrese, Sam Smith And The Genre’s Identity Crisis

Colorization and categorizing hasn’t been kind to R&B in recent years, but is that a good or bad thing?


Back in July, when it was confirmed that Tyrese’s new release Black Rose had successfully become the new No. 1 album in the country, a slew of inquiries emerged from the voices of music journalists: How? Who? What?

SPIN’s explanation was that it was a slow sales week. Forbes suggested that it was likely due to the success of Furious 7, the film in which he recently starred. Few praised the music, or claimed that this accolade was well deserved. The confusion likely stemmed from the fact that we’re not used to seeing an album sell so well without attention from mainstream radio (outside of a handful of hip-hop acts, at least). Black Rose sold 83,000 copies in its first week — a massive amount for an independent artist these days, especially when their singles aren’t generating Top 40 airplay. Where his music has seen relevance is on urban adult contemporary (AC) stations, like those that make up Billboard’s Adult R&B chart. “Shame,” the second single from the album, has spent forty-one weeks on the chart, and was finally bumped from the No. 1 spot — by Adele’s “Hello.”

During interviews around the time of the project’s release with Diddy’s REVOLT and Power 105’s The Breakfast Club, Tyrese was extremely vocal about how he sees the current state of R&B; namely that R&B singers are “insecure” about their inability to reach mainstream radio, and that only white R&B/soul artists are able to garner airplay from both urban AC radio and mainstream Top 40 stations. This assertion has been been furthered recently by a number of other prominent black vocalists. Tank expressed the difficulty that black R&B artists have in getting their work green-lit, specifying that it often takes “six, seven months to build up one record,” while white R&B artists have had multiple Top 10 singles at one time. Jazmine Sullivan confirmed that she believes there is some injustice in “how black soul artists are received,” and K. Michelle claimed that she doesn’t believe Adele’s “Hello” would’ve had the same success had it been sung by a black woman. In addition to Adele, Tyrese and his counterparts have pointed to the success of other white singers in the genre, such as Sam Smith, Justin Timberlake, and Robin Thicke.

Regardless of whether or not one believes that what these artists are offering is traditional R&B music, they have each been shown a significant amount of love by R&B and AC stations. In addition to reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Adult R&B chart, Adele’s “Hello” also topped the Hot 100 for seven weeks. Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” held the Adult R&B top spot for thirteen weeks, and simultaneously peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100. He also won a BET Award for Best New Artist. Justin Timberlake has had tremendous success on both charts throughout his career; most recently his two releases of The 20/20 Experience rendered a series of songs that hit the Top 10 on both (“Not a Bad Thing,” “Suit & Tie,” and “Mirrors”). Robin Thicke has only had three Top 40 hits in his career, but each of them have had a tremendous amount of success on AC stations as well (“Lost Without U,” “Give It 2 U,” and “Blurred Lines”).

So, it would seem that these claims hold up. But are white artists really the only ones able to simultaneously appeal to both audiences?

READ: Tyrese Holds Protest Outside Of iHeart Radio Station In Los Angeles

Through my survey of Adult R&B chart hits from the past few years, I found that over an eighteen-month period leading up to Tyrese’s new album, the top three was made up of only twenty-three different songs. Out of those, only eight have successfully crossed over to the mainstream and reached the Hot 100’s top fifty spots. They are as follows: The Weeknd’s “Earned It,” Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk,” Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me,” Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s “Love Never Felt So Good,” John Legend’s “All of Me,” Pharrell’s “Happy,” Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” and Miguel’s “Adorn.”

So here’s something. If we’re counting Mark Ronson as the lead artist of “Uptown Funk,” and Justin Timberlake as the lead for “Love Never Felt So Good,” we find that half of those eight are by white R&B/soul artists. That is certainly a high percentage, and it means there has only been one song by a white artist in the past two years that has performed well on AC stations and not on mainstream radio. That song belongs to Robin Thicke, whose song “For the Rest of My Life” reached the top of the Adult R&B chart but couldn’t break into the Hot 100. Why is this an anomaly, when it’s the norm for so many non-white R&B artists?

“In this day and age, there are a plethora of things that need to be done to hedge your bet and try to survive,” said Nullah Sarker, the Creative Director for Lava Music Publishing. “R&B, in order to be successful in the conventional sense, needs to be pop… it needs to be not only consumed, but supported by a ton of consumers.”

Sarker mentioned the ascent of Charlie Puth, the featured singer on Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again,” whose previous single, “Marvin Gaye” featuring Meghan Trainor had initially struggled to generate airplay. But, after “See You Again” hit number one — aided in part by the buzz and media attention surrounding the Furious 7 film and Paul Walker’s untimely death — “Marvin Gaye” began to work its way up the charts.

“Now, yes, he is white, but I truly think, much like in Tyrese’s case, that there is a bunch of good music out there that just needs to be heard by enough people, and spread by association with trending pop culture consumer connections. How does an R&B song or artist become popular? As far as I can see, not only for Tyrese but other successful black R&B artists, they have to hit the streets, and leverage as much as they can — whether it be features, movies, or fame, and essentially hope for the best.”

READ: Tank Vents About ‘Stronger’ Album Sales: ‘Maybe I Should Have Been Born White’

Critics looking to dismiss the idea that race plays a factor in which songs are able to find success on pop radio have few examples to cite, but they do exist. John Legend’s “All of Me” reached No. 1 on both charts, as did Pharrell’s “Happy.” But perhaps most surprising is Miguel’s “Adorn,” which seems to be as alternative an R&B cut as any discussed here, and yet it still managed to break into the top twenty.

Looking for more insight into this issue, I reached out to Rob Markman, the Artist Relations Manager at and the host and creator of Red Light Special, a fantastic weekly podcast dedicated to R&B music.

“In 2015 there are fewer places where traditional R&B artists can go to promote and showcase their music,” Markman said. “When hip-hop and R&B stations start to tighten their rotation, while simultaneously including more pop songs, a ton of deserving R&B artists are getting left in the cold. And the R&B artists that are making it into rotation are mostly singing about the strip club and one night stands. There needs to be more balance and more songs about love, songs that artists like Tyrese, Rico Love, and Miguel are singing. That’s why I started Red Light Special; to provide a space for R&B artists to come and focus on their music.”

The other factor at play in this struggle for airtime and airplay has to do with genre designation. As the worlds of hip-hop and pop have continued to collide, so too have those of pop and R&B. Many black artists that have been labeled as R&B acts are making music that draws as much (if not more) influence from pop than it does from the roots of R&B and soul music, and yet their work continues to be categorized as R&B. For example, back in 2010 the well-known Norwegian production team StarGate produced songs within several months of each other for Rihanna and Katy Perry. Both songs (“Only Girl” and “Firework”) became massive commercial successes. Both had similar compositions, similar reliance on synths, and BPMs within two beats of each other. Perry’s song was classified as “dance-pop,” while Rihanna’s was frequently listed as R&B. This distinction definitely had something to do with her prior work, but in this case it really appears just to be a designation that is automatic, based upon her skin color. It reflects an understanding in the industry that if a black artist isn’t rapping (and thus isn’t making hip-hop), it must be R&B or soul.

READ: Groove Theory: The Internet Is R&B’s New Remedy

Many artists working in this climate today have taken notice of this, including Rico Love, whose recent album Turn the Lights On is commonly considered an R&B project, though its sound and influence actually has more in common with pop releases. I spoke with him in order to get a sense of an artist’s perspective on the issue.

“Everybody says to me that you have one of the best R&B albums of the past year,” said Love. “And my album is not even R&B. I don’t consider it that. I feel that it’s only labeled R&B because I’m black.”

Through his efforts in marketing his own music, as well as the work he’s done with countless other black vocalists as a songwriter, Love has become highly aware of the double standards that have become deeply ingrained into the music industry; differences that are reflective of greater issues that exist in society as a whole.

“I really don’t like that we even have to call it crossover radio. If Justin Bieber puts out a new pop song, it’s just a record. For a black artist, it’s a crossover track.” He likened this to how youth of color have to be told that they can be anything they want in life. It’s not something implicit, similar to the opportunity for an artist of color to have their record on mainstream radio.

Tonight (Feb. 15), the 58th Annual Grammy Awards will celebrate the year’s best work in R&B, and upon closer examination of their categorizing, there seems to be quite a bit of this genre-confusion at play. At last year’s Grammy’s, albums by Chris Brown and Pharrell (which were both heavily influenced by pop music) were only featured in the R&B category, while albums by Sam Smith and Miley Cyrus (which were both heavily influenced by R&B/soul music) were only featured in the Pop category. What was the basis for these decisions? What made them choose to host Usher’s “Good Kisser” in R&B, and Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” in Pop? In this year’s nominees, the only song in a Pop category where the lead performer is not white and not a rapper is The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face.” But yet “Earned It” can be found as a nominee in the R&B field. Again, a question that doesn’t seem to have an easy answer.

What all of this has contributed to is an increasingly confused consumer base. A genre spanning from the traditionalist sounds of icons like Luther Vandross and Marvin Gaye that has lost its sense of identity, and in the process is being watered down.

READ: Opinion: Why Has R&B Become So Misogynistic?

While part of the solution to this is fighting for equal representation of black artists on pop radio, this strategy neglects the fact that much of the most quality work being made today doesn’t really belong there in the first place. Back in August, Jill Scott’s latest offering, the phenomenal, critically-acclaimed Woman, quietly took the No. 1 spot on its way to impressive sales numbers. This album — like the work of many of the best writers in hip-hop, rock, or any other genre — was clearly made without radio in mind. It wasn’t part of the creative process, as it evidently also wasn’t while Kendrick was creating To Pimp a Butterfly or while Kamasi Washington was making The Epic (which was criminally robbed of a Grammy nod). These albums are much more catered toward the fans that have a deep love for the genres they each work in, and are much less interested in how many teenagers will discover it through the iTunes music charts.

This is not to say that there isn’t something incredibly problematic about songs with similar sounds by artists of different backgrounds having wildly different outcomes. It also isn’t to say that we don’t need to address the fact that black artists are influenced by and create music that expands beyond hip-hop, R&B, and soul — and should be treated within the industry as such. But sometimes, as is true for Tyrese, and Jazmine Sullivan, and Jill Scott, and so many other black artists — not hearing your music on Z-100 can also mean that you’re doing something right. That what you’ve made is too powerful, too smart, too poetic for a radio DJ to add it to their queue right after Justin Bieber. That what you’ve made, like much of the best music in this world, isn’t actually meant for everyone.