This year, the R&B genre had one of its most complexing years trying to maintain its authenticity, integrity, and esteem in the mainstream circuit. The discussions of R&B’s race politics persisted — many of the genre’s groundbreakers noting that pop’s borrowing of the sound makes it toilsome for black artists to succeed.
On the other end, R&B has had one of its more fervent years in the public eye, even with these adversaries. Pop stars such as Demi Lovato, Kelly Clarkson, and Sam Smith have been more vocal about their appreciation for the genre, releasing some of their most intricate records to date. Meanwhile, the genre’s nostalgia — particularly for 90s R&B — has come full swing: legends are being honored, taking over primetime pop culture, and still, arguably, offering some of today’s best music.
As indicated by the 2018 Grammy nominations revealed in November — with a plethora of “Big 4” major category nods going to Bruno Mars and Childish Gambino, as well as newcomers SZA and Khalid — R&B, along with its hip-hop counterpart, is finally receiving its do justice at the blockbuster of music awards. This is surely a reflection of black music’s overarching dominance in the market, and hopefully a step forward that won’t transpire into a temporary fad.
Aside from racial transgressions, R&B is continuing to experience a clash on what sounds constitute its traditional legacies and which ones encompass the contemporary waves. This battle always seems to come to a head every year at the Grammys — particularly when the award show established a separate Best Contemporary R&B Album category in 2002 as an acknowledgment of hip-hop and pop’s domineering presence within the genre. The following year, R&B songs with neo-soul or alternative tendencies were honored with Best Urban/Alternative Performance until 2011. After the discontinuation of Best Contemporary R&B Album in 2012, the category was reinstated, but renamed Best Urban Contemporary Album in 2013 — a response to the alternative waves of music blending fiercely with standard R&B approaches.
Judging by this year’s nominees for Best Urban Contemporary Album (SZA, Khalid, and Gambino are joined by The Weeknd and 6LACK), distinctions between traditional and new age are mostly influenced by generational preferences. Twenty-something millennials leading the R&B scene at the moment, are not only dabbling with rap-singing on trap&B and electro-alt tracks, but also revamping old-school melodies of various genres they grew up listening to and appreciating. They’re also stimulating the culture: their music influencing the digital age and inspiring viral memes and tweets.
6LACK (real name Ricardo Valentine) serves as a perfect representation of trap&B’s growth as a subgenre — beating out submissions from Future, Bryson Tiller, and Jacquees. The rising Atlantean talent not only sees his Free 6LACK EP nominated but also a Best Rap/Sung Performance nod for his breaking Billboard Hot 100 entry, “Prblms.” The moody cut utilizes a whirling, 808-bass drop to back 6LACK’s raspy, oft-mumble quarrels with an ex.
The female answer to the trap-love rebuttals of 6LACK would be this year’s most nominated woman Solána Rowe, a.k.a. SZA. Free 6LACK competes against her debut album CTRL, while “Prblms” faces the hi-hat rattling thump and stumbling vocals presented in the Travis Scott-featured smash “Love Galore.” With its top five chart success, CTRL experiments not only with trap&B, but also alternative pop-rock (in “Prom”) and futuristic neo-soul (“Garden (Say It Like Dat)”). The album’s other highlights, “The Weekend” and “Supermodel,” are respectively nominated for Best R&B Performance and Best R&B Song.
“The Weekend” is being recognized for SZA’s vocal performance, which recalls the slow grooves of the 90s and their knack for run-on syllables and choral alliterations. “Supermodel” highlights a woman’s insecurities in a relationship and a revengeful aftermath (“Let me tell you a secret/I been secretly banging your homeboy”), making a perfect contender for Best R&B Song, a category highlighting songwriting.
In the Best New Artist category, SZA faces the American Teen (and one of R&B’s most popular 19-year-olds) Khalid Robinson. On his debut album, Khalid’s vocal technique nearly matches the heart and soul of Aloe Blacc’s with hints of Aaron Neville-twinge and Father John Misty’s folk-rock aesthetic. Like SZA, his appeal lies in more indie-leaning tones as evident in the charting success of “Young, Dumb, and Broke” and Best R&B Song nominee “Location.” And with a No. 3 Hot 100 peak and Song of the Year recognition for his feature (with other Best New Artist nominee, Alessia Cara) on Logic’s suicide hotline PSA “1-800-273-8255,” Khalid and his nominated peers are reshaping the mold of the pop mainstream and its revolving conversations, one platinum record at a time.
Someone who stayed at the forefront of adding trap&B and electro&B to mainstream playlists last year into the beginning of this one is The Weeknd. His album Starboy was the only one to go multi-platinum within a year since October — news announced about two weeks before voting for nominations ended. Surprisingly, he’s only nominated for the Urban Contemporary Album award — his electro-pop collab with Daft Punk, “I Feel It Coming” and Starboy’s number one hit (plus its title track) failed to crack pop categories. Speaking of missed opportunities: Kehlani’s debut SweetSexySavage, which purposefully fused radio-friendly turn of the millennium pop with today’s contemporary R&B, would have been a suitable contender. Instead, the previously nominated singer only earned a Best R&B Performance nod for “Distraction,” as the cut recalls TLC girl group melodies blended into trap instrumentals.
Childish Gambino’s inclusion for Awaken My Love! while its hit single “Redbone” earned a Best Traditional R&B Performance and Best R&B Song nod is the best example of the blurry lines existing in Grammy classifications for the R&B field. With Gambino’s raspy, almost whispery-delivery, “Redbone” initially brings listeners to the era of 70s-style, Parliament-lead, and Prince-emblazoned funk, consisting of snare-drum backbeats with wispy horns and electric guitar. The hook’s jarring call to “stay woke!” falls in line with the subtle political messaging displayed on P-funk jaunts, adding more to its case for Record of the Year.
Awaken probably received a Best Urban Contemporary nod instead of R&B Album, because cuts such as “Boogieman” and “Riot” are heavy-handed on soulful rock nuances made popular by Jimi Hendrix. Frankly, Awaken My Love! could fit in the Best Rock Album category as well, since Hendrix’s sound is often recognized as a fundamental basis for the genre. However, it seems likely race — and other societal factors, trickling down to his age and rapping background— prompted an “urban” placement.
Yet, Gambino might score a surprise win for the night’s top prize. The omission of a Rock classified album in the category can favor the album’s composition, serving as a likely candidate for those voters. With success in other mediums, his history-making clout might also put the Hollywood tastemaker in favor with his Grammy voting peers.
Alongside Gambino on the successful funk-riding trend is Bruno Mars, who also received an Album of the Year nod for 24K Magic. Its Zapp Band, talk-box laden title track could give Mars a back-to-back Record of the Year win after his Mark Ronson collaboration “Uptown Funk.” 24K Magic doesn’t include rock or alternative sounds, firmly sitting on a line of pop temperaments blended with distinct eras of R&B, making it a frontrunner for Best R&B Album. It also doesn’t hurt that the two-time Super Bowl headliner’s songwriting/production team, The Smeezingtons, have contributed to some of the biggest R&B and hip-hop jams that shaped pop music — a “voting consideration” bonus for most of this year’s nominees.
With cuts such as “Versace on the Floor” — which holds a 90s quiet storm a la Freddie Jackson consistency — and “Chunky,” a more Cameo-synthesized funk influence, 24K Magic is a clear breakaway from Mars’ previously pop-regarded LPs and hits. Meanwhile “That’s What I Like” hits on the B-minor tempo of New Jack Swing, recalling the silky smooth flow of New Edition or Boyz II Men. Its chart-topping success snagged a Song of the Year nod. Mars’ scaling from A to D notes helped for Best R&B Performance, while the relatable catchiness of the lyric “strawberry champagne on ice,” Best R&B Song.
It’s almost a surprise that none of the nostalgic songs from 24K Magic broke into the Best Traditional R&B Performance category like “Redbone” managed. Usually, artists who cover classics or drawback on older eras dominate this category. Beyoncé’s previously won for her rendition of Etta James’ “At Last” and her own signature, “Love on Top.” Out of all the category’s nominees, “Redbone” is the only one to capture Top 20 success on the Hot 100. However, it remains an outlier on another trend of roots-based R&B in 2017: a piano and live instruments band supporting a powerhouse vocalist.
Anthony Hamilton and his background singers, The HamilTones, drawback on the keyboard stylings existing in the early 70s by soul groups such as The O’Jays and The Stylistics on “What I’m Feelin.” The Baylor Project harkens on jazz soul, as husband Marcus Baylor’s soft drum leads a pianist and string band while his mezzo-soprano wife Jean Baylor takes A to middle C vocal command on “Laugh And Move On.” Mali Music -- who has evolved from his gospel roots and made a dent in R&B chart history with his 2014 earworm “Beautiful” -- scales his baritone octaves with the additions of major keys and falsetto on “Still,” a bare-bones song that recalls love odes by Teddy Pendergrass or Marvin Gaye.
Rounding out the traditional category is Ledisi’s “All The Way,” a song styled similar to the 80s love-assurance balladry of Angela Winbush or Anita Baker. The twelve-time nominee is a darling in the R&B field despite not winning. She’s also nominated for Best R&B Album, as all the songs on Let Love Rule focus on the title’s central message and the singer’s vocal prowess instead of elaborate, computerized production — the apparent standard for this category. The album’s single and Best R&B Performance contender “High” utilizes a trap&B beat, but Ledisi’s enunciation and vocal tones are crisp and sharp, a respected vocal technique amongst fans of old-school R&B.
A surprising nominee is Musiq Soulchild, whose double-disc album Feel the Real was not overlooked for Best R&B Album, despite being released 15 days before the Grammy submissions cut off date. Since releasing his debut album, Aijuswanaseing, in 2000, Musiq has been nominated 13 times. His nomination this year is even more significant because appreciation for early-aughts R&B performed by men has been resurging. Musiq is an OG of this niche sound of minimalistic beats allowing a soulful baritone with tenor tendencies to flex their thoughts on the intricacies and inner-workings of love.
His competition, PJ Morton’s Gumbo and Daniel Caesar’s critically acclaimed debut, Freudian, also draw on this sound. Morton is no stranger to the Grammys, winning Best New Artist in 2005 as the keyboardist for Maroon 5, and nominated for an R&B category in 2014. Gumbo features New Orleans-based jazz fusion and gospel proclivities, reflecting his southern hometown. Morton also garnered a Best R&B Song nomination for his organ-backed “First Began” where he sings about falling in love again, a lyrical topic more-so essential to the central themes revolving around ‘00s male R&B.
Caesar’s album hits upon a few electro elements and sound effects — as a means to represent the moodiness of love — but the production is still bare enough to focus more on his vocal dexterity. His collaborations enlist the help of H.E.R., Syd, and Charlotte Day Wilson, hopefully a nudge to bring back more female-male singing duets. The single “Get You” slid into the Best R&B Performance category due to Caesar’s switching from a tenor foreground to deep register backing vocals — all accompanied by the lite-soprano flex of Kali Uchis.
While men received an abundance of shine this year, the R&B field only acknowledged three leading female acts: Ledisi, SZA, and Kehlani. It turns into four if Jean Baylor of The Baylor Project stood credited alone. In total, only five female acts received props in the R&B field after counting Kali Uchis’ feature. This becomes seven with the acknowledgment of Rihanna’s braggadocious flow on Kendrick Lamar’s “LOYALTY.” and Beyoncé’s harmonizing over JAY-Z’s confessional “Family Feud” in the Best Rap/Sung Performance category.
Despite R&B chart success, Sevyn Streeter whose Aaliyah-sampling and soprano execution on “Before I Do” as well as Tamar Braxton’s heartfelt and suspiciously auto-biographical performance on “My Man” were snubbed. If Jhené Aiko didn’t have a surprise release eight days before the September 30th Grammy submissions deadline, would Trip and its summer love anthem “While We’re Young” have received any nods? Another singer and project overlooked: Mary J. Blige and her Strength of a Woman, an album blending new school trap techniques with old-school hip-hop soul and vocals, helping the songstress score two R&B chart-toppers. The R&B field is usually good at recognizing genders equally, but as countless headlines have reminded us, there was a poor showing of support for women in 2017’s music climate — which has been reflected across all of 2018’s Grammy categories.
Come January 28, we’ll know who the industry truly recognizes as the standard of today’s R&B.