Resurgence of R&B: A Conversation Between Two Music Lovers

Call us biased but R&B holds a special place at ESSENCE.

Call us biased, but R&B holds a special place at Essence. However, when we hear what's spinning, selling and streaming the most these days it's hip-hop and pop. And we get it and love it too: When Kendrick Lamar closed out last Sunday's Essence Festival performance with "Alright," he had everyone on their feet. But for every track by Kendrick, Drake or Kanye, we're just as into music from The Internet, Andra Day, Tyrese, Jazmine Sullivan and more. These artists have released solid albums—start to finish—in the last 12 months and yet their music hasn't had the same reach to the masses. To us, The Internet's "Girl" is just as vibey as Drake's "Controlla." But this isn't about R&B vs. hip hop, or independent vs. mainstream. This is about good music, period. Entertainment director Cori Murray chatted with our new friend Carl Chery, Apple Music's Head of Hip-Hop/R&B Programming, about their shared passion for R&B and its reincarnation, what new artists their loving at the moment and how they're committed to getting them heard by as many ears as possible. Listen in.

CARL CHERY: There’s been a lot of talk about R&B being dead in the past few years but I think it’s a misleading narrative. Some of the biggest hits of the last few years have been R&B songs. Take Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk,” Pharrell’s “Happy” or Alessia Cara’s “Here” for example...They’re clearly R&B but I’ve read articles that specifically labeled them as pop songs. It’s the same thing with The Weeknd. Everyone kept referring to Beauty Behind the Madness as his “pop” album. There’s this weird expectation that R&B can’t crossover in the 2010s and I think that’s partly because there are a lack of platforms that cover the genre. There’s a million rap blogs. There aren’t too many R&B platforms besides Essence and Singersroom. The indie press gives R&B a lot of coverage but the writers aren’t always from the culture. Some of them lack the historical context to make the connection between old funk, soul, R&B songs and what R&B is today. There’s actually been sort of a resurgence in R&B this past year. There’s exciting new artists like Bryson Tiller, Andra Day, Leon Bridges, DVSN, Kehlani, Ro James and Alina Baraz and veterans like Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and Maxwell are still putting out good music. What is Essence’s point of view on the R&B is dead narrative versus R&B actually being in a good space musically? 

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CORI MURRAY: For Essence, R&B is never been dead—and for 22 years we've put R&B on our main stage at the Essence Festival and those artists have tens of thousands of folks singing right along with them. If you've never seen a crowd signing along with Mary for "I'm Going Down"—shout out Rose Royce for the original—then you haven't seen R&B at its best. However those artists and their songs are rarely showcased on big awards shows, nor are they given mainstream coverage. But they are there, producing new music that's really good. I'll admit I nearly missed recent songs from Zhane's Renee Neufville "Watching Me" and Vivian Green "Get Right Back to My Baby" because I was caught up in the noise about how to classify someone like Alessia Cara or Kehlani. But here were two artists making music that was just as good and radio-friendly. Renee and Vivian are just recent examples in a bigger pool of artists who've put out music in the last nine months .... there's Fantasia, Tank, Tyrese, Lalah Hathaway...

CHERY: Wow! I love Zhane and I admit that I totally missed Renee’s song. I think it speaks to our point about the lack of platforms and mainstream exposure. Mya's been going through something similar. She's consistently been putting music out but not enough people know about it. We released her last project, Smoove Jones, exclusively on Apple Music earlier this year. The album is really good. As for Alessia and Kehlani it does feel like R&B’s been going through somewhat of an identity crisis to some extent. There are singers who want to be acknowledged as R&B singers and aren’t accepted and singers who don’t want to be labeled R&B. The audience is also very fragmented. There may be some overlap but I don't think the Essence audience and Complex or Fader audience listen to the same kind of R&B. Do you think Essence readers and festival-goers are aware of more electronic-leaning R&B like Alina Baraz and NAO? If so, do they acknowledge it as R&B? What about Bryson Tiller and DVSN? Are they into them? 

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MURRAY: Essence readers and festival-goers like good music period, so they don't mind if their R&B comes packaged as "trap soul" or has a more electronic-leaning sound. Think about Disclosure's "Latch" featuring Sam Smith and how that took over urban radio two years ago? That song is pop, dance, but with Sam's velvety vocals coursing through it gives it a slight R&B bent. With Bryson Tiller, clearly his stripped R&B has resonated because he swept all the R&B categories at the BET Awards and he deserved every accolade. I'll be honest, I haven't heard Alina Baraz or DVSN but after two quick searches, I'm totally into their sounds.

CHERY: It was amazing to see Bryson win at the BET Awards. I was the first tastemaker to champion him and a year ago, me and his A&R Tunji Balogun were strategizing to release TRaPSOUL exclusively on Apple Music. We essentially broke him. Apple Music named him Best New Artist back in December. Now he’s platinum, won big at BET and he has a real shot at being nominated at the Grammys. But back to DVSN. It’s refreshing to hear a group that feels straight up R&B. “Too Deep” feels like it could have come out in the ‘90s but it still feels current. The lines have gotten increasingly blurry between R&B and hip-hop and I think it’s helped elevate hip-hop, but I don't think R&B’s benefited in the same way. There’s sort of been a role reversal in the intersection of hip-hop and R&B. Rap needed R&B to reach a new level of mainstream in the mid ‘90s. You needed an R&B hook to get on the radio. That became the standard. Twenty years later rappers are doing their own hooks. Everything is melody. And now there seems to be this misconception that an R&B song needs to feature a rapper. Is that the new standard? What’s your take on the relationship between the two genres and this notion that one needs the other? 

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MURRAY: Funny thing, I'm often shocked when I hear a big R&B song these days that doesn't have a feature with an rapper. But I see a shift in the types of features rising R&B acts are using, for example, many new artists use their peers for assistance as opposed to adding a major such as Drake or Nicki Minaj. I'm thinking of The Internet's track "GIRL" with Kaytranada, or Bryson's "Don't." I heard Bryson say on the Rap Radar podcast that the artist who says "H town got a..." was someone who sent in his demo and the hook just worked. When that part comes in, it's one of the best moments in the song. I see hip-hop and R&B still meshing but, like you said, the pairings feel more organic to who each artist is as opposed to who's hot right now. Also I find when rappers are featured, their more vulnerable with their delivery, which makes the features less stale and expected. 

CHERY: I love Kaytranada. I went to a day party at Essence Festival last weekend and they played The Internet "Don't Cha" followed by Anderson .Paak's "Am I Wrong." Both songs are amazing to me but it bothers me when I hear folks say that there's no radio format for songs like that. I've been playlisting "Am I Wrong" heavily on Apple Music. It fits smoothly between Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars' "Uptown Funk" and Drake's "Hold On We're Going Home"—two hits. But unfortunately I think it's tough for a new artist with less name recognition to turn that type of song into a hit. Clearly, the state of radio has played a part in the state of R&B. What's your take on it?

MURRAY: I agree... When I'm listening to the radio, the only songs I hear are from Rihanna, Drake and Chris Brown. No disrespect as I love these artists too, but radio could be so much richer if they added songs from the likes of The Internet, Hiatus Kaiyote, Andra Day, Lianne la Havas, SZA...and these are artists just on my personal playlist! Radio is still formulaic and it desperately needs refreshing. It's holding back the success of many artists who are just as deserving of radio play. The Internet's. "Don't Cha" is a perfect radio song! When I introduce that song to anyone, everyone has the same reaction: "Why don't I know this group?" Until radio takes more chances, it's up to us to give these artists has much as exposure as we can.

CHERY: I agree. It’s on us. We take chances on Apple Radio. I played Bryson’s “Don’t” in January of last year and it didn’t pick up steam at terrestrial radio until the project came out nine months later. I played Andra Day’s “Rise Up” on the R&B radio station the minute it came out. I thought that song would eventually turn the corner and become a hit because it was getting so many syncs, especially Beats By Dre’s Serena Williams campaign. Again, name recognition is part of the issue here but if Adele’s “Hello” can be the number one song in the country then why can’t “Rise Up” be a hit? We need equal opportunities. Andra Day shouldn’t have to be confined to Urban AC if Adele and Sam Smith aren’t. There’s been a lot of talk about cultural appropriation in the past few years. I’m always careful to not label every white artist as a culture vulture. I think that in some instances they’re truly students of the genre. Eminem’s ascension helped hip-hop reach new commercial heights. How can this new era of blue-eyed soul benefit R&B? 

MURRAY: This might be asking a lot, but I wish every blue-eyed soul artist (or when pop artists make music that’s seeped into R&B) would rightfully acknowledge their R&B influences. And beyond listing the great voices of soul, but those artists who came behind them. I remember hearing that Adele — around the time of her first album — was influenced by Kim Burrell’s runs. That's real. Justin Bieber’s “No Sense” with Travis Scott sounds as if it was snatched from a mid-90s Quiet Storm radio show. For every Adele, Sam Smith and Justin Bieber-heavily R&B influenced song played on an urban station, a radio programmer should play two additional voices in R&B — one new and one established. For every playlist about a blue-eyed soul artist, a curator should include a heavy rotation of their R&B counterparts. Let’s equal the playing field. 

CHERY: I totally agree. I remember Justin Timberlake saying that the first half of 20/20 Experience was an R&B album that would most likely be labeled pop. I’ve been on sort of a mission, not to bring R&B back per se, because you and I agree that it’s still here and it's still strong. But I think it needs to be celebrated a lot more and having mainstream pop stars acknowledge the influence would help for sure. I’d love for Essence and Apple Music to keep collaborating. I think we can do a lot for the genre together. I’ve gotten nothing but amazing feedback from the R&B Rising event we did together at Essence Fest and the New Faces of R&B event Apple Music did at the BET Awards. I’ve been working with Bozoma Saint John’s team, curating events that are an extension of my programming on Apple Music. Hopefully, we can do more R&B-centric stuff in the future. It’ll never be the ‘90s again but hopefully there’s a new great era of R&B ahead. Any final thoughts?

MURRAY: Yes, the R&B Rising event was just the tip of what’s in store, as well as having more R&B acts at large festivals such as Essence. We’ve been committed and will continue to be because good music never dies.

 

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