Who Is The King Of R&B? Debate Solidifies R&B Is Far From Dead
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Long live the king. This week, Jacquees anointed himself the undisputed ruler of R&B— and all hell broke loose. “I just wanna let everybody know that I’m the king of R&B right now, for this generation,” said the 24-year-old, who famously got entangled for covering Ella Mai’s “Trip,” in an online video. “I understand who done came and who done did that and that and that, but now it’s my turn — Jacquees — the king of R&B.”
His coronation incited a maelstrom on social media. Everyone from John Legend (“Honestly I don’t think there is a king of R&B right now) to Kehlani (“Beyoncé is the king of RNB”) and J. Holiday, who was mistaken for being a valet mid-rant, had something to say. All debate aside, what’s resulted is the notion—and for many, the realization—that there’s an insatiable appetite for R&B. Hip-hop may be the most dominant musical genre, but R&B is far from dead. One of the biggest challenges R&B has always faced is categorization. What exactly is R&B? Is it a distinct sound, a vibe, a look?

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The term “Rhythm and Blues” originally came into circulation in 1949 after music pioneer Jerry Wexler coined it as a reporter for Billboard magazine. Inspired by gospel, blues and jazz, the genre was previously been identified as “Race Records,” or music made by and for African American audiences. As a producer and executive at Atlantic Records, Wexler later helped usher an era of Black artists who would receive acceptance by Black and white audiences alike—pioneers of R&B like Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Otis Redding.
“We were making rhythm and blues music — Black music by Black musicians for Black adult buyers perpetrated by white Jewish and Turkish entrepreneurs,” Wexler said in 1987 when inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, according to Rolling Stone. R&B is oft perceived through a narrow lens, greatly limiting the genre. Black singers are pigeonholed as “R&B” regardless of their music or even, their own self-identification. “If you’re a singer and you’re Black, you’re an R&B artist. Period,” Frank Ocean said to the Quietus in 2011.

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FKA Twigs echoed that sentiment. “When I first released music and no one knew what I looked like, I would read comments like, ‘I’ve never heard anything like this before, it’s not in a genre,’” she told the Guardian in 2014. “And then my picture came out six months later, now she’s an R&B singer.” The music industry has historically felt the need to neatly categorize artists for the purposes of marketing and promotion to specific audiences, radio station formats, media outlets, advertisers, etcetera. The duality is clear: It’s either Black music or white music. That protocol is archaic and ultimately, hinders both artists and fans.

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For instance, a soul ballad by Adele gets played at pop radio while the same track by SZA is promoted to urban radio. Why? Things get trickier when discussing superstars like Beyonce or The Weeknd: Are they R&B, pop or defy genre altogether? Ocean, who is arguably R&B, pop, hip-hop and alternative rolled into one, explained to Quietus why he calls himself a “singer/songwriter” versus an R&B artist: “The former implies versatility and being able to create more than one medium, and the second one is a box, simple as that. The second one is ‘that’s what you do, that’s what you are’, and that’s a little unfair, to me, because I don’t just do that.”

“R&B is a forever vibe; it comes from deep down in the soul and its ability to shape, shift and influence reflects its resilience.”

There’s also a generational gap. For many, Luther Vandross’s timeless love songs make him the King of R&B. Fair point. But ask ‘80s and ‘90s babies, who grew up with an ear for hip-hop, and they’ll likely cite R. Kelly or Chris Brown as their favorites. For R&B to grow and evolve, especially among younger listeners, the genre has to be allowed to breathe. Purists may find Jacquees’ claims blasphemous, but their kids may not. In the same way hip-hop has opened its tent to be more inclusive of genre-bending artists like Cardi B, Jaden Smith and Logic, so too must R&B.

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Once we expand our mindset, it’s easy to see that R&B today is thriving. There’s a plethora of soulful singers that run the gamut from so-called traditional R&B to experimental: Daniel Caesar, H.E.R. Khalid, Bryson Tiller, Chloe and Halle. Commercially, R&B’s mark across genres in indelible. Drake was the Top Artist of 2018 on Billboard’s year-end charts, reflected by the success of “God’s Plan” (top song on the Hot 100) and his Scorpion album. As a rapper, he’s significantly influenced by R&B (Just look at his Aaliyah tattoo) and relies on melodies and lyrical tenderness for his biggest hits. Plus, he samples artists like Lauryn Hill and Janet Jackson.

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Similarly, Bruno Mars, number nine on Billboard’s Top Artists chart, greatly pulls from R&B. “When you say ‘Black music,’ understand that you are talking about rock, jazz, R&B, reggae, funk, doo-wop, hip-hop, and Motown. Black people created it all,” the Puerto Rican pop star told Latina last year. “So, in my world, Black music means everything. It’s what gives America its swag.” R&B’s influence is palpable in SoundCloud rap as well. XXXTentacion and JuiceWRLD, number two and three on the Top New Artists chart respectively, have millions of streams for emo songs about heartbreak and pain. R&B is alive and well. Sure, the genre can sound—and look—different from its predecessors and we can argue incessantly over its king (or queen). But R&B is a forever vibe; it comes from deep down in the soul and its ability to shape, shift and influence reflects its resilience. There will always be love and heartbreak, moments when we’re in our feelings. Nothing is going to change that. The record keeps playing.