Welcome to The State of R&B, ESSENCE’s look at the past, present and future of rhythm and blues. In this piece, writer Imani Mixon takes on the “R&B is dead” debate.
While fulfilling my duty as maid of honor in my cousin’s Memorial Day wedding, I set out to select the kind of songs you play at a wedding — the entrances, the exits, the first dance, the toast. I quickly realized that current R&B wedding playlists were filled with the same songs that played in my parents’ 1999 wedding video. Faith Evans’ “Never Let You Go.” Eric Benét and Tamia’s “Spend My Life With You.” Case’s “Happily Ever After.” Much of our modern understanding of traditional R&B is stuck on repeat, in a constant loop of longing for late 90s and early 2000s offerings.
It seems like for every “Let’s Get Married,” there are five “Don’t Leave Me Girls.” Heartbreak songs of the begging, pleading, singing in the rain, knocking on your door at midnight with flowers in hand variety. The distinction between way back then R&B and modern R&B is best summed up in Anderson .Paak’s lament on 2019’s “Come Home” — “I’m begging you please come home, no one even begs anymore.”
The easiest way to go viral in the R&B space isn’t by dropping a new track or visual but to question its existence or validity. Following in the same vein as the classic rap debate “Who is your top five, dead or alive?,” the combative energy of hip-hop’s age-old debate has moved on to R&B. This time though, it isn’t a question, it’s a proclamation — R&B is dead. Perhaps we should have known a sonic sea change was near when Jacquees declared himself the king of R&B in 2018. Most recently, Diddy took to Twitter to ask who killed R&B. There is no right answer to that question because as with all fandom, R&B’s origins and legends largely depend on who you ask. Are we talking about Motown Marvin Gaye or Moesha-era Brandy?
Contemporary artists who are blazing their own trail on R&B’s well-worn path have something to say about the debate.
“Anyone who says R&B is dead, it’s because their outlook on R&B is dead.”
Alex Isley hit the R&B scene a decade ago with the release of her first project, Love / Art Memoirs. She’s the daughter of celebrated guitarist Ernest Isley and acknowledges the responsibility to continue the legacy of traditional R&B. She began working on the album in 2009, after completing her jazz studies major at the University of Calfornia, Los Angeles. Upon graduating, she noted a definite shift in the business of R&B; the DIY spirit of mixtapes and Soundcloud profiles were taking over. Isley didn’t want too much time to pass before releasing her debut project, so after some encouragement from her mom, she began producing her own tracks.
“R&B is constantly evolving. It is ever-present. It will always be ever-present, but it changes. It’s not going to sound like it did even five years ago. That’s the beauty of it,” says Isley to ESSENCE. “Anyone who says R&B is dead, it’s because their outlook on R&B is dead.”
Durand Bernarr credits much of his early musical training to singing in the church choir. He thinks of church as a rich environment for artist development, it’s where you learn about your voice and how it complements others. It’s also where you learn to lead and where many pick up their first instrument. It replicates the trajectory of R&B singers like Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, John Legend and Brandy, who moved from prayer and worship to nightclubs and stadiums. For many early career artists, having a church upbringing serves as a calling card that assumes an artist’s vocal agility and allegiance to Black culture.
He speaks on the debate, saying, “Just because it’s not at the forefront or because sonically it’s not familiar to how we used to hear, doesn’t mean that it’s dead. It’s not that it’s dead, it’s evolved. Now what it’s evolved into? That’s a different conversation, but it’s still here,” says Durand Bernarr.
Bernarr first caught Erykah Badu’s attention in 2011 after he posted covers of her songs on YouTube. That same year, she took him on tour with her band as a background vocalist for her Coachella performance. In 2020, during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, he shared his album Dur&, featuring soul singers Ari Lennox and Anna Wise, plus sought-after producer KAYTRANADA. His recent project Wanderlust, a nod to Kelis’ 2001 Wanderland album, is a two-part album that leaves more room to breathe between tracks and makes listeners want to sing. This time around, he’s using more live drums than live bass, too. While Durand is proud to be received as a performance artist, he looks forward to sharing the other genres he’s fluent in, like jazz, gospel, pop, rock and opera.
When R&B emerged as a genre in the 1940s, it was no doubt a contiguity to other existing, popular Black genres like jazz and blues. In 2022, appreciating the abundance of Black music, also means welcoming in new iterations, expressions, and artists. If dedicated R&B listeners share their new favorite artists and projects with others instead of sequestering them away in an attempt to protect them from the mainstream, new, buzzing artists might get the resources and visibility that mainstream platforms and audiences provide.
In many ways, serpentwithfeet’s most recent release DEACON proves that he is the moment. His 2021 album charts the progression of a romantic relationship and explicitly explores the beauty of Black love, specifically between men. The project is brimming with cheeky, catchy lyrics like “Never heard truth come from skinny lips” and “Me and my boo wear the same size shoe.” serpent says contemporaries like Ravyn Lenae and Brent Faiyaz as artists who are carrying the R&B torch.
“It’s important to honor what has already happened before, but also not to miss the blessings that are happening now. It’s important for me to be tuned in to the new music that’s coming out and the new ideas. There’s so much data and so much wonder there that it’s important for me not to miss the moment either,” serpentwithfeet says.
Serpentwithfeet is a classically trained opera singer who grew up in the church, so he was already familiar with the elasticity of music. He says that he hasn’t encountered the R&B is dead conversation in real life. It doesn’t happen among the musicians in his network because it would be offensive. You can’t make that claim while you’re in the presence of musical peers and laying down an R&B track.
Thankfully, he is excited, not threatened by the changing tide of R&B.
“I always think of Black music as an expansive art form. From jazz to gospel to R&B to soul. I’ve always known there to be people that push in all of those genres. So when I say that I make R&B or I’m a child of R&B. That’s not me trying to be funny, I’ve just known people in all these genres to always push. That’s what we do as people, we push,” he says.
The price we pay for encouraging artists to lean so heavily on social media and streaming to get their songs heard is that those same outlets have become the battleground for this incredibly distracting discourse. The artists have already moved on from the conversation—it’s the industry and the audience that keep it alive.
As we enter another new phase of R&B, the songs and sentiment will be less one-sided and more reciprocal, less gendered and more fluid, less uncertain and more empowered. R&B has been the genre of holding hands and making plans, of heartbeats and heartache, of roses and romance, of breakups and a second chance, and it’s becoming a sounding board for the multitudes of love we want to experience and a playground for the possibilities of sound. We welcome this newness into existence with every song and every sway, with each retweet and each replay.