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Evolution of R&B — An Essay

Music is a language that is universal. A language that is always changing and progressing as time goes on and demographics change. Rhythm and Blues, also known as R&B, has been a forever changing genre, encompassing elements of soul and jazz and hip hop and rock. R&B giants, like Beyonce, Rihanna, and John Legend, have ushered in a new style of R&B in the 21st century, full of faster beats and lighter song subjects. Artists like TLC, Boys II Men, and Dru Hill, although popular in his or her antiquity, have faded into the background as the last chapter of R&B for the 20th century and the last chapter of the slow, subtle and soulful R&B.  These two eras of R&B, although same in name and promotion of musical innovation, differ in composition, ability to convey certain emotions, and demographic potential.

Listening to R&B before the turn of the century was an emotional rollercoaster. This era was filled with friendly groups singing passionately about love and what it meant to be in love. During the era, artists were heavily dependent on influences from late jazz compositions and classic blues. From jazz, R&B borrowed the use of various instruments, adding to the depth of the music and creating sounds couldn’t, at that time, be created or altered without live instruments. Songs also included the strict formation of jazz, while incorporating the loose ad libs of early jazz. Also borrowed from jazz was the concept of using groups to create different harmonies varying in timbre. This also allowed specialization of a certain note fore person, like the specialization many jazz musicians acquired after focusing on one instrument for years at a time. With this aspect came the creation of very popular singing bands like Boys II Men, TLC, En Vogue, and New Edition, all of which no longer record mainstream R&B.

From the Blues, early R&B borrowed the soul and subject matter. In early blues pieces artist sang about love. It was usually about how his or her love had left them or how his or her love was missing, like in Bessie Smith’s Saint Louis Blues. In this song she sang about how much she loved her boyfriend, and how he had used her then left her, but oddly she was still in love with him. Similar in subject matter is popular 1990s Mariah Carey song, Always Be My Baby.  This is a reoccurring them in blues music, and this reoccurrence is paralleled in older R&B music.

The current R&B has built upon the foundation set before the turn of the century, but is now closer related to pop music than its roots in blues music. Artists like Chris Brown, Melanie Fiona, and Ne-Yo have change the face of R&B, focusing it more on the individual and how the individual lives his or her life. In the early 2000s there was a gradual separation from the slow and soulful music of the 1990s. With this separation came the independence from needing singing groups, or bands, spawning the downfall of singing groups like Destiny’s Child. The music became more upbeat, and the subject matter shifted, slightly.

Like pop music, present-day R&B has a more youthful timbre. Songs became more about independence from love, and the importance of having a healthy sex life or celebrated the fun associated with living life at any age. Songs like Invented Sex by Trey Songz and Shut It Down by Drake and The Dream, focused on the love and admiration for the female body and physique, stressing the importance of her having sex with the male. These songs, R&B in genre, use less instrumentation and effectively utilize a faster, artificial beat created by technology. Although very different from the aforementioned, older R&B, this new music is classified as Rhythm and Blues. R&B moguls Rihanna and Beyoncé recently named themselves pop icons, because of the ability of their music to cross over into the pop genre, proving that R&B has now become characteristic of loud, faster music.

Listening to the R&B songs from the 1990s can make the listener feel happy, warm, and loved, or just as easily depressed, sad, and distant. Good examples of this include Cool It Now by New Edition, a song about a young guy who has fallen in love with a girl, and I’m Goin’ Down by Mary J. Blige, a ballad sang by a woman whose heart has been broken by her significant other. The feelings these songs conveyed were norms. Music has the ability to cater and change for the listeners’ emotions, and the older R&B was able to make the listener feel good. The music ‘spoke to the soul’, which explained how popular it was.

Present day R&B also caters to certain emotions. In my opinion, present day R&B, because of its fusion with pop music is able to do more than make the listener sit and think about the situation. In post 2000s R&B there are more emotions involved. Unlike the music previously mentioned, this R&B is has the ability to make the listener feel bad about the situation, but before the song has ended, have the listener up and dancing. This danceable R&B movement makes this music more versatile. In Beyoncé’s hit single Best You Never Had, she begins the  singing about how sad she was when she broke up with her old boyfriend, but by the end of the song she is dancing with family and friends at her wedding celebrating the separation she was upset about in the beginning. This unique ability makes R&B the genre it has become today.

With the close relationship with jazz and the classic blues, the demographic of pre 2000s R&B was people close enough to the age where smooth jazz was still popular, but the new emerging rap culture was slightly out of reach. People in their mid to late 20s found this music most popular, because it related to the problems and situations that correlated with their urban love lives, while putting a hip, urban yet soulful spin on them. The demographic was also consistent with the artist who recorded the music. Artists like Cisco and Brian McKnight were both in their mid to late 20s when they began to record and publish music in the R&B genre.

Since its emergence in the late 1980s and its decline in the early 2000s, the demographic has changed and began to encompass more music lovers. People, like me, born in the 1990s, who weren’t fully aware of the musical movement, have begun to explore and discover this music as a direct result of the advanced technology in today’s society. The music has grown with the first listeners as their lives have progressed, classified as “Grown and Sexy Music” by radio stations across the country, and has found new fans in R&B lovers as young as high school students, classified as “Old and Classic R&B.”

The current caliber of R&B has just as much widespread support, but the support stretches across racial demographics as well age. Unlike the aforementioned R&B, this music is not only loved, but sang by a more diverse group of people. Artists like Robin Thicke, a popular Caucasian R&B singer and Keke Palmer, a teenage R&B singer, represent the diversity that this new genre has reached. This support isn’t alarming, because R&B covers more subject matter outside of love and the loss thereof. With more people able to relate to the music, and with the music more accessible, more people are able to listen to it and the music is also able to cater more heavily to the constant changing demographics of the listeners.

The two eras of music differ in many ways; however both eras were extremely innovative, paving paths for music to grow as an effect of it. The older R&B experimented with the use of different instruments, tones and pitches, and mixing of smooth jazz and classic blues. These aspects added depth to this classic R&B and it also introduced jazz to a demographic that would have otherwise not have ventured into. This R&B also acted as a stepping stone for the current R&B to grow.

The current era of R&B has used innovation to welcome all types of music into the new fused genre. R&B has begun to utilize aspects of music production like artificial beat makers, auto tune, pitch bending, and flexible use of tempos. Blending these sounds, creating R&B, has been one of the greatest innovative feats of R&B. This innovation has changed the face of the genre, and it is evident when a listener compares older R&B and current R&B.

A playlist is a powerful creation. An R&B playlist encompasses a broad array of feelings and emotions specific to the listener. The R&B playlist can comprised of songs that sing about happy times and blues that reminisce on what could have been in the older R&B music, or melodies and rhythms that make one want to dance and express adoration for physical features on another person. Music, specifically R&B, speaks a universal language of emotions and feelings that goes across language barriers. This blend with beats from drums, technique of classical musicians, and soul of blues music is incomparable. R&B, no matter how much it is celebrated for being a soulful music, has changed its face over the past few years. Differences in these two eras of R&B, however, have created the dynamic we see and appreciate today. Although same in name, the two eras differ in composition, ability to convey certain emotions, and demographic potential.


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