How R&B Has Lost Its Soul

A very interesting article was passed to me a few weeks ago bemoaning the current state of R&B in America [1]. Truth be told, while it’s a debate that’s been beaten like the proverbial dead horse, it’s one that still bears consideration. How is it that a form of music so integral to the individualization of Black Americans becomes something of a farce in their hands?

Further, how do our White counterparts in Great Britain manage to inflect their R&B with so much soul and grit while we in America are stuck perpetuating a sound lacking in the very rhythm and blues of its namesake?

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the shift in R&B became so drastic; however, one thing’s become perfectly clear: we’ve lost the plot as far as creating music that’s emotional and charged with honesty. Somewhere between the tail-end of the 90s and 2005, all music seemed to be settling into a very disconcerting pattern of regurgitated sounds and beats, voices that were all seemingly the same type of monotone without any real inflection or depth. However, there was always R&B. Even when there seemed to be a drought of actual significant lyrical content, there were always the voices and the music that never wavered in precision and scope.

It seems in an attempt to become more commercial, instead of settling for the genre in which many Black artists and entertainers felt ghettoized, producers and record companies jumped on the Gaga bandwagon and went for music that was more technology than soul, more dance than rhythm.

However, the Brits seemed to believe that Soul music and R&B were just as marketable and appreciated on mainstream radio as the dance tracks that were filling the clubs and selling records overseas. How strange that the two paths of two musical giants could diverge so drastically.


As unexpected as my path was to loving all things weird, more unexpected is my ability to get attention for writing about the stuff.

22 Responses

  1. people simply need to understand their history, inspect what made this so-called “real music” what it was. What it was was an era in which musicians and singers were simpatico and managed to create music that was honest yet still accessible. It has nothing to do with who sings better, but who actually sings and makes their music resonate on a universal level.
    Very true.

    Really persuasive argument you’ve got here!

    • Camiele says:

      @chrryblssmninja, Oh, well thank you :) It’s more or less about remembering what the music was rather than trying to find music that “sounds like” it, you know? People really do get too hung up on color and country and aren’t actually concentrating on what it is that draws them to the music. Hopefully, I can shed a little light on the subject.

      Thanks for reading :D

      • amy says:

        @Camiele, but it’s always got to do with the soul. The honesty of the lyrics and the depth of the voice, which make a winning combo. I doubt the UK promoters saw Amy Winehouse or Adele and saw “highly marketable people”.

        The US execs are just too hang up on market since the days of American Idol…

        • Camiele says:

          @amy, I agree. For some reason markets outside the US understood that the music was simply the music, though not “marketable” to a “pop” audience, per se, it was marketable to an audience that widely consumed good old fashioned music. What’s happened is that people in America have accepted what’s been deemed “marketable” to the point of consuming anything that sounds like what we’re “supposed” to listen to, what we’re “supposed” to consider R&B. I don’t see such a polarization between genres in otehr countries as I see in the States.

        • amy says:

          @Camiele, I think in the US there’s only one place for marketable music, whereas in Europe and other places, you get your distinctive pop (the success of Take That and Westlife, on one side), the prolific sprout of tons of Brit indie rock bands… tons of soul music.

          Remember in 2003 or 2004, every song on Billboard charts was either rap or hip hop… or R&B Hop or something… no place for anything else…

  2. Rodrigo says:

    “At this stage in music’s history, it’s all about making money”

    It’s always been about that in the pop side of music. I guess it seems more blatant nowadays, but great examples of this were The Beatles and The Rolling Stones with the amount of stuff they have released over the years back in the 60’s. But times have changed now regarding the amount of stuff you get to release and stuff.

    • Camiele says:

      @Rodrigo, While it’s true that any business is about making money (you’d be an idiot to think otherwise), it was never the main focus of the artists themselves. It was mostly about making class, top-notch music (or at the very least being honest with the expression as an extension of yourself) and being proud of the product you gave to the masses. Nowadays the only focus seems to be the fastest and easiest way to big cash, hence why everything follows the same pattern — some computer beat, some unspectacular vocals, some idiot lyrics. That shit sells faster than the only hooker on a busy corner.

      • amy says:

        @Camiele, well… I really can’t blame someone compromising their sound on their debut… after all, they probably spent a lot of their savings to make it there. But compromising your sound when you already make millions is just… ugh.

        But what can you expect in the day and age where your popularity is measured by how many followers you have on Twitter? xD

        • Camiele says:

          @amy, I see your point, but I can still blame someone who compromises quality simply because it may have cost them some money to get there. If you were gonna spend all that money, it should have better damn well been spent on something with some substance, something that you can be proud to put your name on. If you were just gunnig for making drivel that everyone else can digest, that can be done without a great deal of expense… it just has to follow an easy formula. You can download a free mixing program and recycle some beats and you’re good to go. If you’re gonna spend good money, make a good product.

        • amy says:

          @Camiele, I understand. xD But take it from a designer that has designed some no-name products just to get some money… ;P

          Pink is probably off-topic, but she compromised on her debut… even though it has some good tracks in it, it’s completely different music to what she did later on. Some people are lucky, some other not so much… Pink just happened to hit it bit with her debut, and she had a lot of luck with getting the Moulin Rouge Lady Marmalade gig.

  3. Camiele says:

    @amy, I don’t know about that. If America is supposed to be this vast land of opportunity, how can it claim to have no room for anything that’s of substance? Like I said, it’s not been that way forever. The 90s especially was a place where anybody was making music and it always touched somebody. They Top 40 had a lot of R&B and Hip-Hop, but it also had a lot of pop, rock, even some new-disco. It was a varied place for people of varied musical backgrounds to be able to express themselves. It’s not so much about genre, per se. It’s more about quality of music.

    Every decade has its drivel, but that wasn’t the stuff that was most noteworthy. Now, it’s become a trend to make music that’s here for five minutes and gone just as quickly, no lasting impressions and no real soul behind it. And to actually call it R&B is sort of a slap in the face of the history of the genre. I think people should stop pretending that it’s anything but disposable pop. Call it what it is.

    • amy says:

      @Camiele, the 90s was a great year for music xD (you can see it in my A Life in Music list, where I picked albums of different genres). But the American market has always been divided by music eras… or so, since MTV days – they labeled the days when New Kids on the Block and Debbie Gibson as pop, then came the Grunge days, which were broken by the appearance of Hanson… and the ‘pop’ days came once again.

      The thing about Hanson, they weren’t exactly pop… not bubblegum pop anyway. And then Billboard had place for TLC and the Dixie Chicks on the same list as Britney and Mariah and Red Hot Chili Peppers… In between, there was Latin Pop.

      Eminem hit it big into the pop culture scene… and then his company pushed 50 Cent, Destiny’s Child disbanded, and Beyonce took over. From then, Billboard was all about Ja Rule, Nelly, Usher… and somewhere there, something changed. I think the market changed… the internet became a REALLY big thing… mass communication was different.

      Of course since then to now, there’s been in-betweens of white boy rock bands xD (to a degree Nickelback hahaha) Simple Plan, Fall Out Boy, Yellowcard, etc. However, the dominance of dance club friendly tracks on the chart is overwhelming…

      Then again, people in the US maybe just like to party xD

      You can also consider that many other artists aren’t relying on physical album sales, which count for Billboard… and digital sales get divided by platform, so we will never know who are big sellers. A lot has changed in the music… and titles like “bestseller” given by labels mean nothing any longer. What labels tell us about what their artist are like mean nothing now.

  4. amy says:

    Hasn’t it always been, somehow, about race? I sure remember Elvis getting accused of “singing Black music.”

    And I’m rather amused that you put Rihanna as a mildly moderate vocalist, and in the same level of Beyonce. xD Rihanna, to me, just relies on looking very fashionable (that hair is pretty darn cool, I must admit), but she’s completely forgettable on stage.

    • Camiele says:

      @amy, I wasn’t necessarily putting Rihanna on the same level as Beyonce. I was originally going just put Beyonce, but Rihanna’s just as popular. It was more me saying that it isn’t requisite that these new stars be able to actually sing, hence “possible competent vocal ability.” Beyonce clearly has vocal skills, but that’s not something that’s actually a requirement for these entertainers. That’s why Rihanna was put there.

      It hasn’t always been about race. As regards Elvis, the reason why it was said that he was “singing Black music” is because he WAS singing Black music. His biggest hits were originally sung by Black aritsts (for instance, “Hound Dog” was originally sung by “Big Mama” Thornton). His ability to be broadcast on popular stage shows allowed his popularity to soar, while the original aritsts weren’t recongized as such until 40 or 50 years later. Even his performances were pretty much an imitation of Jackie Wilson, an artist whose stage performances were twice as dynamic, but was quickly overshone by Elvis when he came on the scene. It was common for White artists to remake songs by Black artists, sell them, and the original artists were never (farily) compensated. So, in Elvis’s case (and in many White artists of that era), he WAS singing Black music.

      • amy says:

        @Camiele, yeah, but that’s the point. I mean… music, of course, should be about music. “It’s not about who sings it, or what the beat sounds like.” Like you said…

        And I know Hound Dog was originally sung by Big Mama Thornton – I just sorta have had a problem with denominating something as “black music” or names like “black month” – I guess it’s kinda different in Peru, where… of course, we have “black music” but I think it’s more popularly recognized as Afro-Peruvian music. So, to me, the moment one denominated it as “black,” it immediately becomes about the race. Wouldn’t it be more logical to call it Afro-American music? That way, it isn’t about a race… but a culture. It becomes something only belonging to the African Americans, everyone that developed the sound.

        Also… what happened to rock & roll in America? It seems like all the acts have been relegated to adult contemporary lists and small gigs in regular-sized venues…

        • Camiele says:

          @amy, Honey, that’s another post all together. All music has become a generic mixture of the same thing over and over.

          Calling it “African-American” or “Black” makes no difference. When you’re talking about cultures, most would consider them the same. It carries the same baggage. I like being called Black, but many Blacks prefer being called African-American. It all carries the same weight, it’s all a categorization that means “Not White”. It’s more historical than it is ethnic or cultural (though history and culture are tantamount to the same thing — what’s in your past and how it brought you to your present, identifying factors that separates your past from somebody else’s).

          I think it truly became a thing to call something “Black music” relatively later on in the mainstream popular mindset (we’re not talking about, you know, Negro spirituals and the earliest stages of jazz). Because most Black people had a particular sound that was very singular to them, the resounding idea was that the music was made BY Blacks FOR Blacks. And thus the divide in R&B and the whole “sounding Black” motif. I think if people truly think about it, it was never about Elvis “sounding Black”; as you know it was about him taking the music of Black artists and calling it his own.

          Like you said earlier, it’s all about the Soul and that’s what’s missing in music in America — from R&B to Rock & Roll, it’s all lost the grit and honesty that it once had in lieu of finding the fastest way to make money. I’m not gonna bemoan people who make money with what they do. I’m not even gonna say they’ve “sold out” because they’re making music that a vast majority of the consuming public like. But what it comes down to is the integrity of the music and that’s been completely replaced by a need to find the fastest way to make a buck.

        • amy says:

          @amy, true.

          I’m still on the fence on race or culture, though. I don’t know about that… I would call myself Asian-looking, but I’m more Latin American in that sense. My grandmother on my dad’s side was part Afro-Peruvian, but all I got from her side is the unruly hair. So to me, race and culture are definitely on different places…

          There’s no tag for me, except for the Latin-Asian… so whenever there’s a poll to answer, I tend to mark the Other box.

  5. Camiele says:

    @amy, I get where you’re coming from. But I can only speak from my perspective and what I’ve experienced, and the truth of the matter is whether you call us Black or African-American, it’s the same thing. Both carry the baggage of the culture, both carry the baggage of the “race”. You can say that I look Black, but I also look African-American. There’s a lot of history in that, even in the term itself… neither term was conceived by any non-Blacks in America. These were terms that Blacks used for themselves because there was nothing to call us that wasn’t derogatory. We named ourselves Black, then African-American, then Black again. And it all had to do with the legacy and the history that’s bound in the colour of the skin, there’s no escaping it. When talking of the African-American/the Black/the Negro/the Coloured culture, it means one thing: the culture of a race of people.

    Even deeper than that is the damage caused by the Diaspora and the inability of Blacks in America to truly know what our culture is. Latinos have a very distinct culture. Italian-Americans, Korean-Americans, Native Americans… they all have a very distinct culture that comes directly from their country of origin. Blacks/African-Americans have no such culture. We’re not African in culture because of being torn from our lands and forced to acclimate to a culture that wasn’t ours. Africans won’t even acknowledge Blacks in America as having anything to do with African culture. Especially in our beginnings in America, we were never truly considered American, and even that’s a skewed understanding of culture. All we have is this skin and no matter what label you put on it, that’s the only thing that it comes back to.

    At least, that’s the case with Blacks in America. I really can’t speak on how anybody else feels about their race and culture.

    • amy says:

      @Camiele, but that’s a thing of everyone that’s not in the place of their supposed race, isn’t it? Asian Americans have a hard time in Asia, even worse if they don’t speak the language – Asians think Asian Americans are too westernized…

      Though, I’m not entirely sure about Latin Americans… I think as Latin Americans we have different issues, considering many dream of the American Dream, right? So being a Latino who’s, I guess, to influenced by American culture would be a double edge sword depending where you’ve been brought up. There would be a sector that would admire your ability to assimilate the culture, and others that would look down on you for it.

      But assimilation is part of that new identity – I may not look like you, but I was born and raised in here. I’m more Latin American than a Latino kid who was brought up in the States. You know? Just like a white kid brought up in China is more Asian than me…

      • Camiele says:

        @amy, I suppose so. But there’s still something fundamental in the roots of certain cultures. Like I said, I don’t know about other cultures and ethnicities personally, but I do know that while assimilation is a means to survival, to not have an actual fundamental place to put yourself leaves you sort of lingering as an “other”. You don’t belong here, you don’t belong where your supposed country (or continent) of origin is… so you’ve got to create a culture out of thin air. Just in terms of the securing of one’s identity, it’s never been a completely cut and dry “you’re African-American because you’re people are from Africa” type of thing. It was a means to try to root ourselves to our homeland, but even that became sort of futile in the long run.

        It is, indeed, a complicated thing to think about. You’re more Latin American because you’ve lived there, but all I’ve done is live in America… that doesn’t actually say much about my culture as a Black woman. I’m American… but what does that mean? And how does that relate to my African-ness when I’m constantly told I’m not that? It’s sort of being in a cultural limbo. It’s almost as if we HAVE no history as Black Americans. If all our history is is being the progeny of runaway slaves, then what does that say about our culture? Blacks/African-Americans are first slaves then whatever they’ve assimilated to… what other races they’ve mixed with and cultures they’ve claimed (the Diaspora)?

  6. Pedro Baez says:

    As an RB affecianado, the Brits are making some good jams. The music is fresh, and I dig it. It would be good if we Americns can go back to our roots and make jams that ALL of us can get into. Why should all of today’s music only appeal to ages 12-17. Us gray hairs want some new R&B too.

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