Gentrification of a Genre

by juli boggs

When a Billboard Magazine writer first penned “Rhythm and Blues” in 1949 as a less contentious term for what the publication formerly charted as “race music,” the genre was understood to describe “a vigorous new sound that combined elements from gospel, swing and blues” and within a decade grew to represent the Motown sound of the 1960s. Fifty years later Rhythm and Blues is still understood to describe music pulling from these roots as championed by artists such as R. Kelly and Whitney Houston, but is also subject to much abuse when contentiously applied to any singing, black artist.

Intended as a label for a new wave of hipster friendly rhythm and blues, the clever penning of 2011’s “PBR&B” had many listeners charging critics with labeling pop artists as R&B based primarily on race rather than musical influences. And while genres can and do evolve, the R&B argument of what the genre is and who is and is not making it, is often fraught with prejudiced categorization with any cooing white artists being labeled “blue-eyed soul” and a black artist making that same music as R&B.

Anyone who listened to James Blake’s full length LP this past year would classify its breakbeat heavy sound primarily as dubstep, but several tracks that would normally qualify as R&B are not. In it’s own review, Pitchfork indicated that Blake’s music pulled heavily on “the sound of a Southern black gospel choir” topped with a  “white-boy coo.” Likewise, several of this year’s top albums by artist such as Frank Ocean and The Weeknd were labeled as R&B (targeted as the PBR&B variety) despite having more in common with top charting pop and hip hop artists than anything based in gospel or blues.

In a well articulated article by AWL, Jozen Cummings charges that the classification of an artist based on what we see rather than what we hear regardless of their musical classification is a form of musical segregation which is not only lazy and myopic, but is patently offensive to both artists who are truly making R&B and those who are not. “R&B as a genre has evolved over the years, no question, but the artists we associate with R&B evolved as well, sometimes moving beyond the genre with which they were first associated.” Cummings says.

So what is this new guard of artists such as Drake, The Weeknd, and Frank Ocean if not R&B? Sitting down to listen one can recognize a common thread of louche and emotionally vulnerable subject matter, a quality which began to dominate listeners’ attention with Drake’s Thank Me Later which debuted in 2010. Drake continued in this vein with 2011’s So Far Gone, a wide open, smooth talking 80 minute journey awash with both the braggadocio that hip hop has come to be known for while simultaneously laying open the fragility of that very posing like glass castles waiting to tumble amongst the maelstrom of fame.

Whether or not these artists are expanding the definition of R&B or have left that realm to explore the delicate boundary of a new era of pop and hip hop is yet to be satisfactorily addressed elsewhere in the blogosphere, but perhaps it is easier to let the music simply speak for itself.

For a fuller discussion on this subject I have to recommend both the SOTC blog post which seemed to kick off the argument, and its most thorough response from AWL.

*Feature image pulled from robin-waters.com