Why 2017 was R&B's return to glory

Almost everything else this year was a disaster, but R&B was triumphant

Published December 15, 2017 6:58PM (EST)

SZA (Getty/Randy Shropshire)
SZA (Getty/Randy Shropshire)

Look around, and it can seem like this country is losing its soul. This year, we witnessed the rise of one of the most overtly disastrous political administrations, along with a spike in the toxic attitudes and behavior that swept it into office.

But now listen, and you'll hear signs that we've got a lot of soul still left. Disastrous as it was politically, emotionally, spiritually, 2017 was still a triumphant year for that soulful genre: R&B.

"What a year!" Nadeska Alexis, senior editorial producer at Complex told me on a recent episode of "Salon Talks." "Honestly, we didn’t deserve all the R&B we got. . . there are too many great albums out this year."

The acclaim being given to these albums and artists isn't just coming from fans of R&B, either. The Grammys took notice. In Best New Artist category, three out of the five performers nominated are from the genre. Two R&B albums are up for Best Album of the Year and two R&B songs for Best Record of the Year.

As well, Time Magazine called R&B breakout artist SZA's "CTRL" the number one album of the year. "Like all the best artists, her experience is so specific that it rises to the level of universality," Time said. "She may be one of a kind, but she’s speaking the truth of a whole generation."

It's a vastly different story than it was even just a few years ago. "For a while, it felt like R&B would fall into this transient category," Sam Wolfson wrote in The Guardian in 2015. For years, it seemed as if artists were rejecting the R&B label, as if the music wasn't selling, as if traditional R&B groups were too expensive to sign, as if there wasn't really a place for it commercially and, as if offerings from the genre were just not as good as they used to be.

But that didn't mean people didn't miss the music. Many pined for a return to that soulful '90s sound that was largely missing from popular music. They wanted their old R&B back.

But something changed in 2017. Artists, producers, media, fans and industry execs have stopped trying to confine R&B to its past. By letting go of their old R&B, they've allowed the form to survive, evolve and, it seems, flourish.

"I think back in the 90s there was a definite R&B sound that was easily distinguishable," vocalist Alessia Cara told the Guardian (she's up for Best New Artist at the Grammys). "But now, I feel like music has become tailored to the specific artist. There is no longer a 'set' R&B sound. There is a 'Frank Ocean' sound and a 'Miguel' sound. I love that music is doing that." 

This newfound freedom is certainly a spillover from 2016. That year's "A Seat At the Table" by Solange is often called one of the best albums of the last decade, as is Frank Ocean's 2016 release, "Blonde."

But it's not just singers with an established toehold in the industry that had an impact in 2017. A new crop of young R&B artists hit the scene this year with releases that were strong, soulful and each of them remarkably different from the others.

There's Daniel Caesar, the 22-year-old Canadian crooner who released his debut LP "Freudian." Up for Best R&B Album at the Grammys, it's anchored by a brilliant sound that's almost spiritual. That's not to say it's definitively connected to God. Rather, it's so full-bodied and expansive that it's both commanding and ethereal all at once. On "Freudian," the production is a dreamscape that glides under Caesar's syrupy vocals and meditative songwriting.

Then there's Kehlani's debut "SweetSexySavage," on which she straddles the pop and R&B world with a radiant sound grounded by her velvety vocals. Sean "Diddy" Combs himself credited the Oakland native with saving R&B.

Kelela's debut "Take Me Apart," layers her alluring, almost dizzying vocals with deeply introspective lyrics. The production is eclectic, it's at times warped, sometimes lush, sometimes whimsical. As well, the lead singer from The Internet, Syd, released her solo album "Fin" this year. On it, her voice is more subdued than that of her peers, letting a futuristic, experimental sound and vibe take precedence over her vocals.

Even Ty Dolla $ign, who's not new to the scene, delivered an incredible album in 2017, "Beach House 3." His commercial success can be seen as a blueprint for upcoming singers and proof that R&B is still viable. "I wanted to show that you could be on the radio and not have to hold back," he told Rolling Stone of his latest release. "I sung my ass off. But it's still gonna be a mainstream vibe. That's all I'm trying to do: Make a lane for the singers." 

There are many others rising in R&B, and it's the diversity in sound, the multitude of voices they offer that's most exciting. "The variety really is incredible," Alexis said.

These differing artistic statements, all of them under the seemingly larger than ever R&B umbrella, speak to a newfound freedom within the genre, one that is helping to transform audience and industry perceptions of it. Yet, despite this new elasticity, there's something as old as the R&B itself that is helping it succeed.

Singer PJ Morton said that one of the reasons R&B is resurgent is that it rediscovered its identity and embraced an authenticity that it had perhaps lost. "Soul music touches people," he said on "Salon Stage." "We got back to just wanting to be ourselves, and I think once we stopped trying to compete, we eclipsed pop music."

Alexis believes that there's a tech factor here, too. She sees streaming services as central to R&B's victorious year. "A[t] Apple Music especially, they really championed artists like 6LACK and Daniel Caesar," she said. Both those artists are now Grammy nominees. 

Angela Yee, radio host of Power 105.1's "The Breakfast Club" agreed, saying that streaming services allow listeners to dive down rabbit holes of musical discovery that even hitting the record store or word of mouth never really offered. Playing SZA, can lead to Kelela, which can then lead to Daniel Caesar, which might bring you to Syd, and then on to any number of the newer, equally sensational R&B artists. In a lot of ways, the shifting nature of the recording industry may be hurting sales, but it's helping R&B.

Whatever the case, the prospects are bright for even more evolution and success in 2018. "I hope we get even more R&B that we don't deserve next year," Alexis says (though that's no easy task after the plethora of quality releases in 2017.) As NPR declared "R&B has never been healthier." Whatever happened in 2017, at the very least, we've got our R&B back.

By Rachel Leah

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Angela Yee Complex Daniel Caeser Entertainment Grammys Kehlani Kelela Khalid Music R&b Soul Music Syd Sza Ty Dolla $ign