'Grown But Not Retired': How Now-Classic R&B Divas Are Thriving at Radio and Beyond

Brandy, Monica and Fantasia
Photo Illustration by Klawe Rzeczy

From left: Brandy, Monica and Fantasia.

R&B is a young person’s game -- at least judging by the Billboard Hot 100, where streaming-friendly artists like Lizzo and Khalid dominate. But look a little deeper, and you’ll find that the hitmakers of yesteryear are, well, still making hits. In July, Monica’s throbbing slow jam “Commitment” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s radio-based Adult R&B Songs list -- her first chart-topper there since 2010. Fantasia, who this year celebrated the 15th anniversary of her American Idol win, hit No. 2 on the same chart in August with the ’80s-inspired “Enough.” Brandy is sitting just inside the tally’s top 10 with “Love Again,” a lush duet with Daniel Caesar. And all three have full-length projects expected this fall -- proof that R&B’s new class of veteran divas still has plenty of opportunities.

“They’re in the right demo of ‘grown but not retired,’ ” says Dee Dee Faison, promotions director at WBLS (107.5 FM) New York. And that middle ground is not a bad place to be. As Heather Lowery, vp talent and touring at Live Nation Urban, puts it: “They’ve made timeless music that still appeals to their original fan base yet connects to younger fans who are able to appreciate the progression of R&B.”

The fact that once-young fans from their heyday are now adults with purchasing power helps sustain their longevity. “[Their fans] are in the age range of 26 to about 50. We work hard, so we can afford the $200 seats for a girls’ trip to see them live,” says Faison. “Younger fans may not be able to afford the tickets, so they get the music through the radio or streaming. We’re more prone to buy the record and support them on the road.”

Late-’90s/early-2000s nostalgia is also big in the urban music market right now. In 2016, Sean Combs’ Bad Boy Family Reunion trek reunited acts like Lil Kim, 112 and Faith Evans, grossing $22.3 million, according to figures reported to Billboard Boxscore; this year, boy band B2K’s Millennium Tour became the group’s most successful yet, grossing $25.5 million with a stacked lineup that included fellow crooners like Mario and Bobby V. A co-headlining package featuring these women isn’t a far-fetched idea: Monica joined Xscape’s 2017-18 reunion tour, and this year, she and Brandy took part in Live Nation’s Femme It Forward concert series alongside such peers as Ashanti and Mýa.

Still, the artists themselves note that not trying to compete at all is what keeps them so competitive. “Authenticity is key,” Monica explains. “Being you allows people to trust and believe in your artistry, and that’s why I never hesitate to be me.” Says Fantasia: “When you hear [our voices], you know it’s us. It’s a sound that can’t be duplicated. The humbleness about us, staying true to ourselves and not trying to change our style to fit in -- that’s what makes us stick around.”

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 24 issue of Billboard.