“We bonded together over the fact that there wasn’t more of a space for R&B,” RCA chairman/CEO Peter Edge says of Balogun. “These young artists weren’t being given the same kind of shot that young hip-hop artists were. With R&B now sprouting different sounds and hybrids, it’s coming back in a different way because this generation wants to do its own thing. You have to progress. If everybody sounded like Sam Cooke, then you would have no Marvin [Gaye], would you?”
Meanwhile, Interscope Records -- known for a rap clientele that includes Kendrick Lamar, Juice WRLD and Rae Sremmurd -- has been steadily expanding its R&B roster with partnerships and distribution deals with such labels as LVRN, City Entertainment Group, J. Cole’s Dreamville and Mustard’s 10 Summers. Interscope’s recent successes include Walker, whose debut album, Over It, notched the biggest streaming week ever for an R&B album by a woman in October; Lennox, who is currently opening for Lizzo; new signee Ann Marie; and, of course, Mai, whose bubbly crush anthem “Boo’d Up” became one of the biggest breakout hits of 2018.
“Ocean and The Weeknd found a way to reinvent the genre to make it more relevant, then ‘Boo’d Up’ gave R&B a little more tempo, opening the lane for kids to understand it was OK to listen to R&B,” says Justice Baiden, LVRN co-founder and head of A&R. “There’s a different level of attentiveness that fans have now: A lot more emotion is attached as they relate to the authenticity of these emerging R&B artists.”
But signing a handful of these performers isn’t enough to level the playing field, especially if they’re getting a fraction of the resources and investment rappers receive. While most of those interviewed for this story declined to specify numbers, it is no secret that there is quicker money to be made in hip-hop, where SoundCloud rappers can become Hot 100 success stories practically overnight. R&B’s traditional emphasis on classic vocal performances and musicianship -- H.E.R., for instance, plays guitar, bass, drums and piano -- means its artists often need longer (and sometimes more costly) development to achieve their full potential. Hip-hop budgets typically “exceed that of an R&B artist because the perceived ceiling for success for the hip-hop artist is higher,” says Live Nation Urban president Shawn Gee. “You’re going to put more money into an investment that has the potential to yield a higher ROI.”
“Most labels give you a song and dance about being 100% behind an R&B project with a marketing campaign,” Robinson elaborates. “Maybe that goes on through the project’s release weekend and the next week. Then the following week, you’re not hearing much about the record anymore. I have always said that out of $10, a pop artist will get $8 to market and promote [a project], while the R&B artist will get the $2. So whom are you going to hear about more?”
Coupled with the fact that many radio programmers still doubt R&B’s crossover potential, the prospects for these artists can feel extremely limited. “Being told that Summer or 6LACK aren’t pop is tough,” says LVRN co-founder and president Tunde Balogun. “Pop music is popular music. And if Summer is overindexing in the R&B space time and again, she deserves to be crossed over.” Says Baiden: “Just like streaming is breaking through [traditional] genre boundaries to address what people are listening to, radio also has to take more risks on R&B records. That the Ella Mai record would do so well is no surprise. We don’t need to have only one golden child every two years.”