When Gabriella “Gabi” Wilson signed to RCA Records in 2011 as a 14-year-old, she never thought that, eight years later, she would be at the Grammys, taking home two trophies for the lush R&B she released under the moniker H.E.R. And she certainly couldn’t have imagined the view she would have one afternoon this past September, when she witnessed 14,000 people show up to her inaugural Lights On Festival as she and her manager, Jeff Robinson, rode around the venue grounds in a golf cart.
They weren’t just there to see her: The sold-out event, which took place at the Bay Area’s Concord Pavilion amphitheater, also featured a lineup of emerging R&B talent that H.E.R. had curated, including Daniel Caesar, Ari Lennox, Summer Walker, Kiana Ledé, DaniLeigh and Lucky Daye. “Seeing the long line of fans between the two stages, we kept saying to each other, ‘This is crazy,’ ” recalls Robinson, founder/CEO of MBK Entertainment and an industry veteran who previously managed Alicia Keys. “It was a beautiful day of music featuring young R&B artists, the majority of whom were under 25. The fact that Lights On sold out in 30 minutes shows that R&B is definitely alive.”
The state of the genre was on many minds that day. “R&B Is Not Dead” was the festival’s official slogan, and the message adorned the rainbow-lettered posters that promoted the event. While the growth of streaming has opened doors for rap to dominate the mainstream with unprecedented success, managers, artists and executives at both labels and streaming companies worry that R&B is not experiencing the same groundswell, even as a new generation of performers — from Lizzo and SZA to Khalid and Bryson Tiller — ushers in one of the genre’s most creatively fertile periods in recent memory.
“What’s great about what’s happening with R&B right now is that the Solanges, Daniel Caesars, H.E.R.s and others are letting people know, ‘Yes, I do R&B, but I’m not allowing anyone to put me in one box,’ ” says Chris Chambers, whose marketing firm The Chamber Group counts Teyana Taylor and Fantasia as clients. “They’re mixing R&B, rap, Afrobeats, rock, pop, Latin and more, as well as creating different visual styles and storylines. There’s no one look to R&B.”
Yet while the hip-hop/R&B category has collectively grown, surpassing rock as the most popular genre in the United States for the first time in 2017, according to a Nielsen Music year-end report, the former is quickly outpacing the latter. Before streaming became dominant, R&B and rap were often equally matched, with the two almost evenly accounting for the hybrid category’s 15.5% share of album sales in 2014, according to Nielsen. But by the following year, as the combined category rose to a 22% overall consumption market share, R&B had only an 8.5% share while rap had 12.5%. Today, while hip-hop/R&B has an overall 26.5% share, R&B has slid further to 6.9% as rap has climbed to 18.3%. (The individual genre market share numbers do not add up to the total category market share numbers, as they come from two Nielsen reports, one which limits releases to a single genre category and another that counts all applicable genres; still, these data sets offer the best estimation of how the two genres have fared against one another through the years.)
Despite the success of urban music as a whole, R&B artists still find themselves with few opportunities outside of urban adult contemporary radio as long-standing misconceptions and stereotypes about the genre’s relevance and consumer appeal abound. “Everything comes from the rhythm and the blues,” says Robinson. “I don’t care if it’s pop, rock, whatever — R&B is where it all started. And we need our proper respect.”
Some of this, of course, is cyclical. Like all genres, R&B has gone through various phases over the years while enduring inevitable hot and cold periods. From the neo-soul stylings of D’Angelo and Erykah Badu in the late ’90s to the hip-hop-friendly beats of Destiny’s Child and Ashanti in the early 2000s to the earthy soul of Keys and Jill Scott, R&B has never been one size fits all. Yet even as some of these acts scored Billboard Hot 100 hits, they were treated as the exception rather than the norm. “Years ago, I used to feel many people thought of R&B as not cool,” says Mjeema Pickett, Spotify’s global head of programming for R&B/soul. “But people are gravitating back to it as artists like Ella Mai, Summer Walker and others are coming on the scene and killing it.”
In the wake of Frank Ocean, The Weeknd and Solange, who have perhaps done more in the 2010s than anyone else to infuse R&B with fresh energy and broaden its appeal, more labels and imprints have been eager to snatch up its innovators. RCA — which in the past has been home to genre greats like Charlie Wilson, Anthony Hamilton and D’Angelo — has found some of the brightest new stars in Khalid, SZA and Tiller while holding on to more seasoned acts like Keys, Usher, Miguel and Chris Brown. Last year, in tandem with executive vp A&R Tunji Balogun, RCA also launched the joint venture Keep Cool, whose roster includes upstarts Normani and Daye.
“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.”
To cut through to the mainstream, label executives and managers have realized they need to get creative. In H.E.R.’s case, Robinson studied how rappers rolled out their projects and adopted a similar free-flowing release model to build buzz, helping H.E.R. put out five EPs between 2016 and 2018 (which were ultimately compiled into two different full-lengths). He also borrowed a page from Keys’ playbook and kept the attention on H.E.R.’s music by embracing mystery: In the early years of her career, she kept her identity anonymous and to this day is rarely seen without her signature oversize sunglasses.
“When we were serviced with Alicia’s ‘Fallin’ ’ single [in 2001], there was no picture,” recalls iHeartMedia executive vp programing Thea Mitchem. “J [Records, which was folded into RCA in 2011] serviced it with just a white label. So you had to make a decision to play it or not based on how it moved you. With H.E.R., it was a mystery as well. It created a momentum that took a little longer. But I would argue that H.E.R. is going to have a much longer career than other artists who may be hitting now but two years later [will make you think], ‘Who is that?’ ”
Building a live touring presence early on is also crucial. As H.E.R. introduced her music, she was crisscrossing the country playing theaters both as an opener for Tiller and a headliner. On Oct. 20, Walker will kick off her 38-market The First and Last Tour in London, where she has sold out three shows. “Live always tells you the temperature of where things are going,” says LVRN’s Balogun, who signed Walker in 2018. “If a brand-new R&B artist can go to London and do 6,000 tickets the first time, that means the future is very bright.”
Still, the live-music space has its own challenges. Gee, who started Live Nation Urban in 2017 with the express goal of developing more opportunities for R&B and hip-hop artists, notes that there needs to be more infrastructure for R&B acts to tour at the club level so they “can build their fan bases organically and learn how to perform,” he says. “And there are still only a handful of slots on major festivals and few supporting roles on big tours.”
Streaming remains an important tool, even if it hasn’t provided R&B with the same gains as rap. Spotify’s main playlist for the genre, Are & Be, recently crossed the 5 million followers mark, though it’s still behind the platform’s influential RapCaviar playlist, which boasts over 12 million. But Interscope Geffen A&M executive vp urban operations Nicole Wyskoarko notes that streaming platforms have played a crucial role in breaking R&B names in other ways: Walker and 6LACK are recent stars of Apple Music’s Up Next program, a monthly new-artist spotlight that has included partner performances on The Late Late Show With James Corden and Jimmy Kimmel Live! “There’s really a growing appetite for R&B right now,” says Wyskoarko.
The same industry forces benefiting artists across genres are having a positive effect in R&B as well. “Kids no longer need to depend on the traditional gatekeepers — radio programmers, label executives, concert promoters — to determine what music they like and which artists are impactful,” says Gee. “Now the gatekeepers are chasing consumers’ preferences. Streaming isn’t a guarantee of success — artists still need to work their asses off to market their music and connect with fans. But streaming has given these artists a fairer starting point.”
Despite their overall frustrations, those interviewed for this story say they’re encouraged by the momentum today’s rising R&B stars are building, and they think the genre could return to — and perhaps even exceed — the commercial heights it reached in the past over the next two or three years.
“It’s history finally repeating itself,” says Robinson. “When hip-hop started, no one wanted to hear or play it. Then it became a dominant force. Now with R&B coming back, we’re determined that it won’t go quietly back into the night. Some artists will break through, and soon there will be a flood.”
And with discussions about another Lights On Festival in 2020 underway as H.E.R. finishes her official debut studio album, that tipping point could arrive sooner rather than later. “R&B’s reach is bigger than the cage the industry tries to put us in,” adds Robinson. “We’re going to continue to bend and bust through those bars. I like the place R&B is in right now. From here, the only way is up.”