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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Tune in: Addressing all types of music

The Life and Times of R&B

 Since the 60s, R&B’s sound has been evolving through the decades, reflecting society as its culture develops. There is so much variety within the genre, from T-Pain to Marvin Gaye to Alicia Keys. A lot of it is terrible (T-Pain) and will make you feel like you’re in a cheap strip club, but some of it can really get you movin’ and groovin’. Overall though, I find R&B to be the smoothest-sounding genre out there.

Rhythm and Blues has always been full of real, heartfelt music, and has improved over the years. It has grown in sound variety and has been developing for decades, but surprisingly enough, its themes have changed very little over time.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, R&B was soul music, like mac and cheese for the ears. Most of the artists were African American, and it typically maintained a positive, loving mood (I know you’ve heard the song “Love Train” by the O’Jays in that Coca Cola commercial). With artists like Marvin Gaye and Earth Wind and Fire, this vintage R&B was bluesy and jazzy.

This is the kind of R&B you’d listen to on your front porch during hot summer nights — generally PG-13 rated music that your whole family could bob to, share a knowing glance that said, “I kinda feel like boogieing.” The time period oozed soul (kind of weird imagery) and the positivity was awesome.

But the sound of 60s and 70s R&B was a little one-dimensional. Songs were either about loving a woman (“I’m Yours” – Stevie Wonder) or loving others in general (“Stand By Me” – Ben E. King), and this uniformity in theme is highlighted by the fact that every song uses the same drums, bass and guitar combo. Yes, Aretha Franklin would use brass instruments, but generally the sound lacked variety. I feel its good vibes and old school energy, but when I start to feel like my parents I turn it off.

The 80s, being the weird decade they were, turned up the funk and gave R&B a little bit of a disco-y feel. Watch the music video “I Want to be Your Man” by Roger. You will enjoy its cheesiness, and it will summarize the unbearable nature of this decade’s R&B. But somehow I find it more appealing than R&B from earlier decades because of its pop-y sound keyboard effects.

But sometimes, R&B from this decade can be over the top. There are so many cheap, weird-colored suits (Prince) and so many high-pitched “woo”s — most of which can be attributed to Michael Jackson.

Think of this decade’s R&B as disco-infused. You know the song “Don’t Stop til You get Enough” by MJ. Although often considered pop, these songs are also great examples of 80s Rhythm and Blues. Their off-the-charts funkiness is characteristic of the 80s, a decade that took a huge step forward in terms of instrumental variety and electronic sounds.

90s R&B totally continued along this path, but also established itself as the baby-making genre — a title that modern R&B still holds. Featuring artists like R Kelly, who despite the lawsuits, actually made some very 90s music (like “I Can’t Sleep Baby”), and some good music too (“I Wish”).

The 90s made heavy use of echo-y organ and smooth bass, which overall created a soothing, chill sound (“Waterfalls” by TLC). You just want to sit in a bean bag chair and eat an otter pop.

The keyboards created an airy feel; songs like “Someone to Love” by Jon B. make me feel like I’m flying through clouds.

Plus, 90s R&B really allowed female singers to take the forefront. A young Mariah Carey (and J Lo, Whitney Houston, etc.) made some great music, like her song “Always Be My Baby.”

Rhythm and Blues really furthered it’s smooth sound in the 90s, but the sexuality in the genre was its main development.

Then came the early 2000s. Usher. Alicia Keys. Beyonce. Nelly. Mario. When I think R&B, these artists immediately come to mind.

While artists like Alicia Keys and John Legend kept the soulful sound alive in R&B music, artists like Usher and Nelly were hard at work transitioning R&B to the club music it has become today (which by the way, still sounds great).

Every single person in the world knows Usher’s song “Yeah,” but he has other songs on that same album (“My Boo” and “Caught Up”) that are equally club-worthy. Yes, his voice can be whiny, but his instrumentals sound pretty cool.

Much of the reason that R&B seems to have taken this turn toward club music is the fact that R&B instrumentals and hip-hop instrumentals started to sound very similar. Currently there are artists like Frank Ocean, whose hiphop instrumentals are turned into beautiful R&B purely because he chooses to sing and not rap over them.

However, some modern R&B artists (Robin Thicke) just make me angry. But I avoid thinking about them. When I say I believe that modern R&B is the genre at it’s best, I am specifically discounting T-Pain and Akon. I am speaking of Usher, Nelly and Beyonce, and reflecting on all the beautiful R&B instrumentals that producers create nowadays. For example, “Let me Love You” by Mario. The instrumental is great, and shows genuine emotion.

R&B has gone from soul, to disco-infused, to today’s variety-packed, slightly whiny club music. I find modern instrumentals and R&B to be the coolest, but decide for yourself. Go relax, eat an otter pop and chill on the front porch with some slow jams.

TYLER WEBB can be reached at arts@theaggie.org.

 

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