“How do you feel about the state of R&B?” It’s a question that’s become standard amongst music writers covering Rhythm and Blues, a genre which has lacked the passion and luster veteran acts brought to the field in decades past.
At the top of 2012, a UK journalist sat down with three-fourths of R&B royalty, Boyz II Men. Not long after exchanging pleasantries, the question was asked. And the fellas did what most forgotten favorites would—passively crap on the new artists and stations that play them.
“A lot of the songs are reminiscent to what you may hear at a pop station, with the Techno and the House,” Shawn Stockman began. “That wasn’t really considered R&B when we came up. But that’s all that’s played on R&B stations. I think the only reason people are calling it R&B is because Black people are singing it.”
That, friends, is a light jab at Chris Brown and Usher, who’ve earned crossover appeal lately by jumping on the Euro train and clubbing up their music, choo-chooing to Billboard Hot 100 hits with songs like “Beautiful People” and “OMG” respectively.
“The R&B love song ceases to exist,” Men mate Nathan Morris continued. “The heart of R&B is the love song. And people just don’t listen to love songs anymore. It’s about pouring out your heart and doing that on an R&B record. Those records don’t exist anymore.” Fortunately for R&B fans, they were wrong.
Innovative R&B came in bunches this year. Within days of that Boyz II Men interview being published Usher released “Climax,” his falsetto-driven cut damp with the misery of a relationship that didn’t go the distance. Weeks later California charmer Miguel dropped the first for three Art Dealer Chic mixtapes, featuring hit single “Adorn.” Both got incessant radio burn.
Nate Morris may swear on stack of Marvin Gaye albums that love songs don’t exist. But there goes Miguel, singing “Baby, these fists will always protect ya/ And this mind will never neglect you.” The singles are excellent, unconventional takes on what most thought was missing. Usher’s “Climax” was the lead single from his Look 4 Myself album. Miguel’s “Adorn” kicked things off on his sophomore set Kaleidoscope Dream. Both are offerings where critics looking for “classic R&B” can find just that, but packaged in unfamiliar, inventive soundscapes.
2012’s breakout R&B star was Frank Ocean, who amid sexuality rumors—first alleged, then confirmed—overpowered the noise with his critically acclaimed channel ORANGE summer debut, featuring well-scripted tales about unrequited, overscrutinized, helpless love (“Thinkin Bout You,” “Bad Religion”).
Trey Songz and Ne-Yo also dropped solid efforts this year, equally boasting traditional R&B singles and dance-heavy songs. With the quality of music in the once drying well of R&B trending upward it’s getting harder to slight it.
Boyz II Men shouldn’t be clowned for their February 2012 opinions on the genre they hold near and dear to their hearts. The year prior wasn’t a particularly excited one. They must not have seen it coming. But 2012 was amazing for R&B. There’s hope yet.
As the year wraps, several music magazines have lauded channel ORANGE, the debut album from Frank Ocean, as album of the year. With the storytelling depth of a bestselling novelist lyrically and grooves that rival funk levels not heard since D’Angelo grooved more than a decade ago, Ocean took listeners on an often heartbreaking musical journey. He laments about a reluctant lover on “Bad Religion” and runs away with another as her guardians chase after them on “Monks.”
But music wasn’t Ocean’s only landmark this year. Amidst rumors of him being gay based on the content of his music (on “Thinkin’ Bout You” and “Forrest Gump” he uses “boy” where typically a female noun would be used by a straight man), on Independence Day, he decided to free himself and revealed that he had once been in love with a man. Though Frank has balked from labeling himself as bi or homosexual, the revelation proved to be a huge moment in Black music. Never before has an R&B artist the stature of Ocean, a burgeoning superstar, admitted to such a thing. The African-American community had never been known to be much accepting of man seemingly singing to another man. But when his album hit stores weeks later, fans bought 131,000 copies in its first week, propelling ORANGE to a No. 2 debut on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart.
Their statement was clear: It doesn’t matter who Frank loves. It’s about his music. ORANGE recently has been nominated for six Grammy awards, including Best New Artist and Album of the Year. It’s not that channel ORANGE is wonderful in spite of Ocean’s sexuality. Ocean’s simply just a great artist, one that moved black culture into a more colorful world.