Styles & Forms | Contemporary R&B | Soul & R&B

Although contemporary R&B prefers to align itself with its ruder and more street-credible cousins in hip hop, the roots of its mainstream practitioners lie firmly in manufactured pop. In a throwback to the Motown era, R&B has become a global phenomenon by combining producer-led factory formula with a high level of musical innovation and adventure.

This balance of pop smarts and muso credibility has produced many of the twenty-first century’s most vital artists, entrepreneurs and recordings, while simultaneously conforming to many of pop’s most facile stereotypes, particularly when it comes to gender issues and the worship of money.

Boys To Men

When Boston boy band New Edition sacked their mentor Maurice Starr in 1984, their subsequent move into a tougher, funkier, hip hop-informed blend of dance pop and balladry set the contemporary R&B train in motion. Their audience grew with them, and when Bobby Brown quit the group in 1986 they simply hired replacement Johnny Gill and continued to impress. By 1989, Brown had become the new sound’s first superstar with his Don’t Be Cruel album, and the rest of the band had split. While Gill and Ralph Tresvant enjoyed successful solo careers, Michael Bivins, Ricky Bell and Ronnie Devoe formed Bell Biv Devoe, effectively manufacturing themselves toward further success. Bivins also discovered winsome vocal group Boyz II Men, and the R&B era was brought into being by hugely successful male vocal groups with the above, Jodeci, R. Kelly and Public Announcement all treading a clever line between increasingly graphic teen girl seduction, hip hop attitude and increasing musical sophistication.

The key producer/composer in this wave was Guy (and later BlackStreet) member Teddy Riley, who coined the term ‘New Jack Swing’ in an infectious anthem for hip hop crew Wreckx-N-Effect. His sophisticated melanges of synthetic soul, pop, rap and P-Funk in productions for the likes of Guy, Keith Sweat and Heavy D made swingbeat a household term, turning US success into global recognition. With few exceptions, swing vocals were light, nasal and hugely indebted to Stevie Wonder, aiming squarely at a youthful black (and largely female) market that found hip hop just a little too hardcore.

The Ladies In The House

But any universal black pop sound needs equal female input to thrive. Enter entirely male producers Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy, who, at the end of the 1980s, decided to put together a girl group who could challenge swing’s growing appeal with an altogether earthier take on the hip hop-inspired times. En Vogue were stylish, sassy and sang with gospel-derived maturity, providing the world with a new jack feminist Supremes on 1990 debut album Born To Sing. Pundits played with the term ‘New Jill Swing’, as less vocally ferocious but equally feisty and entertaining girl groups such as SWV and TLC began to emerge. All this changed when a young ghetto New Yorker, Mary J. Blige, teamed up with on-the-make producer...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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