R&B's Changing Voice: How Hip-Hop Edged Grittier Singers Out of the Mainstream

Lower-register pipes once thrived on the airwaves, but rap caused a paradigm shift. Artists and producers reflect on how we got here, and what's next

Artists and producers discuss how the rise of hip-hop has marginalized deep and gritty R&B singers, once a key part of the pop mainstream. Credit: Getty (3)

Tank, a veteran singer with a decade and a half of R&B hits, remembers the moment when rappers took over the airwaves.

"Bone Thugs-n-Harmony are the Jesuses of melody rap," he says. "What they did was theirs at the time; nobody could touch it, so nobody did. But when Nelly came around [in 2000] with hip-hop fully infused with melody, that's when people started to take notice. Then Ja Rule came. It's like, 'Hey – you're in my lane!'"

"We didn't stop and realize what was happening," Tank continues. "With hip-hop growing and taking over at the rapid pace that it was, I would say us R&B guys couldn't compete – and we didn't compete."

The ascent of rap on mainstream radio has had wide-reaching consequences for R&B, fundamentally changing the types of voices you hear in the genre's mainstream. Historically, singers with a mastery of clean, high tones – from Patti Labelle to Deniece Williams to Ralph Tresvant to Usher – flourished next to singers who favored lower, rougher registers, artists like Barry White, Chaka Khan, Anita Baker and Toni Braxton. This variety allowed for a breathtaking range of expression: No other genre celebrated as many fine gradations of the human voice as R&B. But as melodic rappers became ever more dominant, the lower-register R&B singers largely disappeared from the mainstream, and young singers hoping for mainstream success began staying away from deeper tones and rougher textures.

"I'm in my high interview voice so I won't frighten you," jokes Braxton, whose low vocals graced multiple platinum-selling records during the 1990s. "I'm prejudiced because I'm a contralto, but I don't hear many of them anymore." Kuk Harrell, a vocal producer for superstars like Rihanna and Usher, offers a similar observation. "I really do miss that lower-register voice," he says. "That's not to say we don't have great emotions out of higher-voiced singers, but that particular thing is not here."

"A certain grit went into something else," adds the singer Bilal. "Ain't nobody singing like Teddy Pendergrass no more."

Why did the doors close for deep and gritty vocalists, who were an important part of R&B's mainstream as the genre progressed through soul, funk, Quiet Storm, disco, Eighties synth fusions, house music and the hip-hop-inflected mutations of the Nineties? More than 20 conversations* with artists, producers, label executives and radio programmers indicate that low-register R&B singers were squeezed on two sides at the turn of the millennium: First, rappers took over the vocal ranges that once belonged to R&B, and then struggling labels abandoned R&B groups, which traditionally supported a wide variety of voices. These shifts were compounded as mainstream radio stopped playing R&B songs, which limited the avenues of exposure for all R&B singers but especially hurt those who favor low, throaty intonations.

Once rappers embraced melody, they almost immediately started putting lower-register R&B singers out of work. Many rappers automatically sing in lower tones, defaulting to a register close to their speaking voice. The takeover process that started with Nelly and Ja Rule accelerated as improvements in voice-modifying and pitch-correcting technologies made it easier for rappers to transform into crooners. "The hip-hop artists have been able to get into that lane because of the enhancement of Pro Tools [a popular production program] and Auto-Tune," says Tricky Stewart, a songwriter/producer (Rihanna, Beyoncé) who has worked in A&R at both Def Jam and Epic Records. The increasing dominance of hip-hop during the course of the 2000s affected all of R&B. "The emergence of rap guys who could do melody simpler and a lot more digestible moved those of us who really like to sing out of the way," Tank says.

As a defense against hip hop – and to take advantage of its popularity – R&B singers embraced a more rhythmic vocal style. Deep-voiced singers like Pendergrass or Anita Baker often thrived singing ballads; the ballad form, with long climbs and heaving climaxes, rewards vocal gravitas. In a hip-hop world, though, everything is more kinetic, and so, as Braxton points out, "ballads are more midtempo." This limits the opportunities for young lower-register R&B singers to shine and discourages them from cultivating skills that are unlikely to bring them success. "Once you start adding a little bit more rhythm into the melody, it automatically reduces the ability to belt, to sing long tones," says Danja, a producer who has collaborated with Mary J. Blige and Justin Timberlake.

In addition, R&B singers started working primarily with rap beats, which can be forceful enough to de-prioritize the singing voice. "R&B has become so track-heavy that it leaves very little room for a big voice," says producer Chuck Harmony (Ne-Yo, Rihanna). "It's no longer about the color or texture or tone of the voice [in R&B]," adds Gabrielle Goodman, a professor of voice at Berklee College of Music. "It's all about the beat."

Changes in R&B's production and writing practices impacted all singers, but again, they especially hurt deep-voiced artists. While R&B songs traditionally deployed a steady progression of energy that would peak in a song's bridge and final chorus, hip-hop's innovation was to take one portion of a multi-section R&B track and loop it for maximum impact, bringing full force from the opening bars. Every year, rap producers devise an even fiercer sound to buckle club walls; as a result, singers working with rap beats often push up the scale to begin tracks where they would customarily end them. "Music is higher energy now," Braxton says. "When I'm in the studio, I've noticed I have to sing the song higher so the energy is there."

A feedback loop developed: "Having the voices change a bit changed the key that everyone was writing in," Harrell notes. The result has been especially noticeable on the male side of the genre, where most of the R&B singers to become major stars in the last decade emphasize their falsetto. Think of the high, child-like tone Chris Brown employed on his signature early hit "Yo (Excuse Me Miss)," any of the gliding, weightless tracks Ne-Yo released between 2005 and 2009, and several lissome singles from the Dream, who made his vocal allegiance plain on a song titled "Falsetto." More recently, Jeremih and the Weeknd have used airy tones to score hit after hit. 

This is not to say there is no longer a demand for the lower singing ranges; it's just that rappers like Future and Quavo are providing the huskier melodies on the mainstream R&B/hip-hop airwaves, leaving little space for R&B singers. "Rappers became the Otis Reddings," says Raphael Saadiq, a singer/songwriter/producer with three decades of R&B hit-making experience. "The global success of hip-hop has forever altered what we know as R&B music," acknowledges Sylvia Rhone, President of Epic Records. "You don't hear a lot of big, Whitney Houston–type voices right now." It's telling that one of the biggest crossover R&B songs in recent memory, Childish Gambino's scratchy retro-funk cut "Redbone," was made by an artist who came up in hip-hop.

Just as rappers were starting to take singers' jobs, piracy eroded CD sales, and struggling labels began to invest less in artist development, reducing the pool of R&B singers. "R&B was hit the hardest by the lack of artist development," says Tricky Stewart. "You see a shift in the 10,000 hours: R&B artists have not been able to put that in the way they once were."

All R&B singers suffered, but the resource shortfall hit R&B vocal groups with particular force, drastically altering the kinds of vocalists able to swim in the genre's mainstream. "Marketing a group is much more expensive – you're moving four bodies, styling four singers, getting four hotel rooms," says Ezekiel Lewis, Senior VP of A&R for Motown. "Fundamentally behind some closed doors it was said, 'We're not really signing groups unless they're in packages from an institution like Simon Cowell or K-Pop,'" Stewart adds.

Vocal ensembles have always been critical to R&B: They were important in the rise of Motown (the Supremes) and the polished soul variants in Chicago (the Impressions) and Philadelphia (the Delfonics); they persisted through the eras of funk (the Jackson 5) and disco (Sister Sledge), survived the rise of solo megastars in the 1980s (Levert) and exploded in the 1990s behind Boyz II Men and many more. A group nurtures a variety of tones for the sake of harmony and musical interest; in the Temptations, David Ruffin's raspy voice and Melvin Franklin's deep bass thrived in the same space as Eddie Kendricks' high, glossy vocal. A low-register vocalist like TLC's T-Boz can even serve as the anchor of an ensemble, so it makes sense that groups served as launching pads for some of R&B's signature full voices, including Pendergrass (Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes), Johnny Gill (New Edition) and Beyoncé (Destiny's Child).

But since the breakup of Destiny's Child more than a decade ago, there has not been a single crucial vocal group on mainstream R&B/hip-hop radio, thus destroying the support system for lower-register singers, who could prove their commercial viability to a skeptical record industry in a safe group setting before starting a solo career. The pool of textured singers who once enjoyed success in groups has been decimated: Beyoncé is the only one still standing in R&B's mainstream. And without ensembles, even a young artist aspiring to sing like Jodeci's K-Ci – his voice is not especially low, but it's impressively grainy – has no place to call home.

"The demise of groups definitely took away from the variety," says Lewis.

Lower register singers still exist in the radio niche known as Urban Adult Contemporary. However, Top 40 stations are accepting very few R&B songs – analyzing Billboard charts shows that in 1996, 26 singles from singers made it from the mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart to the Pop Airplay chart; last year, that number fell to five**. Within that small pool of R&B singles that might get pop exposure, tracks rarely come from Urban AC. The result is a top-down filtering process, dictated largely by pop radio appetite, that limits the reach of all R&B singers, but especially those with grittier voices.

To call someone an R&B singer is not to define his or her sound; instead, the title reflects the avenues of exposure available to an artist. There are two possible routes to listeners for R&B singers: Urban AC stations, which target black listeners aged 25 to 54, and mainstream R&B/hip-hop stations, which aim to hook black listeners between the ages of 18 and 34. Artists do not control which branch of radio adopts their record; that is usually determined by label promotion efforts and programmer decisions. 

Singers are sheltered from rap on Urban AC, so it makes sense that this is where you find a diverse group of voices, including artists like Jazmine Sullivan and La'Porsha Renae. But the price of that safe space is a capped audience – last week the Number One hit on Urban AC reached roughly 9 million listeners, according to Nielsen SoundScan, while the Number One mainstream R&B/hip-hop hit made more than 35 million impressions. Few songs in heavy rotation on Urban AC achieve mainstream ubiquity. Of the 12 tracks that hit Number One on Urban AC last year, only Mary J. Blige's "Thick of It" cracked the Top Five on mainstream R&B/hip-hop radio.

As a consequence, singers on Urban AC have fewer options than their mainstream counterparts. "You don't get the same level of investment if you're reaching a smaller audience," says Ethiopia Habtemariam, President of Motown Records. "Urban AC is not a bad place to be if they're sending money, access, training to that area," adds Claude Kelly, Chuck Harmony's partner in the R&B group Louis York and an accomplished songwriter/producer in his own right. "But you have a gang of talented artists that are just dying for some attention, for the right songs, for the right opportunities."

Why won't those opportunities come from the mainstream side? In a world where R&B songs don't get picked up by pop radio, there is not much incentive for mainstream R&B/hip-hop radio programmers to play them; sure enough, only 10 of the top 40 songs on the format last week were helmed by a singer, and only four of those didn't have a featured guest rapper***. "Very few R&B records break through on the pop charts," says Colby Tyner, VP of Programming at Radio One, which is currently responsible for 57 broadcast stations in 15 urban markets in the United States. "The hip-hop ones break through."

"R&B singers who want to have major success have to make decisions between what they love and where they want to be heard." –Tricky Stewart

In addition, programmers deem it too risky to play records that deviate from the dominant hip-hop sound. "It's hard to play Kevin Ross [who had a soft Number One Urban AC hit this year] after Cardi B [who has a bone-crushing mainstream rap hit right now]," Tyner says. "That's why there's the separation of church and state. The energy and vibe of the music that we're playing on the mainstream side just doesn't mesh with the Urban AC side."

But it's not that simple: Artists on the AC side continuously fiddle with the production on their singles to make them more appealing to mainstream programmers. The stinging drums in two relatively recent Urban AC Number Ones, Ro James' "Permission" and Leela James' "Don't Want You Back," were precisely calibrated to compete with contemporary rap hits; the instrumental underpinning Guordan Banks' "Keep You in Mind" is similar to the beat of Yo Gotti's "Rake It Up." Yet with rare exceptions, these attempts to fit in at mainstream radio still fall flat.

"That's the frustrating piece for R&B singers who want to have major success," Stewart explains. "They have to make decisions between what they love and where they want to be heard. They have to make a series of compromises, and when an artist has to make those compromises, we usually don't like it as much." Adding to the frustration, those compromises still don't allow these singers to compete at radio.

Some emerging stars hope to duck out of this rigged system by completely disassociating from the term R&B. "Frank Ocean, FKA Twigs, they didn't want to be considered R&B," Stewart says. "The stigma right now is that R&B is not hot, because R&B means you're going on AC."

Songwriter/producer Warren "Oak" Felder (Alessia Cara, Kehlani) shares a similar story. "There was one particular artist I'm not going to name, but we sat down with their team [in 2011] and they wrote out other genre names to call the music," he remembers. "The names were like, 'soulful noir.' That's how toxic that word had become."

Many executives and artists believe that streaming will level the playing field for all types of R&B singers by giving them an alternate – and unmediated – path to a wider audience. "It's been a big turnaround in the past two years: We now have the data that shows R&B's a genre of music people love," Habtemariam says. "On the streaming side," Felder adds, "it is the listener who decides."

This view of streaming, in which the selection of services like Spotify mirrors the will of the people, is perhaps overly optimistic. These platforms have their own agendas, and their flagship playlists are put together by gatekeepers, albeit a different set from the ones who control the airwaves. Still, Spotify's "Are & Be" playlist is somewhat more welcoming than radio, effectively functioning as a combination of mainstream R&B and the biggest records at Urban AC. But Are & Be hasn't given anyone from the Urban AC world enough of a boost to move beyond that classification – it did not transform, for example, James' "Don't Want You Back" into a mainstream hit. With 3.6 million followers, Are & Be can't yet match the muscle of radio, though that might shift if the playlist garners the 7.9 million followers of its hip-hop equivalent, RapCaviar.

Another consequence of streaming has been that labels are beginning to make money again – the music industry recently reported its biggest percentage revenue gain since 1998 – which means the industry may be willing to support and promote a wider variety of singing styles. There is evidence of this in the rise of Ty Dolla $ign, who has become a go-to featured vocalist for Top 40 artists even while sounding like a rogue member of a 1990s vocal group. (His appearance with Jacquees and Quavo on the "B.E.D." remix also hints at exciting ensemble possibilities.) Radio One's Tyner points to the success of SZA as a possible indicator of shifting currents. "She has two songs on most of our stations in top rotation," he says. "That's a change." 

Motown's Lewis sees signs of strength in the fact that Bryson Tiller's "Don't" and Khalid's "Location" both enjoyed mainstream play in the last 18 months. "That makes me think we're starting to go back to where a song by a black artist that is an R&B song, whatever that means in the 2020s, can be part of the pop landscape," he says.

For years, rappers offered a tougher alternative to singers, but now they have become so melody-focused that R&B singers, given resources and label support, may be poised to mount a counterattack. "As hip-hop grew, it got on the radio on the back of R&B," Lewis says. And now singers have been piggybacking on hip-hop to get R&B on radio again, using a rapper's cadence and rap beats to clear the way for a record like Khalid's.

Since voices like Khalid's are traditionally the type that get relegated to Urban AC regardless of a performer's age, his success provides yet another demonstration for labels and programmers that rugged singing tones can connect with a wide listenership. "All too often, the industry thinks that turning on one faucet means turning off another," acknowledges Mike Caren, CEO of Artist Partners Group and Creative Officer, Warner Music Group. "There can be lots of different streams of styles, and people will appreciate them all if they're exposed to them and they're good."

For all R&B singers, but especially those with rougher or deeper voices, the quality has not flagged, but the mechanisms of exposure remain fickle. "It's still far from being good enough in terms of the diversity of R&B singers," Kelly says. "There's another kind of voice that both men and women want to hear. It can be mainstream. It should be mainstream."

* Thanks to Peter Edge, Chairman and CEO, RCA Records; Kevin Liles, CEO and Co-Founder, 300 Entertainment; Ryan Press, SVP & Co-Head of A&R, Warner/Chappell; Jeff Ramsey, Associate Professor of Voice at Berklee College of Music; Terri Thomas, Operations Manager and Program Director, KMJQ and KBXX Houston; Tamela Mann; Ledisi; and Salaam Remi, who also spoke for this story. 

** The five singers to cross over were Beyoncé, Tory Lanez, the Weeknd, John Legend and PartyNextDoor. Rihanna gets major support at pop radio, so she is not considered an R&B artist for these purposes; Drake is counted as a rapper. Even if you chose to count both those artists as R&B singers, the number of crossover singles from singers has still fallen from 26 to 11.

*** Bruno Mars is discounted here, since his songs start at pop radio and then move to mainstream R&B/hip-hop radio.