Big Von, a longtime Bay Area DJ, was nearing the peak of a six-hour club set at New Karibbean City in Oakland on December 15th when a regular named Fredy made a perplexing request: “Yo, you got ‘Boo’d Up’?” Big Von didn’t know the record, and he doesn’t like being told what to play. But Fredy had never bothered him before, so Big Von downloaded “Boo’d Up,” originally released by the singer Ella Mai in February 2017, and cued it up.
What happened next was startling. “I’ve never seen a reaction like this,” Big Von emphasizes. “When I played it, the whole place went, ‘Woo!’ I saw a fat dude do a cartwheel – a solid cartwheel, he didn’t even fall. Security comes over to me: ‘What the hell is this?'”
Armed with this street-level intelligence, Big Von brought “Boo’d Up” to the station KMEL, where he DJs, and played it five times the next day. Since then, it has spread nearly everywhere, including the Instagrams of rappers (Meek Mill, Plies) and NBA stars (John Wall), and climbed to Number 11 on the Hot 100.
“Boo’d Up” is bright and swooning yet clipped and punchy, like an Alicia Keys ballad for the SoundCloud-rap generation. It has already charted higher on the Hot 100 than “Bust Your Windows” by Jazmine Sullivan, “2 On” by Tinashe or “Love Galore” by SZA, making it one of the biggest singles by a breakout female R&B singer in the past 10 years. And in light of other rising tracks from women like Queen Naija and H.E.R., the eruption of “Boo’d Up” may be a sign that things are shifting in R&B for up-and-coming female acts, who have rarely enjoyed the same commercial success as their male counterparts in the last decade.
In the 1990s, women thrived in R&B’s mainstream. But by 2016, the number of songs featuring female leads on mainstream radio had fallen to roughly half its previous level.
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R&B became an especially harsh space for young women trying to establish their careers. Consider Billboard‘s year-end roundup of the most successful singles in hip-hop and R&B: In 2012, 2013 and 2017, there wasn’t a single new female singer in the Top 20; in 2014, 2015 and 2016, there was only one. The picture is even starker when you look at albums: Only two women have made it into the year-end Top 20 since 2012 (Jhene Aiko and SZA). Cracking these lists has less to do with musical quality than with what certain gatekeepers – major labels, radio programmers – decide to prioritize, and it’s clear that in recent years, most of R&B’s gatekeepers have not prioritized women.
Even when a new woman in R&B did achieve a commercial breakthrough during that time, it often proved short-lived. Jhene Aiko’s Sail On EP was one of the most popular projects in all of R&B and hip-hop in 2014, but her follow-up album, Souled Out, and her latest release, Trip, haven’t achieved the same sales. Tinashe’s “2 On” made it to Number 24 on the Hot 100, but she has yet to crack the chart again as a lead artist. A cruel holding pattern seems to have set in, where female R&B singers repeatedly battled their way to the threshold of mainstream success, only to have the door slammed in their faces. “They’d have a hit and they’d go away,” sums up Katina Bynum, SVP of marketing for Republic Records, who has more than two decades of experience in hip-hop and R&B.
Women didn’t disappear from the genre, but they were forced to focus on finding fans without big hits. This meant building a following in the smaller world of “adult R&B” or finding a home on assorted streaming playlists like Spotify’s “Chilled R&B.” Brian Warfield, who works frequently with Aiko as a member of the production duo Fisticuffs, points out that demand for her music is still high – on her Trip tour, “every venue sold out without radio.” H.E.R.’s manager, Jeff Robinson, who helped launch the career of Alicia Keys almost 20 years ago, claims H.E.R. has accumulated close to 700 million streams across various platforms to date. But these singers were rarely seen high on the charts. “Maybe there’s a disconnect between what people want and what the labels are giving people,” Warfield says. “There’s a lot of female artists that are coming out and not getting the label push.”
But R&B appears to be changing in ways that should benefit its women. The genre’s mainstream was nearly indistinguishable from rap for much of the 2010s. When fusion experts like Bryson Tiller and Ty Dolla $ign released albums in 2017, though, they had no hits. In the meantime, a seventies funk homage from Childish Gambino (“Redbone”) and a soft-soul ballad from Daniel Caesar (“Get You”) were splattered everywhere. Suddenly, R&B began to reassert its own sound, separate from rap.
This helps female performers, if only because the music industry is wildly inhospitable to female rappers. “There’s an overall return in interest in melodies and singers,” says Grace James, VP of Marketing for Atlantic Records, who has worked with Usher and Tank, among others. “That paves the way for R&B, and especially for women.”
It’s indicative of the new climate that young singer Amber Mark recently released “Love Me Right,” a single with a lung-busting key change before the final chorus. That sort of flourish was decidedly out of fashion in the trap-soul era; Mark admits to being “very hesitant” to include it. “But I couldn’t not do it – it felt really good,” she says. “Love Me Right” came out on a major label, Interscope, and it is currently enjoying the top position on Spotify’s biggest R&B playlist.
In the era of Time’s Up, there’s also a new premium on elevating women’s voices in the music industry. “There’s a hunger out there to listen to females,” says Bynum. “Young girls especially are really looking for role models.” James agrees: “Ears are perked up for what’s coming from women.”
Not coincidentally, rising female singers have also started to thrive in the previously male-dominated world of online viral stardom. Queen Naija is a popular vlogger, and her built-in audience helped her song “Medicine” take off on YouTube. “It spread like butter,” she jokes. The single was streamed heavily on SoundCloud – typically a boy’s club – as well. “Medicine” debuted at Number 45 on the Hot 100 in April almost entirely due to streaming, and Queen Naija was signed by Capitol Records. “My supporters are so crazy they want something now,” she says, so she’s working on her first EP. At the same time, the label is taking “Medicine” to mainstream radio, and in the first week of promotion, it was one of the most-added songs.
As Queen Naija was amassing streams, the singer H.E.R. made her first splash on the airwaves with “Focus.” The track originally came out in the fall of 2016, and Robinson never planned to take it to radio: It was strictly for “building the [fan] base at streaming.” But with songs like “Boo’d Up” suddenly doing well on the airwaves, a slot opened for “Focus” that hadn’t existed previously. “People were calling for it,” Robinson says. “I said I really didn’t want to do radio yet; it’s gonna be the slowest tempo record on there. The label [RCA] convinced me.” The glacial pace of “Focus” did not prevent it from climbing to Number 16 on the airwaves.
In the wake of these successes, label executives who have long ignored women in R&B may start to see these singers differently. “Record companies, the same ones who told me R&B was dead a few years ago, are swearing by it now,” Robinson says. Since those companies have plenty of men on contract – “I have a lot of guys on my roster already,” acknowledges Bynum – it’s in some ways not surprising that labels would look to sign more women. “Someone taught me that you look for the gaps in the charts [when you are trying to find new artists], what’s missing as opposed to what’s already happening,” says Carlos Cancela, the A&R responsible for signing Amber Mark to Interscope. (That “someone” was Lenny Waronker, who signed Prince.)
In addition to Mark, several other women are poised to fill those gaping holes in the charts. One is Kiana Lede, a Republic signee whose “Fairplay” – like “Medicine,” a take-revenge-on-an-unfaithful-partner song – was one of the most added singles at mainstream radio the first week of April. Sabrina Claudio has already earned more than 100 million streams on Spotify and secured a coveted 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack placement; she’s readying a summer debut album through Atlantic. Claudio’s label-mate Ravyn Lenae has been garnering interest with a slow drip of EPs. Kali Uchis, who recently released her Interscope debut, already breached the Top 25 on the airwaves as Daniel Caesar’s “Get You” duet partner. After a Drake feature in 2017, Jorja Smith made her first Top 40 entrance in the U.K. as a lead artist this year, and she will release her debut album in June.
Leading the pack is Ella Mai, now working on her own full-length to follow “Boo’d Up.” Like “Focus,” “Boo’d Up” had a lengthy gestation period. Joelle James wrote part of the single in 2014, inspired in part by Johnny Gill’s sumptuous, Babyface-penned “There You Go.” James remembers one Atlantic executive telling her that “Boo’d Up” felt like a modern version of the Ja Rule–Ashanti smash “Always on Time,” but her deal with the label soured, so she was unable to release the song.
The demo was later “enhanced,” as James puts it, by the writer-producer known as Rance 1500 (Kendrick Lamar, Justin Timberlake), and during a subsequent writing session with hip-hop heavyweight DJ Mustard, Mai added a bridge and recorded her yearning vocals. “Boo’d Up” came out on the Ready EP, but it was not pushed as a single – until Big Von saw a cartwheel in the club, called his pal Mustard, and Interscope’s machinery was set in motion.
Last week, Mai was in the middle of the promotional blitz that accompanies a hit, sneaking a between-interview granola bar as she sat in a shiny black SUV mired in midtown Manhattan traffic. She was on her way to Cumulus Media, the radio company, to perform an acoustic set for a small group of fans who had braved the spitting rain. “I loved the song,” Mai says of “Boo’d Up,” “but if you asked me of all the songs I put out [which one was going to do well], I don’t think I would’ve said that one.”
The better “Boo’d Up” does, the better the odds that more young women will have chance to forge mainstream hit singles of their own. “Everyone plays follow the leader [in the music industry],” Big Von says. “If that song goes Number One, labels will have no choice but to fall in line.”