Many contemporary albums arrive with less than a week’s notice, but Jhene Aiko started to roll-out her new full-length, Chilombo, months ago. She released four different tracks to stoke anticipation, only to find that when the album finally came out March 6, a brand new song immediately supplanted the lead singles as a fan-favorite. “B.S.”, a casually vengeful back-and-forth with another R&B singer, H.E.R., quickly became Aiko’s highest-charting track.
Collaborations like this one seem to account for more and more of R&B’s big hits recently. The lineups on these singles suggest a round-robin mixed doubles tournament with a couple of key players: Daniel Caesar and Kali Uchis (double platinum), Caesar and H.E.R. (double platinum), H.E.R. and Bryson Tiller (platinum), Tiller and Summer Walker (over 180 million streams), Walker and Usher (over 140 million), Brandy and Caesar (Number One on R&B radio), PJ Morton and Jojo (winner of the Best R&B Song Grammy in 2020), and now Aiko and H.E.R.
“There’s always been something great about a duet, because you can get a real conversation,” explains Rex Rideout, a producer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist who spent years at Universal Motown and has three decades of major-label R&B credits. When done correctly, “it heightens the emotion of a song.”
And the commercial lesson is clear. At a time when R&B’s fortunes remain uneven, runaway solo hits are unusual. To make a song that resonates widely, it often helps to offer two perspectives — and to access two fanbases.
This is hardly unique to R&B: The streaming era has led to a boom in collaborations in all genres. Earlier this year, the analytics company Chartmetric released a report suggesting that collaboration has doubled over the past ten years, with almost all that growth taking place in the last three years, when streaming cemented itself as the music industry’s commercial engine. The highest uptick in collaborations occurred in hip-hop, which also happens to be the most popular genre of music today. R&B was ranked third, with a rise in teamwork still well above the all-genre average.
It’s easy to imagine some of the factors behind this rise. The ability to collaborate online makes new combos possible, no matter where the artist works. “There’s so much accessibility,” explains David “Swagg R’Celious” Harris, who helped write H.E.R. and Tiller’s “Could’ve Been.” “You can just send a track to Usher in Atlanta if you’re in L.A. — ‘yo, jump on this real quick.'”
Another obvious reason for the rise of collaborations is to connect to new markets. A duet “opens you up to a whole ‘nother fanbase,” says Brian Warfield, one half of the production duo Fisticuffs, who helped craft “B.S.” Since streaming is nearly free, it’s easier than ever for duets to attract more ears, which means higher stream counts, which means a higher chart position.
For R&B, working in tandem has particular historical resonance. The genre has always nurtured the world’s most elite vocalists, and putting two stars together on a track can lead to ecstatic heights. Think of Smokey Robinson and Aretha Franklin’s brief but still overwhelmingly beautiful duet on Soul Train — after the pair’s first stunning harmony, Franklin quips that “we should have been a duo” — or Cherrelle vying to out-combust Alexander O’Neal in the final stretch of “Saturday Love.”
“It’s like the dynamic in the NBA: If Lebron and Anthony Davis get together, what could happen there?” Harris explains. “You can create these super-teams on songs.”
R&B duets reached a peak in the late Seventies and Eighties, when the genre jumped from one pulpy, dramatic high-point to the next before rap came along and pushed everyone back to basics. Radio was dominated by Lionel Richie and Diana Ross, Teddy Pendergrass and Stephanie Mills, Luther Vandross and Cheryl Lynn, James Ingram and Patti Austin.
But finding the right partnership can be tricky. Peabo Bryson estimates that he has recorded more than 45 duets in his career, nearly a dozen of which were hits in the Eighties. “Doing a duet takes a specific kind of consideration,” he says. Bryson has three principal rules. “If you’re competing for licks or vocal acrobatics, they don’t turn out well,” the singer continues. “You have to fall a little bit in love with your duet partner. And you have to play to your duet partner’s strengths and weaknesses equally.”
There are technical challenges as well. “The thing you have to pay attention to is that for women and men to sing the same melody, it’s gonna be an octave apart,” explains the writer-producer Robin Hannibal (DVSN, Yuna). “If it’s a female artist you’re working with, you might start in her midrange, but you’ll have to move the key up higher so it’s not too low for [the guy]. You have to find the spot where both people feel comfortable, especially if there’s a part where they need to belt.”
But there’s not much belting in R&B duets today, because they are less about reconnecting with the genre’s roots than they are about copying hip-hop’s playbook for dominance. A lot of contemporary singing takes place in a rap-like mid-range — more conversational than dramatic. That means most singers can team up without having to worry about being out-maneuvered or overwhelmed by their partner. “You don’t hear that many songs anymore where people are really pushing their vocals; it’s more of a flow-based cadence,” Hannibal adds. “There are not a lot of key changes; songs don’t modulate; they are not very complex in their chord structures. That makes duets easier.”
There is also less unison-singing, harmony, and call-and-response in the recent wave of R&B duets. Those are retro concepts; singers take their cues instead from rappers and their love of features, trading verses from afar and plugging them into a he-said-then-she-said format. Even when Caesar and H.E.R. shadow each other in “Best Part,” the song’s video offers a split-screen visual, reinforcing the idea that duets are now about politely trading verses.
R&B singers borrow from rap to compete with it. “Especially in this time, when hip-hop is the biggest style of music out there, if you can get two R&B artists together, that helps out a lot,” says Ryan Ramsay, who helps manage Brandy, a member of the R&B Duets Hall of Fame thanks to “The Boy Is Mine.” “It’s almost crucial to do that [to be noticed].”
“B.S.” is a perfect example: Since the release of Chilombo, the track has been streamed well over a million times a day in the U.S., more than any other song on the album. Warfield from the Fisticuffs expects that it will now be picked as a single and benefit from a full marketing push. If he’s right, that will further cement the musical math behind today’s R&B duets.
“When duets stick, they really stick,” Rideout says. “You’re makin’ me think: what’s the next duet I can work on?”