During the 50-odd years that R&B was a central force in pop culture, no other genre celebrated as many fine gradations of the human voice. Few acts could match Otis Redding’s volcanic ache; Smokey Robinson’s exquisite falsetto communicated unrivaled fragility; Aretha Franklin offered an inimitable combination of steely and combustible. These tones (and many, many others) thrived side by side, permitting R&B to embrace a breathtaking range of expression.
But when commercially dominant rappers — including Nelly, 50 Cent and, eventually, Drake — started to incorporate melody into their rapping in the 2000s, many R&B singers adjusted their style to imitate, and compete with, rap’s emphasis on conversational vocal delivery. This led to the top of the charts for some, but tended to reduce R&B’s expressive range, tamping down the emotional resonance and removing the plushness and idiosyncrasies that had long characterized the genre. “I felt like I had to dumb myself down a lot,” said Ty Dolla $ign, a prodigious writer-producer-singer with an unabashed love for lavish R&B from past decades, in 2017. “There’s a lot of people out there that can really sing, but you don’t hear them.”
R&B singers who were uninterested in mimicking rappers were frequently stuck on a niche radio format known as Urban Adult Contemporary. This is the de facto home for unapologetic singers across generations, from Jazmine Sullivan to Anthony Hamilton. The format is both a sanctuary and a trap. If a song begins its life on Urban AC radio, it is rarely picked up by Mainstream Urban radio, which can propel a major hit to roughly three times as many listeners (an audience of 30-40 million a week, as opposed to 10-12 million). And without the support of Mainstream Urban radio, it is close to impossible for R&B singles to make the leap to Top 40 radio, which reaches the most listeners of any format — approximately 100 million a week, according to some radio promotions veterans. TV bookers ignore Urban AC as well: Stars of the format like Leela James or Tank rarely make it to The Tonight Show or Jimmy Kimmel Live. R&B singers who wanted to sing with gusto were effectively banished from the mainstream. “They have to make decisions between what they love and where they want to be heard,” explained the writer-producer Tricky Stewart.
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This summer, however, artists attempting to recapture some of R&B’s former expressive range have started to reach mainstream listeners again. Take Teyana Taylor. While 2014’s VII submerged her voice beneath identikit hip-hop beats, June’s K.T.S.E. works in the tradition of raspy southern soul (“Issues/Hold On”) and also evokes the wistfulness of early Seventies Al Green (“Gonna Love Me”). The latter finds Taylor singing rings around a loose, loping beat produced by Kanye West. As she prepares to flash head-turning high notes, she lets the strain show in her voice — an unusual choice in the age when every bum note is smoothed over. What’s even more surprising: Although the sound of “Gonna Love Me” would usually consign it to Urban AC, the track has quietly become a modest hit at mainstream urban radio, climbing to Number 21 and reaching 6.7 million listeners last week.
There is a similar level of vocal razzle-dazzle in “Boo’d Up,” the breakout hit for singer Ella Mai, who is preparing to release her full-length debut October 12. “Boo’d Up” eschews the talk-singing style popularized by rappers in favor of dynamic vocal swings. “How many ways can I say I need you?” she wonders, and then answers her own question, demonstrating the full extent of her range in the process.
“Boo’d Up” became a hit well over a year after it came out thanks in part to the heroic efforts of a radio DJ named Big Von. But the odd timing of this single’s climb reflects the public’s changing appetite for a different kind of R&B. In February of 2017, listeners weren’t quite ready for a track inspired by “There You Go,” a 1992 hit from Urban AC stalwart Johnny Gill, who sings with never-met-a-note-he-didn’t-like enthusiasm. 15 months later, listeners embraced “Boo’d Up” in droves: It’s one of the biggest R&B hits in the last two decades. And it seems like Mai will escape one-hit wonder-dom, because her follow-up, “Trip,” has climbed rapidly to Number 12 at radio.
Perhaps no artist has been more indicative of the shift in R&B’s fortunes than Ty. He was ubiquitous this summer — a crucial addition to albums by Kanye West and Drake and a writer on The Carters’ surprise album — proving that the biggest stars on the planet are interested in the type of jolt a fervent singer can provide.
Ty is also working on MihTy, a joint album with another R&B singer, Jeremih, that’s due out this fall. In some ways, the concept for this LP is a throwback to another time in R&B, when charismatic singers routinely convened for album-length summits: Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack in 1972, or Gill with Gerald Levert and Keith Sweat in 1997. Ty is an irrepressibly emotive singer who loves paying homage to throbbing sensual soul, and MihTy overflows with opulent melodies.
Pop music is driven by a cloning process: When one artist has success with a certain style, ten acts spring up to try the same thing. So the odds are good that labels are now scrambling to find singers who aren’t afraid to show that they’re capable of hitting notes in ways rappers won’t — or can’t. “I’ve been doing this simple shit for a long time,” Ty said in August. “But now, we ready for the funk.”