Is R&B Having an Identity Crisis?

Why, yes, it is and I discuss such in my first piece for The Atlantic:

The-Dream has written dance-pop hits for the likes of Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Mariah Carey, but his solo career has largely been about recording R&B. So he knows a thing or two about the phenomenon he recently complained about in the pages of The Guardian. “What’s crazy is that blacks can’t do soul records any more,” he said. “We love Adele singing it, but Beyoncé singing it? No, the tempo’s too slow, gimme the club hit. Now the blacks in America are responsible for the pop records, and everybody else is singing soulful records. It’s weird to me. We’re pigeonholed over there.”

What’s striking, though, is that only a few days later, Stephin Merritt—singer for the decidedly un-club-friendly, un-R&B indie-pop act The Magnetic Fields—voiced similar concerns to LA Weekly. “I like Adele, though I have some reservations about why people like her,” Merritt said. “She really has a lovely voice, but I only get suspicious when people get excited about British people who sound like American black people.”

“Basically she sounds like Anita Baker,” Merritt continued. “And people are not, you know, wild and crazy about Anita Baker. And I think about the whole, with the racism, when people love when British people sound like American black people.”

Both remarks sparked criticism. Some questioned The-Dream’s own role in the state of soul, while others charged Merritt with hypocrisy (he’s faced accusations of racism, himself). And plenty of Adele fans were quick to argue that the singer’s success comes from the quality of her music and the fact that it sounds different from anything else on radio. What’s inarguable, though, is that the two men’s statements speak to larger, widespread anxiety about the state of modern R&B—and black peoples’ place in it.

Read the rest here.


  1. Derrick says:

    “I love house and techno as a side dish. But now it’s served as the main course AND that’s ALL u gone get.”

    A small addendum here. There is no “house” on mainstream radio…ANYWHERE! There is bad techno, though I understand the sentiments of her statement.

    Good article.

    In a country where it’s very difficult to discuss the politics of race and the ways in which it gets played out in various arenas i.e. music, culture, politics, etc…, it’s not surprising that people fall back upon the concept of “merit” to talk to about artistic success. That is, Adele is successful ONLY because she is talented–that way of thinking is a load foolishness but it marks the perennial investment we have in the myth of Horatio Alger. It’s not a myth for nothing. Myths are powerful and they help to shape cultural narrative. By the way, I own & love Adele’s album “21” but THAT type of success is beyond the concept of “merit” in her case.

    Rahsaan Patterson, Lalah Hatahway, Miguel, Ledisi, Jesse Boykins III, Marques Toliver, Szjerdene, Frank Ocean, Alison Carney, The Yes Ma’ams etc… let me know that it has nothing to do with the lack of artistic depth but more to do with the unwillingness to let this brilliant musical flood flow. It’s a true wall, outside of Reagan’s rhetoric, that needs tearing down.

    Until then, I’m quite comfortable in the underground.

  2. Elz says:

    Great article. My friends and I have this conversation all the time about what exactly has happened to R&B. It’s nowhere to be found on the mainstream charts, although as Poster Number 1 has stated, there are still lots of good R&B acts out there – it’s just a little harder to find nowadays.

    I think the only counteraction to this argument is the fact that mainstream R&B seems to go through changes every 10-15 years anyway. The R&B of the 60’s was very different to that of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s and the 00’s. I’m sure that lovers of 80’s R&B complained about the New Jack Swing style of the late 80’s and early 90’s etc…

    My only hope is that this current period comes to an end quickly and a type of R&B that is a bit more familiar to us all rises to prominence again.