What Happened to the Male R&B Vocalist?

by Dom Jones

Before I begin writing this piece, I’d like for you to listen to four different songs from four different artists, all of which I will use examples in the rest of this article:

Miguel – Sky Walker

Tank – When We

Musiq Soulchild – Humble Pie

Joe – So I Can Have You Back

The dilution of meaningful, balanced, and complex R&B has been growing stronger for the last decade. Where before you could listen to Usher at one end of the spectrum, D’Angelo at another end of the spectrum, Maxwell at yet another end of the spectrum, and Anthony Hamilton at even another end of the spectrum, male R&B artists are having to make a crucial decision: acquiesce to the mainstream in some regard or stay true to the tenets of traditional R&B and suffer the professional consequences of being perceived as not “commercially viable.” This scenario is exclusive to male R&B artists, but it is one that isn’t much being discussed. A recent article in the LA Times discussed the struggle of women R&B artists, how they are pitted against each other and stylistically boxed in, but male R&B artists are facing struggles unique to them.

Where artists like Joe and Eric Benet push forward with writing and releasing traditional R&B, the likes of their predecessors Marvin Gaye and Al Green, they aren’t nearly as hailed as non-black artists such as Bruno Mars and Justin Timberlake. You might say that Bruno and JT are more successful because they aren’t always ballad-leaning artists, but have upbeat tunes as well. I would ask you if you’ve heard Tank’s “You’re My Star?” Where the soul of traditional R&B artists is tastefully mixed with more contemporary sounds and techniques by artists like BJ The Chicago Kid, Kevin Ross, and Anderson.Paak, we don’t often see or hear these voices centered and uplifted in the conversation about R&B. And by the way, R&B and Hip-Hop are TWO DIFFERENT GENRES AND CANNOT/SHOULD NOT BE LUMPED TOGETHER. 

Because we know Miguel for tunes such as “All I Want Is You” and “Adorn,” his newest song feels very much out of left field. The pseudo-trap feel and the Travis Scott feature seem like forced attempts to remain relevant, but Miguel never became irrelevant, so it’s as though he’s trying to preempt that situation. Unfortunately, I fear that, like me, his core audience will feel alienated by this move. Where Tank has always vacillated between beautiful love songs and ratchet anthems, this new song is just tasteless. His frustration has been apparent in his work, as evidenced on his mixtape “Diary of a Mad Man,” where one of the first songs is called “Underrated.” He’s even resorted to Instagram rants about how much better he is than his white counterparts, but how his music is relegated to “urban” radio stations. Musiq Soulchild is an interesting case because where he hasn’t sonically changed that much, his new music video seems to be trying to be visually relevant. When was the last time you saw a half naked video vixen in a Musiq video? I can’t think of a time. It’s strange because the video is still accompanying Musiq’s usual format of song: conversational music about real life situations in relationships. The video vixen is an outlier here, and like Miguel’s production and Tank’s lyrics, feels forced and out of left field. Finally, we reach Joe, who has not changed his formula for writing, producing, or releasing music and has consistently released beautiful and traditional R&B since his debut with “All The Things (Your Man Won’t Do).” Now, this song is inappropriate, let’s be clear. It’s just that it’s more cleverly hidden in the lyrics and the feel of it still makes it seem like a love song. That’s always been the beauty of R&B. We’ve sung along with some of the raunchiest songs, but haven’t realized it until years later because they’ve been so creatively written/produced that it’s not just glaring filth.

One might argue that we have variety in R&B, if you go looking for it, but my point is that there is an accepted mainstream sound, and that the “variety” is being siloed to the periphery of the mainstream. Remember when you could make mixtapes just from recording songs off of the radio? I guess you could now, too, but faster, since you’d hear the same 12 songs all day, repeatedly. These artists should be able to excel creatively without diluting their messages lyrically, sonically, or visually to fit into some archetype that the music industry has created. After all, Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke’s second albums were wildly different from their firsts and still wildly successful. Why can’t these artists have the same latitude?


About the Author

Dom Jones is a dual major in Music Business and Songwriting, and her work has been published in Huffington Post, Teen Vogue, Blavity and Ebony.com. She released her debut album, Wingspan, in 2014 and her follow up EP, Blackbird in 2016. Find out more about her at iamdomjones.com