From Little Richard to Mary J. Blige, and Beyonce to The Weeknd, here’s a look at the evolution of R’n’B music

From Little Richard to Mary J. Blige, and Beyonce to The Weeknd, here’s a look at the evolution of R’n’B music

Here's a look at the roots of R’n’B, how it's changed over time, and what it sounds like now

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Beyonce is one of R&Bs mainstream successes.
Photo: EPA

R’n’B is one of music’s most prominent genres, and has often dominated radio stations since its inception in the 1940s. Its name stands for “Rhythm and Blues”, a definition used by record companies to label music written by Black Americans, which was traditionally blues or jazz.

Musically, R’n’B bands would have a similar set-up to rock’n’roll bands, but with piano, extra vocalists, and brass instruments. Lyrics often dealt with relationships, or the journey to freedom.

One of the earliest R’n’B hits was The Huckle-Buck by Paul Williams. Before this song, the genre was almost exclusively listened to by black Americans; however its crossover appeal grew in the 1950s, particularly among young listeners.


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Little Richard became an R’n’B sensation with his upbeat, funky characteristics which can be heard on his hit single Tutti Frutti, while Ray Charles and Ruth Brown shook up the charts alongside Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry towards the end of the 50s.

The umbrella term “R’n’B” grew to encompass blues, gospel, soul, and funk music. It became more widespread in the 60s with British rock bands such as The Rolling Stones, and The Who adding R’n’B stylings to their songs. It was also inspiring the ska movement in Jamaica, as well as Motown hits, and British mod-rock and pop.

With the rise of hip-hop and funk, and the decline of disco in the 70s, R’n’B began losing appeal in the early 80s, as other genres adapted to technological advances. An exception was Michael Jackson, who successfully incorporated many styles to progress the genre. His sister Janet Jackson proved a huge boost to the genre with the release of her 1986 album Control. Merging funk, hip-hop, electronic dance music, and disco, it signalled the start of a divide between traditional and contemporary R’n’B.


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The 90s saw a contemporary R’n’B explosion, with singers like R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, and Whitney Houston all selling millions of records – so much so that Billboard named Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey the most successful artists of the decade.

Its dominance continued into the new millennium. Usher achieved seven number one singles in the first decade and won five Grammys, while Alicia Keys became a household name with her debut 2001 single Fallin’ – which went on to win her three Grammy awards. She won a further nine before the end of the decade. The mainstream success of songs like Beyonce’s Crazy In Love, Outkast’s Hey Ya and Snoop Dogg’s Drop it Like It’s Hot further strengthened the genre’s popularity.

The mid-2000s also saw the emergence of Ashanti, Chris Brown, and Akon, all of whom became global superstars. Rihanna shot to godlike status in 2005 with her debut single Pon de Replay – a status she maintains today.


The history behind soul music – the precursor to modern R’n’B


This decade has continued to be dominated by some of the above-mentioned artists, as well as new singers like Bruno Mars, John Legend, The Weeknd, Drake, Janelle Monae, and Pharrell Williams.

The sound of R’n’B has evolved like no other genre, more recently embracing electronic music and auto-tune effects, ever evolving, yet keeping hold of its rhythmic roots.

Recommended Listening:

Paul Williams – Huckle-Buck

Little Richard – Tutti Frutti

The Rolling Stones – Sympathy For The Devil

Janet Jackson – That’s The Way Love Goes

Alicia Keys – Fallin’

Outkast – Hey Ya

Drake – Hotline Bling

Recommended Viewing:

Amy – Amy Winehouse documentary

The Birth Place of R’n’B –YouTube documentary

Recommended Reading:

Icons of R’n’B and Soul – Bob Gulla

The Lost Treasures of R’n’B – Nelson George

Edited by Ginny Wong

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
What is ... R’n’B?

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