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Contemporary R&B (also known as R&B and sometimes described as mainstream R&B) is a music genre of western popular music. Although the acronym “R&B” originates from its association with traditional rhythm and blues music, the term R&B is today most often used to define a style of African American music originating after the demise of disco in the 1980s. This newer style combines elements of soul, funk, dance, and, from 1986 on with the advent of New Jack Swing branded R&B, hip hop.

The abbreviation R&B is almost always used instead of the full rhythm and blues term, although some sources refer to the style as urban contemporary (the name of the radio format that plays hip hop and contemporary R&B).

Contemporary R&B has a polished record production style, drum machine-backed rhythms, the occasional saxophone laced beat to give a jazz feel (mostly common in R&B songs prior to the year 1993), and a smooth, lush style of vocal arrangement. Uses of hip hop-inspired beats are typical, although the roughness and grit inherent in hip hop is may be reduced and smoothed out. R&B vocalists are often known for their use of melisma, popularized by vocalists such as Stevie Wonder, and Mariah Carey.



While R&B developed out of the stylistic traits of the African American genre rhythm and blues which originated in the 1940s and progressed into the 1960s, Contemporary R&B or simply R&B is seen as separate and distinct from its cultural origins, applying only to the upbeat dance style of music innovated after the fall of disco music. Author Miriam Gazzah wrote in Rhythms and Rhymes of Life: music and Identification Processes of Dutch-Moroccan Youth (2008) "R&B must not be confused with the genre 'rhythm and blues'. R&B emerged from the American blues and soul music that experienced its heyday during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s in the United States and was popular among Afro-Americans in particular. During the 1980s and 1990s, musicians started to add more disco-like beats and high-tech production elements to the music, making R&B more danceable and modern." This modern form of rhythm and blues also incorporated elements of hip-hop, soul and funk.

With the transition from soul and disco to R&B in the early to mid 1980s, black artists such as Michael Jackson were able to achieve crossover appeal in popular music which had previously been dominated by white rock musicians. At the beginning of the decade in 1980, the top mainstream R&B artists of the year included Michael Jackson, Prince, Jermaine Jackson, The Whispers, The S.O.S. Band, Stevie Wonder, Kool & the Gang, Yarbrough and Peoples, Smokey Robinson, Rick James, Diana Ross, Lionel Richie, Earth, Wind & Fire, Dazz Band, Evelyn King, Marvin Gaye, Mtume, DeBarge, Midnight Star, and Freddie Jackson. Though released in 1979, Michael Jackson's Off the Wall was praised as a "slick, sophisticated R&B-pop showcase with a definite disco slant". 1980 saw Jackson win several music awards for the album, including the American Music Awards for Favorite Soul/R&B Album, Favorite Male Soul/R&B Artist and Favorite Soul/R&B Single for "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough". That year, he also won Billboard Music Awards for Top Black Artist and Top Black Album and a the Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough". His follow-up album Thriller (1982) capitalized on the success of Off the Wall. In a similar feat, Prince's Purple Rain (1984), an album that "consolidat[es] his funk and R&B roots while moving boldly into pop, rock, and heavy metal with nine superbly crafted songs," became known as one of the best albums ever recorded.

In the mid-1980s, quiet storm—described as a subgenre of contemporary R&B often focusing on romantic balladry—become the basis of many of the recordings performed by prominent artists such as Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, Freddie Jackson, Anita Baker, Teddy Pendergrass and Peabo Bryson. The term and subsequent style of quiet storm had originated with Smokey Robinson's 1975 album A Quiet Storm. All Music Guide to Soul: The Definitive Guide to R&B and Soul (2003) documents that quiet storm was "R&B's answer to soft rock and adult contemporary—while it was primarily intended for black audiences, quiet storm had the same understated dynamics, relaxed tempos and rhythms, and romantic sentiment."

Veteran female R&B singer Tina Turner made a comeback during the second half of the 1980s, while emerging acts such as Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson broke into the popular music charts with a series of hits that contained crossover appeal. Richard J. Ripani observed in his book, The New Blue Music: Changes in Rhythm & Blues, 1950-1999 (2006), that Janet Jackson's third studio album Control (1986) was "important to the development of R&B for a number of reasons" as she and her producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, "crafted a new sound that fuses the rhythmic elements of funk and disco, along with heavy doses of synthesizers, percussion, sound effects, and a rap music sensibility." Ripani elaborates that "the success of Control in the R&B and greater popular music market led to the incorporation of stylistic traits of rap over the next few years, and Janet Jackson was to continue to be one of the leaders in that development." The same year, Teddy Riley began producing R&B recordings that included influences from the increasingly popular genre of hip hop. This combination of R&B style and hip hop rhythms was termed new jack swing, and was applied to artists such as Bobby Brown, Keith Sweat, Guy, Jodeci, Bell Biv DeVoe, and the popular late 1980s/early 1990s work of Michael Jackson. Also popular was New Edition, a group of teenagers who served as the prototype for later boy bands. Another popular, but short-lived group (with more pronounced R&B roots) was Levert.

In the late 1980s, George Michael became one of Britain's best-known Contemporary R&B musicians. His debut album Faith (1987) went to the top of the R&B album chart in the USmarker, making him the first white artist to achieve this honor. Faith produced a number of chart-topping singles, including the U.S. R&B number-one hit "One More Try". The album also won several music award including the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. Michael Jackson remained a prominent figure in the genre, following the release of his album Bad (1987) which sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. At the turn of the decade in 1989, Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 continued the development of contemporary R&B into the 1990s, as the album's title track "Rhythm Nation" made "use of elements from across the R&B spectrum, including use of a sample loop, triplet swing, rapped vocal parts and blues notes."


Though popular in the 1980s, quiet storm had remained a fixture in the recordings of popular artists such as Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston in the dawn of the 1990s. Carey's career originated in quiet storm with hit singles such as "Vision of Love" (1990), and "Love Takes Time" (1990), while prime examples of the genre from Houston's catalog include "All the Man That I Need" (1990) and the record breaking "I Will Always Love You" (1992). Richard J. Ripani noted that Carey and Houston, "both of whom rely heavily on the gospel music vocal tradition, display an emphasis on melisma that increased in R&B generally over the 1980s and 1990s" but had existed in prior years. Carey's "Vision of Love" is considered to be an extreme example of the use of melisma in the later half of the twentieth century.

Also during the early 90s, new jack swing/R&B group Boyz II Men, the most successful R&B male vocal group of all time, re-popularized classic soul-inspired vocal harmonies. Michael Jackson also incorporated new jack swing into his 1991 album Dangerous, with sales over 32 million copies; It is a prominent example of the genre attracting mainstream notoriety. Several similar groups (such as Shai, Soul for Real, Az Yet, All-4-One, and Dru Hill) followed in their footsteps. Boyz II Men and several of their competitors benefited from producers such as Babyface and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. As a solo artist, Babyface and contemporaries such as Brian McKnight eschewed prominent hip hop influences, and recorded in a smooth, soft style of R&B.

In contrast to the works of Boyz II Men, Babyface and similar artists, other R&B artists from this same period began adding even more of a hip hop sound to their work. The synthesizer-heavy rhythm tracks of new jack swing was replaced by grittier East Coast hip hop-inspired backing tracks, resulting in a genre labeled hip hop soul by producer Sean Combs. Hip hop soul artists such as Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, R. Kelly, Monica, Brandy, Ginuwine, Usher and Aaliyah brought more of hip hop slang, suggestive or explicitly sexual lyrics, style, and attitude to R&B music. This subgenre includes a heavy gospel influence in terms of vocal inflections and sounds. The style became less popular by the end of the 1990s, but later experienced a resurgence.

During the mid 1990s, Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, girl groups TLC and SWV and Boyz II Men brought contemporary R&B to the mainstream. Jackson's self-titled fifth studio album janet. (1993), which came after her historic multi-million dollar contract with Virgin Records sold over ten million copies worldwide. Boyz II Men and Mariah Carey recorded several Billboard Hot 100 number-one hits, including "One Sweet Day", a collaboration between both acts which became the longest-running number-one hit in Hot 100 history. Mariah Carey, Boyz II Men and TLC released albums in 1994 and 1995—Daydream, II , and CrazySexyCool respectively — that sold over ten million copies, earning them diamond RIAA certification. Other top-selling R&B artists from this era included Jennifer Lopez, Vanessa L. Williams,Toni Braxton, Ginuwine, Mary J. Blige, Brandy, Monica, Mya, Aaliyah, Usher and R. Kelly, and groups En Vogue, BLACKstreet, Salt-N-Pepa, SWV, Jodeci/K-Ci & JoJo and Destiny's Child. In the late 1990s, neo soul (which added 1970s soul influences to the hip hop soul blend) arose, led by artists such as D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, and Maxwell. Artists such as Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott further blurred the line between R&B and hip hop by recording both styles.

Beginning in 1995, the Grammy Awards enacted the Grammy Award for Best R&B Album with II by Boyz II Men becoming the first recipient. The award was later received by TLC for CrazySexyCool in 1996, Tony Rich for Words in 1997, Erykah Badu for Baduizm in 1998 and Lauryn Hill for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1999. As 1999 ended, Billboard magazine ranked Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson as the first and second most successful artists of the 1990s.


The continued popularity of contemporary R&B is seen in the global success of established artists such as Beyoncé and Usher, whose careers began in the late 1990s and continued in the dawn of the new millennium. The year 2001, in particular its summer, has been described as a golden age for contemporary R&B and urban soul music, with artists such as Jill Scott, Jennifer Lopez and Destiny's Child, who paved the way for Alicia Keys, Blu Cantrell, and the revival of Aaliyah. Keys's debut album, Songs in A Minor, earned five Grammy Awards in 2002, including Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, Best R&B Song, Best R&B Album, Best New Artist, and Song of the Year for "Fallin';" while Aaliyah's self-titled third studio album Aaliyah was lauded as "one of the strongest urban soul records of its time." Stephen Thomas Erlewine considered the debut of Blu Cantrell, So Blu, to be "a wonderfully fresh recasting of contemporary soul and R&B. Another rising contemporary R&B star includes John Legend who's debut album Get Lifted was nonimated for 5 Grammy's. " Other emerging acts from the early 2000s include Ashanti, Ciara and Rihanna. Volume 65 of the Contemporary Black Biography book series notes that "Rihanna is the rare rhythm and blues (R&B) diva to emerge from the Caribbeanmarker world." Becoming an international sensation, Rihanna is known for blending R&B with Caribbean music, such as reggae and dancehall.

Crunk & B / Snap & B


Although considered to be a popular and high-selling genre of popular music, contemporary R&B has also come under scrutiny. Richard J. Ripani comments: "According to some scholars, African-American music over time has become less African. The proof often given for such hypothesis is based on the widespread incorporation in Black music of European musical elements and the wholesale abandonment or radical transformation of those from African traditions." However, Ripani argues through the evolutionary timeline of R&B, efforts have been made to reincorporate traditional African styles such as rapping, which has its origins in African folk and storytelling. He adds that "[b]y the 1990s, the incorporation of rap into mainstream R&B had breathed new life into the category and, based on our data, was partly responsible for a return to an older musical aesthetic."

Recently, R&B artists have come under fire for using auto-tune excessively and making it a gimmick. Some R&B artists have not only used auto-tune to enhance their voice, but it has also been used to disguise their inability to hold a note with an example being the 2000s artist T-Pain.


  1. Michael Jackson: Off The Wall : Music Reviews. Stephen Holden. Rolling Stone. Retrieved on 2008-08-15.
  2. Allmusic Purple Rain Review
  3. Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. Review: So Blu. Allmusic. Retrieved on 2009-09-19.
  4. Allmusic Aaliyah Review

See also

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