“Apparently What UK R&B Needs is…Rappers?”
7 Feb 2021
If you are frequent to the corridors of clubhouse or are a regular on music twitter, it’s likely that you’ve come across conversations on UK R&B. The common consensus in a nutshell is that while the scene has a wealth of talented players, it lacks homegrown support and infrastructure, leading many artists to travel elsewhere in search of more fruitful opportunities. Case in point Ella Mai.
Why is this happening? The answer everybody is searching for including the likes of UK rapper Tion Wayne who posed the question to his fans on twitter:
Some blame the rise of streaming and others a cultural shift for the decline in R&B appetite alluding to the idea that nobody wants to sing about love anymore.
Discussions around the topic often feel circular producing minimal solutions.
With that being said, one suggestion that keeps cropping up is for rappers to begin utilising R&B vocalists on their tracks once again. Some have even gone as far to say that the fall of the genre within the UK began when rappers decided to start “singing” on their own hooks.
It is of course reductive to think this is the only factor at play, but the frequency at which this proposed solution surfaces indicates that there may be something worth hypothesising, starting with looking across the Atlantic at the fusion of Hip-Hop and R&B.
Maybe the Verzuz battles are to blame in part for triggering extensive waves of nostalgia, but it is undeniable that R&B and Hip-Hop were the Jab-Right cross combo, knocking out all the hits in the noughties from a US perspective.
The queen of the Hip-Hop/R&B collaboration, Mary J Blige delivered a selection of hits throughout the early 90s including “Real Love” feat. The Notorious B.I.G. (1993), preparing the way for hits like “Dilemma” (2002) Beyonce’s Crazy in Love (2003) and of course 00’s dream team Ashanti and Ja Rule. The latter are arguably one of the most prominent examples of a successful pairing of the two genres: becoming the recipients of numerous nominations, number 1’s and gold and platinum certifications for their work.
Fast forward a few years and the trend would resurface once again birthing tracks like Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” featuring Alicia Keys and continuing into the late 10s with many of the singles released during this period also achieving gold or platinum status. The pairing was in fact so successful that in 2017 Forbes reported that Hip-Hop/R&B had surpassed rock as the most consumed musical genre in the US, which no doubt had lucrative outcomes for the artists creating the music.
So how did it happen?
Hip-Hop, a cultural movement made up of deejaying, rapping, graffiti, and breakdancing, gained widespread recognition in the late 80s experiencing what many refer to as its golden era between 1986 and 1997. During this period many Hip-Hop tracks began to see commercial success with several securing spots on the Billboard Hot 100 and artists like MC Hammer going on to produce the first diamond certified Hip-Hop album with over ten million sales.
Simultaneously, many R&B artists of the time were struggling to sell their music. This drove several to take on a “Hip-Hop” aesthetic and tap into the sound; eventually featuring rappers on their songs in order to capitalise off their audience.
As a result of this formula the 00s saw a huge boost for R&B so much so that in 2004 80% of the songs that topped the R&B charts were seeing equal levels of success on the Hot 100, propelling R&B to the fore of popular music.
Drawing parallels between Hip-Hop and UK Rap/Drill there is an argument to be put forward for UK R&B artists collaborating with the artists in these genres in order to achieve a similar level of visibility.
The US model seems to imply that reaching the pinnacles of success that will have lucrative outcomes for both of the parties involved is not possible without compromise – sorry purists. The question that remains is how much each artist should be willing to change about their sound to achieve this.
“It’s all about meeting in the middle so you can make the perfect record.” says UK R&B artist Rebecca Garton, who is of the view that both artists have to compromise so the track can be amazing.
UK rapper Keys The Prince echoed her sentiments stating “If I’m jumping on a R&B song, I’d expect it to be R&B and I would have to adjust. I think as an artist you have to be prepared to enter other artists world in order to elevate sometimes.”
Sharing his thoughts on R&B overseas he went on to say “If you look at American R&B and Rap, they have such a beautiful relationship because both artists are prepared to take risks. Biggie would jump on R&B tracks and 112 would jump on Rap songs and they would accommodate each other”
The US however isn’t the only place from which inspiration can be drawn.
There have also been models encouraging the idea of collaboration here on our home soil. Channel AKA’s heyday saw many grime artists working with several singers for their hooks platforming talent like Loick Essien and Taley Riley, who both went on to see their own solo success.
So where does that leave us? I for one cannot ignore the varying levels of nuance that extend far beyond the scope one single article can cover when it comes to UK R&B landscape. What I do know is that even if collaboration isn’t the master key to progression the likelihood, given the evidence we’ve seen, is that it’s a giant leap in the right direction.