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Genre Without Boundaries: A Look into R&B’s Progressive Influence

Rhythm and blues, better known as R&B, has a long history of culture and influence that has shaped it into the powerhouse genre that it is today. Originating from an expressive form of Black culture, R&B incorporates the sounds of jazz, gospel, and blues music from the 1940s, when the ever-changing race relations of American social and political landscapes were at an all-time high; this fusion formed a unique, multilevel genre of sounds. Since its initial debut in the music industry some eight decades ago, R&B has wholly rewritten the narrative of the boundaries placed on the genre.

The ‘80s kickstarted the launch of R&B into domination with the introduction of synthesizers and drum machines that have become a distinct signature of the R&B sound; fast forward to 2022, and this foundation still exists. As hip-hop/rap undoubtedly dominates the charts, especially in the US market, R&B has continues to gain popularity for breaking traditional music boundaries. Analyzing the intersection of these genres, which has spawned an endless list of subgenres, or alternative music, it becomes evident that the breakdown of genre boundaries allows for more in-depth creative freedom for the artists. Influential artists of our time that have reinvented and paved the way for younger artists reflect the direction that music is headed in, with R&B as its leader.

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The Weeknd is one of the world’s most well-known and successful artists to date, having broken several records and setting new standards with each project he drops. If we follow the musical evolution of The Weeknd as a trendsetter in many different realms, we see an evolution of musical style, genre, and character. The content, alone, in The Weeknd’s discography, saw a significant shift between his sex, drugs, and fame-centered narratives to the reflective, introspective stories that we now know and have expected on recent Weeknd projects. Watching how The Weeknd evolved as a character in his own stories also entailed the evolution of his music style. His most recent project, Dawn FM, exudes the 80s-inspired percussive style that he has mastered, while his earlier projects, such as Trilogy, display an entirely different aesthetic of synth samples and distorted vocals. This parallelism of a change of genre and style coming with a change of character is something that we have seen done by a few groundbreaking artists of the twenty-first century.

Tyler, the Creator has also seemingly reworked the musical genre standard with the presentation of characters that work as benchmarks between his musical evolutions. Tyler’s Call Me If You Get Lost reflects a 90s hip-hop theme, while prior to that, Igor explored rap, R&B, and funk, and even before that his 2017 Flower Boy showed his ability to explore his indie talents. Tyler, the Creator has enveloped what it means to create music without the boundaries set by genre.

(picture retrieved via u/KraZ-E-acE-6 on Reddit)

Expanding on this theme, the renowned artist Frank Ocean took over the world with his signature, genre-less sound. Frank Ocean has done it all, diving into anything and everything from R&B to rap to electronic to soul. At the end of the day, Frank Ocean is a storyteller, connecting with his dedicated listeners through the unique choice of lyrics and unexplored truths of his life. While there have been countless artists that can be argued to have “changed the world of music as we know it,” these three creators have made a particular footprint on the modern music scene and can be seen inspiring the rising artists of today and how they choose to identify their own sounds.

In the context of 2022, Brent Faiyez, Steve Lacy, JID, and Smino are all artists that have carried on this tradition of redefining genre norms. Each respective project that these artists released this year has left their fans star-struck at the new and unfamiliar sounds they have chosen to explore. Premiering new vocal ranges, production skills, and lyricism, artists who were barely known by the majority a year ago are scheduling sold-out tours. What’s the hype? The notable music development that they are pursuing and the unpredictability of each track within their projects. Brent Faiyez’s WASTELAND and Smino’s Luv 4 Rent were two projects that demonstrated these artists’ abilities to delve into their lyricism more than ever before. Smino also brought a new style of production to his project as he blended classic production styles with a more modern sound. JID’s Forever Story exhibited his experimentation with his vocal range, stepping into new territory where he incorporated his singing voice from a background of primarily rap music. Steve Lacy’s Gemini Rights gave us a new taste of avant-garde pop and soul music that has proven to be irresistible to its audience.

These four artists are just a sample of the countless creators that have been surfacing all year, reflecting the impact of genre-breaking norms set by their revolutionary predecessors. Smino, himself, tweeted on November 2, shortly after dropping his Luv 4 Rent project:

...which is a perfect summary of what this wave of genre-breaking is about—defining the artist for their work, and not what hypothetical boundaries their sounds fit into.

But what does it come down to that distinguishes this era of music apart from others, if not by its genre? Emotional relatability. Now more than ever, what is breaking the records and gaining listeners’ attention is the lyricism of the music they listen to that forms more than an audible connection, but an emotional one as well. We are the generation of a pandemic. The music industry’s biggest consumer base is the ages of our population that have endured the Covid-19 pandemic at a crucially developmental age, placing them at a new level of emotional vulnerability. This age group includes a lot of the artists that are receiving such accolades for their unconventional, yet innovative work. So it’s a no-brainer why genre has become such an obsolete construct, it has since been overlooked as our attention has turned to the emotional appeal of the production that sounds and lyrics generate.

R&B music has been noted for its soulful expression, ever since it surfaced in the 1940s. The focus on the musical appeal to serve the listeners’ emotions brings to light the important fact that a track does more than just conform to the style and instrumental use within a sound - it kindles an audio experience that hits the depths of our souls and is usually accompanied by rhythmic clapping and foot tapping. This expression rooted in the origins of R&B has promoted intertwining between specifying genres because our generation has learned that music has effects beyond the surface. The acknowledgment of genre as a boundary, by artists and listeners alike, has redefined the grouping of music and the identification of artists. With this progressive release of genre boundaries, artists are free to experiment further with their creative geniuses and continue to shock the world with their borderless, creative domains.

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