R&B is one of the most important genres in music. The term Rhythm and Blues was coined by music journalist turned music producer, Jerry Wexler. He is an integral part of signing and/or producing acts such as Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and many more. From then, R&B has evolved to subgenres such as contemporary R&B, new jack swing, neo-soul, alternative R&B, etc. So many different artists have come from the genre, but very few have been able to impact. Whether they had a classic album, timeless song, incredible choreography, or an influential taste in fashion. These R&B legends deserve all the recognition and praise for being influential in the game. I asked four good friends of mine to give their list of artists who deserve their flowers. In the third edition, I ask the Associate Editor of XXL, Robby, to give me his five most influential R&B artists of all time.
Usher has been in the news as of late because of the residency in Las Vegas and the 8701 anniversary just passed recently. One thing that is incredible about Usher is that he went from the prepubescent teen to an adult and survived. (Which I always give artists points for across all genres, but it’s harder to do in R&B.) He survived on two different levels where he didn’t implode on the way there, but also his music is still good and he didn’t lose his tone. For example, when he transitions into a man and starts singing about sex, it wasn’t as weird as it could’ve been. He went about it in a very smooth way where it made sense and it felt like we were growing up with him. He’s older than me so we’re looking up to him like, “This guy is cool.” You see him saving his girl from evil henchmen in the “Nice and Slow” video and it’s not crazy to you.
It’s hard to frame how cool Usher was. The thing he balanced that I feel like a lot of R&B artists, especially men, struggle with now is that he was the heartthrob that all the girls loved. Every girl I knew was in love with Usher from my sister to my crush at school. However, men loved Usher as well because we weirdly felt we could relate to him. After all, he was so cool. It wasn’t a jealousy thing. We just admired the guy. When you can strike that balance and make songs that work on both sides of that, where you can speak directly to ladies in love, and as he gets older he knows that perfectly where he can make songs like “U Got It Bad’’ where everyone can relate to it, then you know you did something. It doesn’t matter how you feel about him, you just get it because the lyricism and songwriting fit together so perfectly. Also, his aesthetic makes all the sense in the world. He put all of this together, kept doing it, and it just kept working. For example, “Yeah” is a crunk R&B record, but when he did it and other people tried to do it (before or after him) it was corny. It’s because they don’t have what he has. You can emulate someone all you want, but when you don’t have it; you just don’t. Usher always had it, was able to fold that over into other stuff, and keep going.
The final point I want to make is that he’s bigger than Confessions. I think people only talk about Confessions, but the thing is he had albums prior that was really good. My Way and 8701 were not albums he was tossing out there. He was really good before that. It’s just that Confessions made him undeniably a superstar. You can’t minimize him to just that because he’s laid so much groundwork down for the future of R&B just by existing. He’s showing us that you can do this for a long time if you lay the groundwork, make the hits early, and make songs no one else can make. Usher can stop making music tomorrow and it won’t matter because he’s a Hall of Famer.
I don’t know if it’s me, but I feel like Janet doesn’t get enough credit. If anything, Janet needs to have more credit than what she gets. I think people have tried to question her singing ability and that was unfair in a sense because she can sing. Is she a Whitney Houston top-tier singer? No, but how many people are that? Also, her influence is crazy! If you can just look at R&B in the last 10–15 years, everybody wanted to be Janet. Janet has multiple classics and she has four at worst which is crazy. My personal favorites are Control and Rhythm Nation. Additionally, when you put in the fact that she was young, trying to find her sound, and her brother is Michael Jackson, it’s so easy to be swept under the rug. However, she didn’t make music like him. She wanted to have her own identity, be her own woman, and she did it humbly in those situations.
She preserved and churned out classics left and right. Her albums were never the same. They were so drastically different in the 90s. She was still finding a way to be unique while also finding new ways to do the stuff she was doing before and never alienating people. You see it nowadays where artists will try to get too different too quickly and it’ll lose people. That was never a thing for Janet. She made new jack swing songs, neo-soul songs, dance songs, and it never came off as corny or gimmicky because she cared about the music. She has so many classics, is still relevant, and still shows love to the new school R&B acts. I feel like so many people are drawing from what she does and people need to get in tune with what that means. She’s a top-tier dancer and top-level performer. She had all of that and still does.
Sade is the first mysterious artist and she’s doing this in the 80s and 90s where there was no social media. She’s not doing a million interviews, so if she disappears that’s it. I grew up on her and there’s just no singer like her. The tone, the way she’s moving around, the instruments, the band itself, and the musicianship are nothing that has ever been seen. I remember hearing her music and it made me feel like it wasn’t even a genre. The stuff they make is just what they make. She’s very real, honest, and vulnerable about love, the highs, her missteps, people doing her wrong, and wanting more from people that just can’t present to you at the time. All of this stuff is real experiences and the music was that at its purest form. They have classics such as Love Deluxe which is one of the best albums I’ve ever heard. I remember in undergrad this girl was trying to steal my Sade CDs out of my room. I had to tell her multiple times to stop or put it down. I always think about that moment when I look at those CDs because I was defending them with my life. That’s how much Sade and the music meant to me. Also, the influence is there just based on the mysterious factor. Everybody wants to be mysterious now, but they can’t do it like Sade.
Mary J. Blige
A quick MJB story: When I was a kid, we had to bring music to school. So in typical kid fashion, I told my mom that I needed to bring music to school as we’re driving there. She gives me her What’s the 411? tape. It didn’t register to me that I’m walking inside my school with a classic and I’m about to turn the class up. When I went to class and they turned it on, I was the man! Those are unlocked memories that always come back to me because I love that album. What’s the 411? perfectly encapsulates what the 90s was like at the time. I was a child so I could fully experience it, but then you look at pictures of Black people in the 90s especially in the Tri-State area, and it’s crazy how on point she was. From what she was singing about, the way she dressed and carried herself, it felt real. She was mired in the actual culture that she was making music about. It’s like finding out your friend from down the block can sing. That’s what took her so far because he was always herself and the music is incredible. It always reflected the times.
What’s the 411? is a classic, but so is My Life and Share My World. She was vulnerable in her music at a time when people might have questioned that. However, we’re seeing her life play out in real-time. We’re seeing her go through the ups and downs of romance right in front of us. She’s still who she is today and it’s cool to see her get the props and love that she deserves. As she kept putting out music and evolving, she never sounded dated, which is easy to get tripped up by as an R&B artist. A lot of R&B artists shot themselves in the foot because they got tired. However, every time she came back it sounded like, “Yeah, this is now.” The first time I heard “I Can Love You” with Lil Kim, I thought that song was amazing. She is Hip-Hop to the core and that’s why all these rappers show love to her to this day. She always found her place from era to era and never got lost in the shuffle. She didn’t have to fight for it like other legends had to. When you talk about her influence, where do you start? She’s not only influencing her genre, but she’s influencing rap. All of these rappers have a serious love, romance, or heartbreak song and they all sound like a Mary J. Blige song. You don’t have many R&B artists who are connected to the streets, hip-hop, and culture overall. You have many R&B artists who have to try to build careers around that. Are any of them as good as her? No. Mary J. Blige’s influence can’t be overstated.
I grew up listening to Aaliyah and my parents loved her too. She was a teen star who was doing it in a way we haven’t seen before. She was like a teen Janet with way more hip-hop influences. Also, Aalyiah is a style icon. As soon as you see her, everyone wanted to dress like her. Everybody was wearing Tommy Hilfiger, but they were wearing it like her. On top of that, the songs were great and she found a way to stick out amongst two Hall of Famers in Timbaland and Missy Elliott. That’s something a lot of people don’t talk about enough. You look at Timbaland and Missy; they’re no flash in the pan kind of acts. You have an entire camp that’s incredible and are elevating each other, but you look at Aaliyah and you know she’s the star. She’s a star in a room full of stars. This is a bizarre comparison, but you’ll understand what I mean when I say it. The closest I can think of now in modern music that’s like that is Quality Control and Lil Baby. He is the star, but he’s also on the same label as Migos and City Girls. However, he’s the one who exploded to the forefront and he’s the man. People underscore how difficult it is to do that and be that.
One in a Million is an incredible album. The stuff that she’s putting on there is insane. If you’re an R&B singer and you put “Hot Like Fire.” “One in a Million,” “If Your Gir Only Knew,” and “4 Page Letter” on the same album, then you should be winning every Grammy the next year. You should be cleaning everybody up and this is what she was doing back then. Also, she’s on the cover of every teenage magazine, everybody loves her, and you see her everywhere. She hasn’t even come into her own yet because she’s still so young. When she started to turn the corner, that’s unfortunately when she passed. However, at that point, she was turning into a woman. We’re getting the early part of the Usher run except Usher got to complete it and live it out. That’s what makes Aaliyah’s story so crazy. When people pass away, people try to cap about them like Aaliyah wasn’t all that. She was so why can’t we leave it at that? Why do we have to do the projection of what it would be or what she couldn’t have been because of another R&B artist? How do we know if they couldn’t have co-existed? It’s happened before. Let’s be honest: a lot of singers are trying to be Aaliyah. They’ve been trying for 15 years. Also, the songs returning to streaming are going to open her up to a whole lot of people who did not have access. Her influence is crazy and her music is good.
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