These four artists are powering an R&B renaissance with their honest-as-hell lyrics and potent new sounds — but they’re still encountering the same old industry roadblocks.
As streaming opened the door for hip-hop to dominate the music industry in the past few years, many executives and artists worried that R&B was getting left behind. This year, they have reasons to be hopeful.
R&B is still not nearly as big as hip-hop: It has a market share of 7.43% of overall album consumption units so far in 2020, compared with 19.17% for hip-hop, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data. Yet it’s growing — by 4.64% in market share compared with this time last year. (Hip-hop’s market share grew less than 1% in the same period.) And as the genre catches up commercially, it’s having a renaissance artistically — one that’s largely powered by female singer-songwriters who are reimagining and reinterpreting its sounds for a new generation of listeners. Of the 14 releases that have reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Top R&B Albums chart in 2020, nine of them have been from women.
Among them are the four cover stars of Billboard’s annual R&B/Hip-Hop Power Players issue. With her confessional relationship anthems, the casually cool Kehlani, 25, scored a career-high No. 2 debut on the Billboard 200 in May with It Was Good Until It Wasn’t. The introspective Jhené Aiko, 32, pushed her atmospheric sound to experimental places on Chilombo, which in March also had a career-best No. 2 debut. Triple threat Teyana Taylor, 29, showcased her straight-shooting modern soul on this year’s statement-making Juneteenth release The Album, which marked her first top 10 entry on the Billboard 200. And reserved newcomer Summer Walker, 24, set records with her debut LP, Over It, which scored the biggest streaming week for an R&B album by a woman last fall.
“Everyone has their own style and thing going on, but it’s all the same truth,” says Taylor during a lively virtual roundtable with the others in October. “We’re still women who have experienced love and heartbreak. It’s dope to hear everyone express that truth in their different ways.”
And they’re not alone. Alongside numerous peers — from H.E.R. to SZA, Solange to Ella Mai and Queen Naija — these women are pushing the boundaries of the genre by drawing on everything from trap and alternative to jazz and Afrobeats. “There is an abundance of genre cross-pollination, creating R&B subgenres that collectively appeal to a wider audience,” says Daniella Cabargas, director of A&R for Artist Partner Group, label home to Kehlani. And though radio programmers’ preference for more upbeat tracks has been a challenge for downtempo-leaning R&B in the past 10 to 20 years, Cabargas notes that “playlists have provided artists with an alternative outlet to get their music heard by mass audiences, especially as R&B’s sound expands.”
Despite the genre’s gains, however, executives say there is room for it to grow. “Aside from a handful of artists, R&B was almost treated like a side dish genre to the main course of hip-hop, incorporating it so much that over time R&B began to get lost,” says Noah Preston, senior vp A&R at Def Jam, home to Aiko and Taylor. As a result, R&B singers find themselves competing for the same opportunities as hip-hop artists, despite the differences between them. “We shouldn’t have to fight for limited space,” says Tunde Balogun, president of LVRN, label home to Walker. “The avenues available to R&B artists and their music must be expanded.”
Meanwhile, some of the biggest white pop stars are diving into R&B styles, and getting the kind of pop radio airplay that artists of color who make similar music don’t receive. “The industry will still pigeonhole [my music], saying, ‘Oh, this has to go to urban,’ ” says Aiko. “I’m like, ‘Why?’ ”
Some of that is an age-old issue: The industry has long put artists in boxes based on what they look like, not the music they actually make — and that’s especially true for R&B artists of color, who still encounter assumptions from industry gatekeepers about the reach of their music. “The public doesn’t know the difference — only those at the labels who control the budgets,” says David Linton, a veteran label executive and the chairman of the nonprofit Living Legends Foundation, which honors trailblazing executives of color in the music industry. “It’s just like [how] hip-hop was a ‘Black thing’ until Eminem sold 1 million in a week and white label executives figured out their kids were listening to hip-hop more than rock.”
Billboard’s cover stars are unfazed by those obstacles, however. To them, the genre has never been in a better place. “R&B keeps evolving, keeps getting cooler, more personal,” says Kehlani. As the four women peel back the curtain on their experiences in the music business, it’s clear they have more to celebrate — like the growing feeling of sisterhood that has not only led them to collaborate more in the studio but also to share advice and support each other privately as they weather the glare of the spotlight. It’s a camaraderie rooted in the honesty and vulnerability that has always been R&B’s calling card. “We’ll always be here,” says Taylor. “R&B is always going to be the realest bitch in the world.”
How do you define R&B?
Aiko: It’s true self-expression. R&B has roots in blues, so it’s not just singing about the good times. People are digging into the depths of what they’re going through [more than ever]. With a lot of the R&B I listened to growing up, I didn’t feel like I was getting their true personal stories.
Kehlani: The comparisons we get to the older artists won’t ever make sense because we’re in a different time, experiencing things at a different rate and in a different way. They didn’t have social media, so [our music] is a lot about how we interact with our thoughts. But it’s still people being honest: “I might not be what you think I am — let me take you into what I feel.” That’s what I appreciate the most right now.
Taylor: Where R&B is now takes me back to where it was in the ’80s and ’90s with Anita Baker and others. It’s about how they were expressing themselves, how they sang with soul.
Walker: R&B is better than the hip-hop of 2020 to me because that can get super shallow and repetitive. Or there’s the whole mumble rap trend, where you don’t even know what they’re saying. We’re really opening up, getting deeper — and that’s good.
How does what we’re seeing now compare to the commercial peak that R&B experienced in the late ’90s and early 2000s?
Aiko: There are different sounds within R&B that I’m seeing reflected in other genres. We’re seeing more rappers singing, being more melodic, doing more love and sexy songs. You probably wouldn’t have heard that from a straight-up rapper back in the day. And now there are traditionally pop artists doing R&B albums, but it’s called pop.
Taylor: (Laughs.) Jhené’s about to have us being messy.
Aiko: I’m like, “This is a very ’90s R&B sound, but it’s considered pop.”
Taylor: If an actual R&B singer sang what the pop artist sang, would the R&B singer get the same exposure?
Walker: Pop gets all the credit, for sure. We’re cute over here when they want to be in their feelings. But when it’s time to get to the money, it’s all about pop.
Aiko: I do feel like we’re getting a lot of recognition in this climate. People are turning to R&B because it’s healing and good for your soul. Whatever’s meant for me, Kehlani, Summer or Teyana will be for us. Any opportunity given to someone else? That wasn’t for me. And it’s fine! But we do recognize certain things. Maybe a traditional pop artist puts out some R&B and gets more mileage. I don’t feel bitter at all. I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.
Taylor: We just want the same opportunities. However, we’re not a bunch of bitter, angry R&B chicks complaining either. We want to be honest without coming off feeling a type of way. These are our truths.
Walker: I do see something that irritates me a little when it comes to radio. It seems the only songs from me that do super good on the radio are those that are more upbeat. I’ll also hear other songs from us and others that are slower, very heartfelt, and a lot of people will fuck with them. But it seems like [with radio], if you can’t shake your ass to the song, then it won’t do what it should do.
Aiko: Or if you don’t have a rapper on it!
Taylor: That’s our point. We don’t think it’s truly changing. That shit is unfair: feeling like you must have a club banger to get on the radio. What happened to when n—s used to slow dance in the club with their bitch? We want to make music that gives us the freedom to express ourselves, but it can’t always feel like a club banger, or like somebody has to be featured. I don’t think there’s any real change coming unless you’ve got a powerful team or label making shit happen.
There has been a lot of talk this year about systemic bias in the music industry. What challenges have you faced as women of color who began your careers at young ages?
Aiko: I started in this industry when I was 13, going through puberty and my own identity crisis. I’d show up to photo shoots and be told, “You’re going to get your hair bone straight, and we’re going to put this kind of [bronzer] on you.” Only in the last couple of years have I become comfortable with my natural hair texture. And dealing with men — my mom was always around to keep that in check. But looking back, I definitely saw the potential predators and inappropriate things, like how producers and writers would want to collaborate with you but never talk about music. Would you do that to the Migos or Lil Wayne? That kept me from being super friendly with anyone.
Kehlani: There’s also a certain respect level that men uphold for each other in this industry that they don’t do with us. Why is the respect level knocked down just because I’m a woman? Why do men feel able to talk to me any type of way when I’m handling business?
Taylor: If we’re too soft, people feel like they can treat us any type of way. But if we’re too hard, then it’s, “Oh, she’s too much.” Sometimes you have to be like that — especially with me being a Black woman in the industry since I was 15. Like Jhené said, producers might think you’re vulnerable. When I walk in the room, I’m like, “What’s up, my n—a? What we doing?” Then they tell you it’s not ladylike. I don’t care what’s ladylike to you. Sometimes you have to be like that so n—s don’t bother you.
Walker: As far as dealing with guys at the studio, I don’t put myself in that situation. I don’t really talk much or go to the studio that often. I really stay at home. But as a woman who likes to speak her mind, I do think it’s kind of weird that if I show my ass or post a half-naked picture, it’s totally fine. But if I want to speak on systematic racism, religion or politics, then it’s like, “Wait a minute, you’re doing too much.” They kind of want you to just shut up and sing, which is an issue for me.
Teyana, Kehlani, Jhené — the three of you are also mothers. How has that influenced your art and your careers?
Aiko: My daughter [Namiko Love] is going to be 12 next month — and with social media, 12 in 2020 is equivalent to 16 when I was growing up. It was easy to bring her with me to the studio when she was younger. Now she has her own opinions, feelings and space. She helps me dig deeper into who I am, my morals and beliefs. I’ve learned more from her than any book I’ve read, movie I’ve watched or class I’ve taken. It’s the reason I make the honest and vulnerable music that I make. I want to be an example for her to be herself. It keeps me wanting to work harder, but the more I spend time with her, I think, “Do I have to travel again? Can I go to college with you? Can we be a group?”
Kehlani: It provides a perspective that you don’t get from anything else in life. There are moments when I want to bring [19-month-old Adeya] with me all the time. But I know that having her with her toys and being in her space might be better for her at a particular moment. Those moments are really hard, but I have to ultimately decide what’s better for her. I also don’t get swept up in things anymore — moments where I’d think, “I’ll quit this shit, shave my head, buy a one-way ticket out and not talk to nobody.” I don’t have the opportunity to think like that anymore, and I don’t want to. I have something that keeps me grounded. If all this disappears and I can’t do this anymore, I still have the most beautiful life in the world. As much as people think parents give to children, I think children give us 10 times more.
Taylor: It’s so crazy, I bought an RV — we’re that kind of family. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a mother of two now, but I want them with me everywhere. Being back at work as a video director, my contract says there has to be an RV space. I need to have a crib and a table there for Junie so she can paint and do what she does. To Jhené’s point, Junie’s 4 going on 40. She knows exactly who everyone is on a song. Her love for music is crazy. She has also taught me to be fearless, which is something I never really was. And seeing the way [2-month-old] Rue looks at her sister — sometimes you have to have that pure innocent soul to make you feel the most beautiful. Motherhood is beautiful and tough, yet it’s everything.
Kehlani: (Laughs.) I’m about to go get pregnant again right now.
Taylor: Make sure you buy an RV!
A few of you have mentioned the scrutiny that comes with social media. How do you decide what to share and what’s too much?
Walker: I don’t think anything is too much as long as you’re comfortable with whatever you’re sharing. I have a work page and a spam page. I like to use my spam page because it’s fun to debate social issues. It’s a hobby of mine. I learn hella shit about documentaries and all types of things from debating with people.
Aiko: When we were both younger, Teyana and I were on Myspace and BlackPlanet. That was my diary with all my feelings. When Twitter became a thing, I had to learn that everyone doesn’t deserve to know what I think all the time. When I look back at old tweets where I was high or drunk, people took those words and thought that’s who I am. Now I give everyone about 30% and keep the rest to myself. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. So much can get misconstrued when you’re reading words or watching a video clip.
Taylor: It’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. If you don’t address something, then it’s, “Why is she quiet?” But what’s the point of explaining myself if you’re not going to believe me? It’s annoying how social media is one big jury saying who’s guilty and who’s not. I’ll say my baby turned 1 today, and they’ll be like, “No, she did not!” My baby that came out of my coochie! It’s unfair. I can give y’all a little bit, but I’m not going to spend my whole day on this shit.
Kehlani: I used to struggle with social media a lot. I felt I had a responsibility to share. And I was excited that I might learn something as well. We’re highly visible people who want to grow in this normal way. Sometimes we want to go on a date and share the date. But these experiences get tainted, so you feel you have to close yourself off. Since Jhené and Teyana have been giving me advice, there’s beauty in the relationship I have now with social media. It’s about keeping things sacred that you want to keep sacred. I also had to stop taking things so personally. Thousands of people calling me ugly. Thousands telling me they hoped I’d die. I was carrying around the weight of all these opinions from strangers who weren’t even thinking twice about me.
Women in R&B are collaborating more frequently. Why is that a good thing for the genre?
Taylor: Females collaborating is always dope — even more so when it’s genuine. I’m not trying to be in no competition. I listen to your shit, be having sex to your shit. Let’s just do what we’re going to do and be cool. The world has pit women against each other for so long that they believe it. Everyone is about women’s empowerment until it’s time to empower one another. That pisses me off. I’ve never had too much pride to reach out to a bitch to say I want to work with her. We have to stop letting people get into our heads. The bitches want to work.
Kehlani: We already experience so much of that from men and the audience, so us perpetuating that with each other is backward. Men only dip into our world when it’s like, “I have a love song,” or “I’m making a record for the girls.” Otherwise, they work with each other millions of times. One good thing I’m noticing about this pandemic is that it has made people settle into real life and become more grounded: “I got my head out of my ass, I’m blessed to be here and down to do whatever.” The energy is a lot clearer. Everybody in this conversation has collaborated with each other. Hopefully, this continues.
Taylor: Jhené and Summer owe me a verse.
Aiko: I’ve known you the longest, Teyana, and before we did this I was like, “Why don’t we have a song together?”
Taylor: I know! That would be really good because you nasty.
Walker: You should do it. There’s no reason not to.
Where is R&B headed from here?
Aiko: R&B is heading to a good place because it blurs so many lines with its different-sounding styles. But I also feel it will always be underrated. Most of the things it talks about are too real for everybody to understand. R&B is for people that are really here and really feeling.
Kehlani: R&B keeps evolving, keeps getting cooler, more personal. I hope it evolves to where we call each other up and collaborate on more than just one song. You don’t have to cross genre like, “When I leave this third verse open, I’m automatically going to a rapper.”
Taylor: We’ll always be here. When a n—a is in the prime of his life, he wants to deal with everyone. But there’s always that one girl that’s going to be there for him. When he’s really ready to get it together and settle down, that’s who he’ll go looking for. That’s what I feel R&B is. R&B is always going to be the realest bitch in the world.
Kehlani: I really love that. “R&B is the realest bitch” — that’s a bar.
Taylor: And once I send this instrumental and all four of us are on it, the shit is lit. At that point, we’re going to be on the R&B and pop charts.