There is a noticeable generation gap in R&B music, between Usher and Frank Ocean’s career peaks sits the valley of 2009-2012 R&B charts where Keri Hilson and Trey Songz reign supreme.
At the turn of the 2010’s R&B began to evolve and merge with hip-hop more frequently and simultaneously mainstream R&B transitioned towards a more emotional feel. Popular R&B songs of 2021 have much more in common with Babyface, Boyz II Men, and the early 90’s sound than they do with Usher, R. Kelly, and the sounds of the early 2000’s.
It’d be dishonest to say there are no R&B stars nowadays, in fact there are a number of “hip-hop/pop stars” that are R&B stars too like Beyonce, Bruno Mars, Drake, and Chris Brown. Beyond R&B-hip-hop hybrids, there are still bonafide R&B superstars like The Weeknd, Janelle Monae, Miguel, Frank Ocean, and SZA who are all 35 or younger.
The Superstar Class of R&B
Alongside The Weeknd (31), Janelle Monae (35), Miguel (35), Frank Ocean (33) and SZA (30) on the top of the Millennial R&B throne sits Kehlani (26), Jorja Smith (23), SAINt JHN (34), Jeremih (33), and Snoh Aalegra (33). All of these artists are well-established with dedicated fan bases and undeniable hits.
There are distinguished differences between the stylings of these artists, all of them talented in their own right. SAINt JHN, SZA, and Jorja Smith are more likely to be singing overtop a rap beat with high hat drums than Snoh Aalegra.
When a Frank Ocean or SZA album drops, a sizable portion of the world stops. Albums like Ctrl and Blonde are timeless – between SZA and Frank Ocean there are only four published feature albums on Spotify. In just two albums, SZA and Frank Ocean have cemented themselves as R&B legends. (yes I know about their mixtapes, visual, and film albums)
You cannot sleep on the accomplishments of Jeremih. Christmas albums, Don’t Tell ‘Em, Down On Me – Jeremih has been around for a long time and he’s going to stay around for a long time. Similarly H.E.R released her first album in 2017 and has only gotten stronger as an artist; she’s only 23 years old so we’ve got decades of H.E.R hits to come.
Two artists on the precipice of R&B and rap that can’t go unrecognized are Doja Cat and Anderson .Paak. Doja Cat went from a viral sensation to one of the most popular artists on Earth, her songs lean more towards hip-hop, but we shouldn’t discredit Doja Cat’s singing just because she’s a great rapper. Similarly Anderson .Paak has always had a versatile and melodic delivery while rapping and singing, but his role opposite Bruno Mars in Silk Sonic has solidified his place within R&B.
The Star Class
The star class of R&B Millennials consists of Mahalia (23), Masego (28), Dominic Fike (25), Summer Walker (25), Chloe X Halle (20’s), Tinashe (28), Ella Mai (26), Pink Sweat$ (29), Kali Uchis (26), Jhene Aiko (33), Steve Lacy (23), Rex Orange County (23), FKA twigs (33), Jon Bellion (30), and Daniel Caesar (26).
All of these artists have songs eclipsing or nearing 100 million streams on Spotify, and have collaborated with top-level talent in the music industry. Dominic Fike, for example, is most well-known for his collaborations with BROCKHAMPTON, but is also the primary vocalist on Paul McCartney’s collaboration album. Steve Lacy has collaborated with Calvin Harris, Ella Mai has worked with Ty Dolla $ign, and both Pink Sweat$ and Masego made hit-singles with Kehlani.
ChloexHalle and Tinashe are both members of the “child star to music star” pipeline. Tinashe is an established veteran in the entertainment industry with five featured albums and acting credits like Polar Express and Two & Half Men, whereas Chloe X Halle are newer on the scene and more products of the internet than traditional media. Both acts are a step away from superstardom with elite level talent and multiple hits.
Ella Mai, Rex Orange County, FKA twigs, and Mahalia are the leaders of a burgeoning R&B scene in the UK. Rex Orange County found early career success through his affiliation with rap group Odd Future and has turned into one of the most consistent artists in the genre. FKA twigs is in a league of her own, her voice is haunting and beautiful – her voice is so distinct that you can barely hear her British accent as she sings.
Mahalia and Ella Mai are both extremely versatile vocalists, displaying the ability to sing alongside rappers like Meek Mill and Rico Nasty while also turning out soulful solo tracks. When you’re in love, listen to Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up,” then when you break up sing Mahalia’s “I Wish I Missed My Ex.”
Kali Uchis, Jon Bellion, and Summer Walker are in a league of their own with several smash hits well over 100+ million streams on Spotify. Summer Walker has hits with A-List talent like Usher and Drake, similarly Kali Uchis has a hit with Tyler, the Creator. Jon Bellion rose to prominence after writing for Rihanna, on one hand – he’s often considered a pop artist, but on the other hand he his most recent album features from Quincy Jones, and the RZA. These artists are undeniably talented but remain a hair away from being household names.
Bryson Tiller (28) is also a part of this star class, his 2015 T R A P S O U L album has cemented his legacy in the genre – but his 2020 sophomore album underwhelmed. In 2021, Tiller is popping up on DJ Khaled records and Ty Dolla $ign remixes in an attempt to gain back some prominence. Daniel Caesar and Jhene Aiko are in a similar lane, they’re in the midst of bouncing back after a few slow year. Caesar’s feature on the recent Justin Bieber hit “Peaches” is a reintroduction of Daniel Caesar to the public. Aiko needs another hit the size of “Post to Be” – her recent hit “B.S.” with H.E.R came close!
This category of R&B artists consists of singers on the verge of breaking into the mainstream:
Ragz Originale. Jamila Woods, Dizzy Fae, Michael From the East, Dee Gatti, Tora-i, Zeek Burse, Halima and RMR.
The most prominent and recognizable name on this list is Jamila Woods, who burst on the scene with her song LSD featuring Chance the Rapper. Woods came out of the gate strong with her album HEAVN in 2017, but did not find similar success with her 2019 album LEGACY! LEGACY!. Woods’s next album will likely catapult her into stardom, she has the talent and she’s made that apparent – but she’s a hit song away.
Ragz Orinale and Tora-i both represent a younger set of the emerging UK R&B scene, mentioned above. Ragz Originale was a producer for the rapper Skepta who has created a solo-career for himself, and Tora-i’s hit “Call Your Name” has achieved commercial success in America. In a similar vein is R&B singer Halima, who is a “New Jersey Born, London and Lagos-bred, New York based producer/artist” according to her website. Halima’s career is picking up steam with popular tracks such as “Ford Cardinal” and “Holding Me.”
Michael From the East, a Harlem-based vocalist is a local artist for WBLS listeners to look out for. His songs “That’s It,” “Belong,” and “Just” are on a trajectory to hit one million views in the coming months. Not far from New York is Philadelphia-based singer Zeek Burse, who’s a standout talent in Philly’s music scene. Burse has performed at music festivals and is one of a number of gems waiting to be discovered.
Dee Gatti also falls into the category of a gem needing to be discovered. Gatti has a soothing voice that’s unique to the current batch of upcoming talent. Her voice is reminiscent of The Dream.
One artist with a tremendous amount of star potential is Dizzy Fae. Fae is one of the most interesting artists making music, her funky music that borders on rap, disco, and R&B. Aesthetically there are few artists more interesting than Dizzy Fae.
The only artist on this list who is as aesthetically captivating as Dizzy Fae is RMR. RMR is a masked man, whose identity is largely unknown, if you watch his music videos – you’d see pistols and men in ski masks; but if you listen to his music – you’ll hear Sean Kingston over trap beats.
R&B in 2021 is a soulful genre-bending mix of singers who have been heavily influenced by the artists they love. There is no need to pick a lane, when so many artists are paving new lanes for themselves everyday. R&B is not dead, as a matter of fact, R&B is alive and well – it just feels different in a world that’s evolving day by day.