Friday, October 24th, 2014
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Justin Timberlake and the disappearance of black R&B artists

Lauren Carter March 19, 2013 Features, KBB EXCLUSIVE, Pulpit 26 Comments

Justin Timberlake is everywhere. Or at least he seems to be.

The actor and pop/R&B phenom recently hosted “Saturday Night Live” for the fifth time — a historic event that drew appearances from comedic heavyweights like Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase — and followed that up by co-hosting “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” for a series of consecutive nights dubbed “Timberweek.” In February, he was named the creative director of Bud Light Platinum, and a slick new commercial for the beer features the crooner performing his comeback single “Suit and Tie,” which he also performed at the Grammy Awards alongside rap mogul Jay-Z. This summer, JT and JZ will embark on a joint stadium tour that stops in 12 cities. And this week, Timberlake drops his much-hyped third album “The 20/20 Experience,” which follows up his 2006 multi-platinum masterpiece “FutureSex/LoveSounds.”

With the barrage of well-timed advertisements, performances and hosting duties, the superstar’s return to music after a seven-year hiatus feels like a pop culture tidal wave. And the excitement is — ahem — justified, because his genre-bending brand of R&B fills a massive void left by artists like Rihanna, Chris Brown, Ne-Yo and Usher. All of them launched their careers in R&B to one degree or another, and all of them have since switched to a dance-pop sound that inspires fist-pumping sessions and dominates club dance floors, but leaves little in the way of lasting impact.

Currently, there are few black artists who can lay claim to successful R&B careers. The-Dream is still making breathtaking R&B, but he has gained the freedom to do so by writing and producing mega-hits for other artists and forming his own label imprint, Radio Killa Records. Beyonce is certainly a superstar, but it’s hard to describe her music as R&B, even if you slap a “contemporary” label in front of it. Frank Ocean is a young mover and shaker in urban music, but it’s telling that the Grammy he nabbed was for Best Urban Contemporary Album; even the Grammys don’t quite consider his music R&B.

Ne-Yo – “Let me Love You”

Solo artists Tyrese, Ginuwine and Tank formed the supergroup TGT in 2007 to combat the takeover of techno-style pop music and resurrect the dying R&B genre, but they’ve yet to release an album. Keyshia Cole and Mary J. Blige both bring a hip hop-soul aesthetic to R&B, but these days, you’re not likely to hear much of their music on mainstream radio. Trey Songz hasn’t wavered from his sex-charged — and often shirtless — brand of rhythm and blues, but while he’s achieved some success in urban spheres, he’s far from a household name.

So one has to wonder why black R&B artists in a genre once brimming with black genius have either switched to pop or been marginalized by the mainstream, while white artists like Timberlake — along with Robin Thicke, British sensation Adele and the late, great Amy Winehouse, for example — have managed to make soulful R&B music that achieves enormous success. Adele’s album “21,” for example, has sold over 10 million copies, and her monster single “Rolling in the Deep” sounds like it leapt straight out of 1967.

Adele – “Rollin’ In The Deep”

One has to wonder why mainstream black music, once rich with R&B that promoted love, tenderness and substance, now includes one of two types of songs: vapid pop numbers by artists who sound more like robots than real people, and commercial rap tracks that glorify violence, materialism and misogyny. It’s hard not to conclude that this shift in style, one that minimized music of positivity and substance, was orchestrated by record label and radio executives in an effort to re-shape the sound of black music, and perhaps the perception of black people.

So Timberlake’s success, while well-deserved, inherently speaks to the limitations and pressures placed on black artists in comparison to the artistic freedom granted to white artists. It forces us to question whether Timberlake, if he was black, would be given the latitude to explore pop, funk, rock, soul and R&B, all while blending retro elements with futuristic sounds, or if he would be pressured by label bosses to conform to the same watered-down, generic pop standard so many one-time R&B artists now call home because “that’s what listeners want.”

This is not a knock on Timberlake. His music is some of the best that’s being made today. As the former member of bubblegum boy band NSYNC, no one would have been surprised if he faded into obscurity and resurfaced years later for a questionable stint on “Celebrity Apprentice.” The fact that he’s forged a massively successful career in a dying genre and become a highly bankable star drawing checks from corporate behemoths like Budweiser and McDonald’s (remember the “I’m Lovin’ It” advertising campaign?) is a testament to his talent, likeability and hard work.

Timberlake deserves the accolades he’s received, but his achievements inevitably call into question why black R&B artists with comparable talent haven’t risen to similar heights. Are these black artists in a genre that once birthed legends like Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and James Brown in control of their careers — or are they following orders? Are they looking to branch out and experiment with pop by choice, or is that move being presented as the only option?

Great music knows no skin color, but the success of white R&B artists and the disappearance of their talented black counterparts from the mainstream suggests that the forces involved have as much to do with race as music. The question we should all be asking ourselves is what music executives have gained by minimizing the black presence in mainstream R&B — and what we as listeners have lost.

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About The Author

Lauren Carter is a writer and editor, music junkie, hip hop head and healthy living enthusiast based in Boston. She has interviewed entertainment icons ranging from Stevie Nicks and Bill Cosby to Diddy and Raekwon, and her work has appeared in publications including the Boston Herald, Boston Phoenix, XXL Magazine, the Grio, Madame Noire and RapRehab.com. When she's not writing, listening to music or writing about listening to music, she can usually be found doing yoga, hanging out with her awesome cat or penning poetry no one understands. Connect with her on Twitter @ByLaurenCarter or visit her blog at www.bylaurencarter.com.

26 Comments

  1. Jaycee March 21, 2013 at 4:16 PM

    all artists have the freedom to make GOOD music when they step in the studio and press record. can’t really speak on limitations & pressures if they personally CHOOSE to make bullshit. Usher being the biggest example.

  2. Jovontae Dukes March 21, 2013 at 5:26 PM

    Music executives have gained lots and lots of money. Listeners, particularly African American listeners like myself, have lost the opportunity to enjoy quality music from artists who would continue a legacy that was built decades ago.

  3. LaToya March 24, 2013 at 10:40 AM

    I have to agree with the sentiment of this article. Justin Timberlake is thriving in a genre that many considered dead. I don’t know where to put the “blame” for the rapid decline of r&b. Is it to sell records? Pressure from execs?

    I’m an avid Ne-Yo fan. I admit that his latest album is laced with some fist pumping tunes but there is a good mix of some classic r&b in there as well. He claims that he makes music, period. But at what cost? To not be labeled an r&b artist exclusively?

    This was definitely a great read. Made me think about the current state of the music industry.

  4. eee March 24, 2013 at 11:42 AM

    great article!!

  5. Buddy Funk March 24, 2013 at 2:36 PM

    Black people doesn’t own or controll MAJOR record company’s anymore that was Motown & Stax plus Philly Sounds back in 1967 They got “F” over and never did conrtoll 99% of media such as Radio / TV station and so forth but here’s the Catch!!! back in 1967 most White Americans / people had to SNEAK!!! to listen to Black Music you youngsters might not know this ( ask Elvis Costello the most wanna be black mug if ever I’ve seen one ) because of the flack white folks would recieve if they were caught listening to Black music by friends ( that’s why Black Artist pictures most likely was not on the cover of the Black Artist LP ) White people would put the Black Artist records in the closet when they’re White friends came over… White people in house holds now in 2013 plus 25 yrs before and maybe longer were and are now listening to Motown, Stax & Philly Sounds Artist as if its 1967… NOW!… that it’s cool to be as Black as you can even though you’re White… White Artist, musicians and so on will try as best as they can to try to Sound as Black as they can from what ever they can get/ learn from listening to Black Music…what else is new? So the White Owned Major record companys want they’re White Artist to try to write songs like back in 1967 with a White face on the R&B Artist just like they did with the Blues, Rock & Roll now it’s R&B. Rap is not far behind interms of putting a White face on it, as always if you don’t have the bottom line say or know your self worth you don’t have a say in it at all own your shit or at least know your self worth…It’s a lot more to the story.

  6. vera March 24, 2013 at 6:53 PM

    The good news for black R & B artists is someone like Timberlake is making R & B /Soul music mainstream again. I think it will open the door to more black artists music getting the airtime on radio it has been lacking. Just like Timerlake’s last album FS/LS seemed to change the landscrape of music I believe the 20/20 Experience will do the same thing. Urban music will benefit from it.

  7. Martina March 25, 2013 at 1:59 PM

    Lauren,

    I LOVED your article. I’m a 26 year old, dare I say it, aspiring R&B artist, and I couldn’t have described better, the decline in substance of today’s R&B. I was told by a very close friend of mine that the type of music I sing, the “touchy-feely” music is a thing of the past, that people don’t want a song to make them sad or a song that makes them think about how they’re feeling… I quickly ended that friendship. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing; was she seriously saying that music, REAL music was dead?! My new song, “Nothin But Love” is so 90′s R&B that I was even surprised by how much of a contrast it had to the songs I hear on the radio. I miss groups like SWV and TLC, singers like Aaliyah (RIP) and Joe… When I choose my sons and write my music, it’s in an attempt to recreate the feelings we had about music then (if you can’t tell I’m a 90′s baby☺)… Not to go on about myself.

    Thanks for an awesome post. Thanks for validating my feelings about my music, my Art. As an unknown artist, I feel like a guppy in the Ocean and nobody’s trying to find “ME-not Ne-MO”, I can deal with rejection and the snails pace of promotion and exposure, but its hard to find others outside of your immediate circle who feel like you do. Thanks for making my Monday.

  8. Howard Hewett (R&B Recording Artist) March 26, 2013 at 4:03 PM

    Thank you so much for your article. This is a question that has been pondered by my peers and many people in the industry for years now. But the fact is, there’s plenty of quality R&B music out there, sadly much of the public will never hear it, because commercial radio is controlled by corporations which are only interested and motivated by money. Payolla is alive and well in radio! Its just changed it’s appearance to avoid detection. Have you ever wondered why you hear the same 20-25 songs over and over all day long? Or, when a song that you like is over, all you have to do is change the station a few times and its pretty certain that you’ll catch the same song on another channel right away. It’s because those “spins”, as they’re called in the business, have been paid for…! The more money spent, the more spins garunteed. The days when a disc jockey has the ability to choose songs that he or she feels their listeners would enjoy and appreciate are gone. And its so sad and so unfair to the listening audience. There is some great music out there that they’ll never hear because of politics and money, which should never be bedfellows with creativity in the first place.
    Justin Timberlakes new project is an amazing piece of work. I have it on my ipad, ipod and my iphone. I’m enjoying the creativity everyday. It gives me inspiration to explore different areas when I sit down to write. But I also have to realized that in this “Business of Music” the success of the “20/20 Experience” project has less to do with the amount of creativity that went into the project or the fact that Justin is white, and more to do with the budget and commitment of Interscope and RCA Records. The same could be done with a black artist if they had that same vision, commitment and budget from a major record label. But as artists, we also have a responsibility to stay true to what we do, and not be swayed by the many directions music has the ability to take us. Which sometimes can result in an artist losing their audience and worse, losing themselves.
    But I always like to keep hope alive! And in a world and a country that is changing and evolving everyday right before our eyes…with Same Sex Marraige being discussed as the basic civil right that it is and responsible gun laws are supported by a vast majority of the country, and if taken seriously, could set us on the path of a less violent society. With all that, I hope we are also coming to a place where all music, whether created by black or white artists, is given the equal opportunity to be heard and appreciated by the masses of people not only in this country, but around the world. But we have to know, we have to believe and we must understand that TRUE CHANGE can not come from politicians, or from record companies, or A&R guys and not from corporations…TRUE CHANGE can only come from the people…it can only come from you!!

  9. Blue March 26, 2013 at 9:57 PM

    Lauren, I’d like to complain about Justin too, but this article disappointed me. The choice to exclude Frank Ocean as a maker R&B music just to make a point is disheartening.
    I know he doesn’t dance and chooses not to si-i-i-i-i-i-ing with a million trills and over the top vocal affectations, he still makes beautiful R&B music and is a supremely talented songwriter.

    I especially don’t understand the logic in discounting him because he didn’t get a Best R&B Album nomination, when Justin has never. ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever even been nominated for the category in which Frank won his grammy (Best Urban Contemporary Album Grammy).

    According to your Grammy logic, you wouldn’t even consider Justin as R&B. It doesn’t make sense and weakens the argument.

    And don’t get me started on Beyonce.

    Also, Amy Winehouse waz jazz singer, no? Stylistically speaking.

    I believe that being progressive and curious in ones approach to creating music is what keep artists at the top of their game/relevant, and I don’t think the R&B artists you’ve listed as comparable to Justin are simply not. Usher could was once but as the first comment by Jaycee sums up exactly why.

    They’ve ultimatel made choices that render them irrelevant. Pandering to a market that doesn’t exist like it used to in the good old days. There’s no conspirancy here. I’m saying this and I don’t even like the guy!

    If it helps, let us all remember that D’angelo is coming back. And please, let’s not long for the days when grown men would whine dramatically over love lost, or gained, or sex like they were that great. Nostalgia is a great deciever.

    I wish you a life filled with Sade, butterflies, and good cake ( and lots of Frank Ocean, with whom I am not even remotely obsessed. Honest)
    x

  10. Stephanie March 27, 2013 at 11:07 AM

    So this is why I love the tv show “The Voice” and believe radio will never die. Usher may not be singing soulful R & B and Justin’s music certainly has evolved a lot since his nsync days, but these crossovers in music genre are a positive movement in my opinion. To copy someone is a compliment to that person’s style…to the other’s heritage. Its opening the doors for new opportunities where someone doesn’t have to do or sing what is expected of them because they are from Nashville or El Salvador or their skin color is dark or light. I employ readers not to make this a “race” thing by labeling music suitable for only a black or white artist. That’s like saying a man can’t sing a woman’s song, and if you watched The Voice last night, a man, Kris Thomas, did sing a Whitney Houston song, just like a woman, to the surprise of the judges. Sound (of music) can not be seen. It is not a color.
    True, soulful R & B music is not as popular as it once was but that to me only adds to the uniqueness of musicians like Tony Terry whose style is consistent, even more special.

  11. desmond March 27, 2013 at 5:49 PM

    when you talk about the state of the music you would be fooling yourself if you didn’t also talk about the radio industry today’s radio industry the one that splits the black play list into two 1 for the young and the other for the old, you would also be fooling yourself to not think there is a parallel to this when for close to the last 4 years future of music.org has release a study showing out of the music that is recorded and produced in this country 96% never gets to make it’s way to commercial radio while some on here may of thought it was cool music and radio 20years ago in this country, the wheels were all ready set in motion for this and it’s just that finally people are beginning to finally take notice of it. To put it simply it’s called marginalization folks.

  12. CrushFoster March 30, 2013 at 8:26 PM

    Awesome write up!!

  13. joelynda April 4, 2013 at 1:25 PM

    What about Miguel???

  14. D Mack April 5, 2013 at 12:33 AM

    All I have to say is Allen Stone, Eric Hutchinson, and Justin Nozuka. Get into them

  15. 9jah April 5, 2013 at 2:30 PM

    Lauren, I have a problem with this article. The question is a good one and worthy of inquiry. It may simply be that Timberlake and co are sustained by a mainstream white audience or that black audience interest has waned for a certain brand of R&B.

    I just think the apparently easy conclusion that black R&B artists have been undermined by studio execs is all kinds of wrong.

    Sure it may be a part. But also, artists can make a stand, black radio can play greater variety, audience can dictate with their purchases… all these are areas where different choices can first be made before fighting the amorphous element of the “white industry”. I’d rather focus on where we can take agency. Black people aren’t sheep.

  16. walta April 6, 2013 at 4:47 PM

    I say it often these days,the best soul singing women are white and British.The two note synth-pop stuff is emblamatic of loss of control by artists.

  17. Vyolet April 29, 2013 at 3:53 PM

    There are many black r&b artists they just don’t get alot of radio play or recognition, many of whom could sing circles, moons and stars around JT and the white British women soul singers. Yes I have fsls, Amy winehouse’ British cd release (before it came out in the U.S.) but I know that black artists tend to be marginalized. Ledisi, Chrisette Michelle, Angie Stone, Musiq Soulchild, Raheem Devaughn, raphael saadiq, rashaan Patterson, mint condition, Jill Scott, jazmine Sullivan, brian mcknight, eric benet, gaopele, ceelo green, will downing, and janelle monae to name a few. And yes I consider the last three artists r&b.

  18. Vyolet April 29, 2013 at 3:55 PM

    And yes they stil put out cd’s. I also forgot about Joe.

  19. Joe Smooth July 27, 2013 at 4:43 PM

    As a music composer and producer that has worked with many different major artist in many genre of music. I can honestly say it is the labels and radio that is limiting the black R N B artist today. I have had many conversations with record execs and radio programmer directors who will say ” we are not interested in producing or playing R N B. We only want or play rap or hip hop. So if your music doesn’t fit into those two categories you are out of luck. Hence many black RnB artist are left to explore the pop market if they want to get any play or songs released.

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  23. Derrick Douglass October 19, 2014 at 3:25 AM

    Lauren,

    Great article.

    The R&B I love stirs my soul and my hips. I’m GenXer, who fell in love with The Isley Brothers, Aretha Franklin and Teddy Pengergast when I was seven years of age. Motown, TSOP and Stax records form the soundtrack of my youth.

    Today, I dig very deep to find those whose music emulate the emotion, feel and musical sophistication that match my R&B heroes of yore.
    Most of today’s R&B suffers from a lack of energy, few songs are up tempo; a lack of real musicians playing real instruments; a lack of musical diversity, many songs sound the same; and a lack of lyrical diversity, Don’t we have enough love/relationship/love gone wrong songs?

    The trend is troubling because Youtube and home recording studios should have democratized music. Today must muscians can record music at home and post it online. Since many traditional gatkeepers no longer have complete control of how music is created, marketed and distributed, there should be many unique R&B voices.

    Marvin Gaye’s, “Inner City Blues.” wouldn’t have been released had Berry Gordy had his way. Thankfully MG, the artist, did not cave into Gordy’s, a businessman, repudiation. Gaye had the audacity and courage stand up for his unique voice adding to the R&B lexicon. That album is classic.

    Those who deplored the rise of Rock n’ Roll, were seen by those who loved it as out of touch. I often wonder if I am out of touch – a dinosaur holding onto a bygone era. I don’t think so. Our world has changed. R&B has to also change as new generations reimage and reinterpret it. I hope that new artists will have the courage to embrace R&B canons while adding funky elements to help it grow in a unique and healthy way.

    Every music consumers plays a major role in creating the music we hear. Music isn’t free, though Youtube gives a false sense that it is. Without financial support, beloved musicians can’t create music, therefore, I purchase their albums and attend their concerts. I do so because it costs real dollars to create great music . If I don’t pay for it, the music business, will produce cookie cutter music that costs t nothing to maximize profits. It’s call the music business for a reason.

    Cultures should unabashedly embrace and perpetuate its positive characteristics. Because some don’t understand their history they may not understand its value. Furthermore, some disregard the past in a rush toward progress. Surprisingly, this and other forces have left R&B open for the taking.

    Whose voices will be amplified to reflect the future face of R&B? Time will tell. Unfortunately, the current trend is troubling.

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