For three seconds at the beginning of “One Sweet Day”, you can briefly acknowledge what song you’re about to listen to before the percussion kicks in and it’s officially on. With Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men on the same bill, it’s a big R&B ballad with all the flourishes and harmonies that these artists built their careers on. It’s also the type of song that would not have been a hit if it came out in 2015.
Released as the second single off Carey’s 1995 album Daydream, “One Sweet Day” paired emotionally intense lyrics with a down-tempo R&B melody for a beautiful collaboration that became both a critical and commercial success. On December 2nd of the same year, it reached no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 where it stayed for 16 weeks straight, setting a record that still stands today. In fact, on the strength of three different singles, Carey and Boyz II Men held the number one spot for a total of 16 weeks in 1995, with the latter both starting and ending the year on top.
1995 was a banner year for the genre on the charts. Between Carey, Boyz II Men, TLC, Montell Jordan, and others, R&B had the Hot 100 sewn up for all but eight weeks, during which Bryan Adams snuck in with “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?” and Coolio opened the door to “Gangsta’s Paradise”.
The “real” R&B flame started to flicker as soon as 1996. By the year’s end, there was evidence of the classic sound starting to become diluted with other influences – especially hip-hop. Where singers used to feature rappers as guests on their songs, a preference for rap songs with an R&B sheen or outright sung hooks started taking hold.
Brandy and Monica ruled the summer of 1998 for 13 weeks with “The Boy Is Mine”. That year was arguably the last bastion of the pre-eminent R&B sound of the ’90s, before teen powerhouses Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera showed up and started a pop wave that flooded the Hot 100 through the end of the century and for many years post-Y2K.
That the genre’s mass appeal waned over time isn’t shocking; tastes and crazes always evolve. Even Chubby Checker probably knew that The Twist wasn’t going to be hot forever. What’s interesting to examine is how quickly the crazy, sexy, cool R&B of the ’90s was subsumed and how far it fell from its stranglehold on pop culture. By 2001, the genre’s borders had become more porous. There were pop-infused offerings from Destiny’s Child and Janet Jackson, plus the “I’m Real (Murder Remix)” on which R&B and hip-hop are almost inextricable – a style Ja Rule leveraged to great acclaim and which is still popular today.
What has fallen out of favor with the wider buying public is R&B, full stop. Nostalgia for it is rife; you might recall Nicholas Fraser breaking the Internet with his Next-sampling “Why You Always Lying” Vine in August. Yet less than 20 years on from the genre’s prime, several high-profile singers distanced themselves from it emphatically. Frank Ocean expressed distaste for the R&B tag in more than one interview after his debut, and FKA twigs proclaimed, “Fuck alternative R&B!” when describing her sound last year.
There are several reasons why a contemporary artist might reject this label. Historically, black singers were lazily lumped into one category regardless of their influences; Billboard’s current Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart was called Hot Black Singles as recently as 1990. And somewhere along the way the ’90s strain of R&B just became corny.
The earnestness of that era gave way to bawdy strip club anthems and a brooding aesthetic, making R&B seem tame by comparison. In recent years, megastars like Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Usher have delivered solid performances using the genre as a canvas, then painting over it with different sonic influences like pop or EDM. Raunchiness has always been a factor, but today’s crooners are much less coy about it.
“Why You Always Lying” was perfect because Fraser nailed the hallmarks of old-school R&B videos: exaggerated hand gestures and slick choreography. It’s great music for lip syncing dramatically, and he paid tribute to the era while gently mocking its too-muchness. Drake, whose vocal style is inspired by R&B singers, has blended rapping and singing seamlessly to become one of today’s most popular artists. When he does sing, he bares his soul much like his forebears, either pleading with an ex-lover to return or lamenting how a relationship has changed – stuff that would be right at home on a Keith Sweat record. It’s also this aspect of his delivery that gets slammed so often by his detractors and makes him so meme-able: He’s so sensitive, he’s soft. But then he comes right back with the braggadocio that balances it out, never staying in his feelings for too long.
Next’s “Too Close” was a number one single in 1999, but the groveling, yearning, cry-outside-in-the-pouring-rain R&B of the ’90s just doesn’t cut it on the charts like it once did. Of course, commercial sales are not the only measure of success; artists like Miguel, Kelela, and Jazmine Sullivan released fantastic R&B albums this year, and no statistics could ever negate that. But as far as mass culture goes, the thought that undiluted R&B has been relegated to flashbacks and memes is enough to make any long-term fan emotional.