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For decades, the Billboard Hot 100 and Top 40 charts have been populated with rhythm and blues, an American musical genre first developed by Black artists in the mid-twentieth century.

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What Is R&B Music?

Rhythm and blues, commonly known as R&B, is a musical genre developed by Black Americans in the 1940s that’s been continuously refined through the present day. R&B derived from gospel, jazz, folk, and traditional blues music and emerged in tandem with rock ‘n’ roll.

R&B notably diverged from rock music in later decades. Contemporary R&B is often driven by keyboards, synthesizers, strong bass lines, and looped drum beats. In this sense, it has more in common with hip hop than rock music. Contemporary R&B songs regularly top charts, making R&B one of the most commercially successful genres in the modern music industry.

history of r&b

A Brief History of R&B Music

In the 1940s, R&B music exploded in urban centers like New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles—all of which had seen increased Black American presence due to the Great Migration.

  • Roots in southern church music: Many musicians steeped in blues and Black American church music brought new songs from the south, and eventually secured recording contracts in northern cities. Their music emphasized electric guitars, double bass, piano, and drum sets.
  • R&B meets rock ‘n’ roll: The genre’s early stars were simultaneously categorized as R&B and rock ‘n' roll. These included James Brown, Fats Domino, and Little Richard. Chicago’s Chess Records promoted R&B singers who crossed over into blues such as Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, both of whom were also categorized rock performers. In the 1950s, R&B still shared nearly all its musical characteristics with rock ‘n’ roll, yet both genres took on racial connotations as a result of widespread segregation. In the 1950s and ’60s, nearly all white artists playing blues-based pop music were categorized as rock ‘n’ roll; meanwhile, most Black musicians playing songs with the same influences were branded R&B artists.
  • R&B deviated from rock in the 1960s: Crooners like Etta James and Sam Cooke brought a smoother veneer to pop music while white rockers pushed toward heavier sounds and psychedelic experimentation. R&B began to share more commonalities with the burgeoning genre of soul music. In Detroit, soul label Motown Records produced a commercially polished sound centered around glamorous singers and propulsive rhythm sections. In Memphis, Stax Records merged southern blues with soulful crooning from the likes of Otis Redding and Carla Thomas.
  • R&B evolved further in the ’70s: R&B musicians began experimenting with syncopated rhythms and more Afrocentric lyrical content in the 1970s. Artists such as Isaac Hayes and the Reverend Al Green mixed church music, African rhythms, and expanded instrumentation into R&B, leading to the development of funk and disco.
  • Smooth R&B: In recent decades, R&B music pushed away from guitars and toward a smooth sound geared toward dance clubs and urban radio. R&B vocalists like Toni Braxton, Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Boyz II Men, TLC, Usher and Lauryn Hill racked up hits and Grammys by emphasizing melismatic, soulful singing and catchy melodies. Beyoncé, Drake, and Mary J. Blige have pushed the rhythmic boundaries of R&B by collaborating with rappers and electronic producers.

The present-day R&B scene has changed notably from that of the 1950s and 1960s, yet it remains one of the most popular genres in American music.

3 Characteristics of Classic R&B

Classic R&B of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s is united by several key elements.

  1. Strong overlap with rock music: Many of the best R&B acts of this early era were co-categorized as rock ‘n' roll. These predominantly Black artists in turn inspired many white rock bands, including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
  2. Guitar-based instrumentation: The electric guitar was the central instrument in early R&B. It was backed by drums, a double bass (later an electric bass guitar), and piano. Melodies were performed by lead vocalists or the occasional saxophone.
  3. Inspiration from blues and church music: Many early R&B artists were steeped in blues and gospel traditions. Some R&B albums from this era contain openly Christian themes, while others reworked blues standards for contemporary audiences.

3 Characteristics of Contemporary R&B

Contemporary R&B music shares some traits with the original R&B genre but differs in notable ways.

  1. Keyboard-based instrumentation: While early R&B was driven by guitars, most contemporary R&B is based around keyboards, synthesizers, and drum machines. Some R&B singers, like Alicia Keys, favor acoustic piano, but many others embrace electronic keyboards and software loops.
  2. Incorporation of hip hop: In recent years, the line between hip hop and R&B has blurred. Bryson Tiller's debut album Trapsoul and Drake's debut Thank Me Later feature equal parts singing and rapping. The trend dates back to the 1980s, when producers Teddy Riley and Bernard Belle introduced the "new jack swing" style of production.
  3. Smooth, melismatic vocals: R&B singers like Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, and Mariah Carey made vocal virtuosity an integral part of the genre upheld by artists like Jazmine Sullivan, Alicia Keys, and Erykah Badu.