How SZA’s Massive Success Marks A Turning Point For Women In R&B

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In 2003, Beyonce released her first bunker-busting solo hit, “Crazy In Love,” which went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The same year, Lumidee also released a great debut single, the masterfully minimal “Never Leave You (Uh Oooh, Uh Oooh),” which climbed all the way to No. 3 on the Hot 100. But Lumidee never cracked the Top 40 again. Beyonce, as we all know by now, is another story entirely.

Hits don’t measure artistic success, but in most genres of pop, they correlate with an artist’s ability to continue making music in the big leagues. And the majority of female R&B singers who have debuted on the charts — even on the R&B/hip-hop charts — in the 15 years since the arrival of “Crazy In Love” have had career paths like Lumidee’s, not Beyonce’s. Looking at the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay ranking shows that 14 women have cracked the top 20 at radio once, but never made it there again. In contrast, just four women who debuted after Beyonce have been able to score five radio hits in the last 15 years: Ciara, Fantasia, Keyshia Cole and Jazmine Sullivan.

Note that none of these singers emerged recently — Sullivan, the youngest of the group, debuted back in 2008. In the last decade, joining the five-hit club has proved impossible for a female R&B singer. With three radio hits, Sevyn Streeter came the closest among any young act until this year. The week of February 24, 2018 SZA’s “All the Stars” and “Broken Clocks” both made it into the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay’s top 20, bringing her total of radio hits to four following the success of “Love Galore” (No. 5) and “The Weekend” (No. 6). In less than five months, SZA has — by at least one measurement — become the most successful young female R&B singer of the decade.

This is especially impressive considering all the pitfalls that await an aspiring R&B singer today. Since the rise of hip-hop decades ago, R&B has become an increasingly fragmented and compressed space. Rap rules the airwaves — last week, three out of every four songs on stations classified as “mainstream R&B/hip-hop radio” were helmed by a rapper. So a singer’s chances of getting played are already small.

Those chances are smaller still for singers interested in overt displays of R&B tradition. Programmers are famously risk-averse, and they consider it a risk to go from the latest Atlanta trap single to, for example, a contemporary soul cut like Braxton’s “Long As I Live.” Jazze Pha, a veteran producer with credits for Braxton and Ciara asserts that “If it ain’t hip-hop, if it doesn’t have a hip-hop twist to it, it doesn’t project the sales that it used to.” Songs that lack that “hip-hop twist” end up in a format dubbed “adult R&B” or “urban adult contemporary.” Singers of all ages get played there — veterans from the 1970s (Charlie Wilson), 1980s (Keith Sweat), 1990s (En Vogue) and 2000s (Tank) next to youngsters like Ro James, La’Porsha Renae, and Bluff City. But these singers rarely get a chance to move up to “mainstream R&B/hip-hop radio;” their reach is limited.

Before streaming really came into its own in 2017 — more on that later — radio was the primary form of exposure for R&B singers. But radio demands that singers fit into narrow sonic buckets. So when Miguel cranked up the guitars on rugged, rock-leaning singles like “Coffee” and “Waves,” he was dead on arrival at radio. As Randall Grass, A&R for the indie label Shanachie (Avery Sunshine, Leela James, Angie Stone) points out, many songs by Tinashe sound like “downtempo electronica;” as a result, radio won’t touch her, and she’s spent four years trying — and unfortunately, failing — to replicate the success of her breakout hit “2 On.” Even D’Angelo, whose return in 2014 was universally hailed as masterful, was not able to score a top 20 hit at mainstream R&B/hip-hop radio.

So getting heard is a much more challenging task for singers than rappers. Channel too much tradition and you’ll end up on Urban Adult Contemporary, where your audience is constrained. But even as you flash your hip-hop credentials, you still have to be enough of a singer to offer something that a rapper can’t. This is made even more complicated by the fact that hip-hop is obsessed with melody right now. On the one hand, that might make gatekeepers more receptive to singing; on the other hand, even exclamatory rappers sing their own hooks these days.