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.

As evidenced by the numbers above, the new climate has been particularly unkind to female singers. A recent study by Billboard showed that the number of songs by women on R&B/hip-hop radio fell from 62 in 1993 to just 33 in 2016 — the number of female voices in this space has effectively been cut in half. During the same period, the number of songs by men has remained roughly constant.

Navigating R&B’s minefield has mostly proved impossible for major labels. It’s not a coincidence that almost every up-and-coming R&B singer picking up traction at radio or in the press at the moment has some sort of relationship with a boutique label — an organization where making money by selling records is not strictly necessary — or an indie. DVSN (“Mood” is the biggest single of their career at radio) are on Drake’s OVO Sound; Jacquees (who followed his breakout “B.E.D.” with another rising hit, “At The Club”) is on Cash Money; Daniel Caesar (his breakout single “Get You” is still riding high) has Apple. Childish Gambino won his first Grammy this year for an album he put out via Glassnote, which has no history of releasing R&B; Kelela is on Warp, which is known primarily for electronic producers. SZA is signed to Top Dawg Entertainment.

These singers are mostly aligned with major labels as well — SZA with RCA, for example — but the indie provides a layer of insulation and a nurturing environment, which appear to be crucial for R&B singers in the modern era. This didn’t use to be the case: Beyonce, Keyshia Cole, and Jazmine Sullivan were all signed and developed by majors.

But look at the recent career trajectories of some promising R&B singers who signed directly to majors. Tinashe, Elle Varner, and August Alsina are all still searching for a second or third bona fide hit. Kehlani hasn’t landed a smash. Bryson Tiller’s second album was a huge backslide from his first. “People who run major labels are so used to their own formula, and it’s really hard for them to see another way of doing things,” says Yuna, who scored a pair of hits on Urban Adult Contemporary in 2016. “There’s a barrier there — they speak a different language.” Songwriter August Rigo, who has written tracks for R&B singers Musiq Soulchild and Chris Brown, adds that numbers can hold back imagination. “When you’re inside a major label, the imagination dies a little bit,” he said. “They’re looking at the numbers so much now — how do you make this something big so we can generate a lot of income?”

To fulfill that edict, majors tend to push singers in aggressive, unnatural ways: Remember some of the grim EDM-R&B collaborations that took place five or six years ago? Majors always want R&B singers to cross over to pop radio — which has the biggest audience, and thus the largest opportunity for income — at all costs and not look back. “The problem with that is the R&B audience is not the same as the pop one,” explains Warren “Oak” Felder, a producer for Usher and Tamia. “Trying to apply a pop approach to R&B, the music industry was doing that, and it just wasn’t sellable. And I think that contributed to a [commercial] decline in the genre.”

And even when major labels succeed with this approach, the result is not a successful R&B singer, but a successful pop singer. Take Alessia Cara on Def Jam. Her first single “Here,” co-produced by Felder, included a sample of the soul singer Isaac Hayes and performed well on mainstream hip-hop/R&aB radio. But as soon as she enjoyed that success, she effectively left the R&B ecosystem behind, chasing a very different sound. It’s worked well for her, but she’s no longer reaching core R&B fans — she hasn’t had a major record on R&B radio since 2015. RCA appears to be pursuing a similar path with Khalid: His second single, “Young Dumb & Broke,” produced by former Lorde collaborator Joel Little, did better at pop radio than it did on R&B/Hip-Hop radio. In fact, since “Location,” which climbed through the R&B/Hip-Hop airwaves and made him a breakout star, Khalid has had three pop hits but not one R&B hit.

Boutiques and indies can take a different approach than the majors. “You have a guy with a lot of money behind [the label] who’s a poppin’ artist already,” Rigo explains, “So there’s leverage for them to be able to say, ‘create the music you want to create.'” There is also increased willingness to take risks, because nothing is at stake: As long as Drake is around, OVO Sound’s success will never rest on DVSN’s shoulders, and SZA bears none of the responsibility for the fate of TDE — that burden lies entirely with Kendrick Lamar. Daniel Caesar’s music sounds out of place on radio — Apple Music’s Carl Cherry admitted as much in a recent interview — but Apple has such deep pockets that choosing to support Caesar’s work anyway, in the hope that one day he’ll be a radio regular, is easy to do. Major labels, in contrast, are only just starting to become profitable again after years of losing money, and their willingness to take risks even at their peak of profitability was never guaranteed.

In addition, the boutique or indie situation allows for patience: Caesar waited three years to produce an official debut album after releasing his first EP in 2014; Kelela waited four years. It also took SZA that long, which appeared to make her unhappy at times: After several possible release dates passed in 2016, the singer declared that she “quit TDE” in a since-deleted Tweet. (More recently, though, she thanked the label for “taking her hard-drive” and effectively forcing her to turn in her CTRL.) Record labels used to routinely spend time like this on singers; now A&Rs and producers refer wistfully to the days when “development” was a priority. For Caesar and SZA, the results of that time were hard to deny.

In some ways, the increasing value of boutique labels for R&B singers represents a return to the genre’s roots. Seminal R&B labels like Motown, Stax, Curtom (Curtis Mayfield’s label) and King Records (where James Brown started out) began as feisty indies with a vision and an ear for talent. This once again seems like the path towards success in the genre.

If this route to commercial breakthrough for R&B acts suggests a return to the genre’s origins, the sound has veered in a different direction. The imperative for almost all R&B singers now is to sing like a rapper, use rap beats to convey their message, or establish credentials as a rapper before breaking off as a singer.

It’s notable that SZA’s CTRL features few writers or producers with any R&B credentials. The record was mostly produced by Scum, who connected with TDE through his work with the rapper Isiah Rashad, and Carter Lang, who came up in the Chicago hip-hop scene. The album came out on a label known for rap, and its first successful single, “Love Galore,” savvily acknowledged the ways in which hip-hop runs the world. The first voice on “Love Galore” belongs to a rapper, Travis Scott. When SZA enters, she sprinkles melodic lines around syncopated raps that notch snugly into the beat. “The way she sings, she could be a rapper,” says J-Roc, a producer for Beyonce and Justin Timberlake, before admiringly reeling off some of her lines.

This sort of delivery is increasingly ubiquitous. “The top line in R&B has changed a lot over the last five years: much more of a flow cadence — less notes, less impressive melodies, shorter chord progressions,” says Robin Hannibal, who has produced and written songs for Yuna and DVSN. “The construction is different; it has more of a freestyle feel to it. There’s a lot of sections that are looped twice, and then the song’s over.”

Priscilla Renea, who has written songs for Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, and Rihanna, agrees. “R&B today has to be, don’t have too many chord changes, don’t have too many [vocal] runs,” she explains. “There used to be a singer subculture,” adds Rigo. “You would listen not just because of the hit songs — you were waiting for that one ad-lib in the third chorus! It’s almost a little icky for people to hear that sweet singing now. So you have to find different ways to present your style.”

And when “different” means camouflage your style as hip-hop, it’s not surprising that few female singers have been able to join the five-hit club, because the music industry has consistently failed to support female rappers. “When the singer faded out, it hurt the female artist way more,” the R&B singer Tank says. “They couldn’t change their clothes and pretend to be rappers.” Male MCs are ubiquitous, so it’s easy for hip-hop-inflected male R&B singers to maintain a presence — Chris Brown, Jeremih, the Weeknd.

In a world where labels refuse to imagine a successful female rapper, they’ve had almost exactly as much trouble imagining a female hip-hop-inflected R&B singer. It’s not a coincidence that the same year Cardi B became the first female rapper in history to score hits with her first three singles, SZA became the most successful new female singer on R&B/hip-hop radio in the last decade.

Is SZA’s success an inflection point or an outlier? Can more R&B acts, especially women, follow her path?

Felder believes that R&B’s recent tightrope-walk has helped its rejuvenation. “Any form of music starts at its simplest, gets steadily more complex, gets to its peak of complexity — where people are doing music only for the other musicians–– and if a style of music is lucky, it resets,” he suggests. “Some genres got to this level of complexity and they never came back from it, like jazz, where it’s not pop culture anymore.” In his view, the domination of hip-hop forced R&B to return “to the simplicity of someone getting on the microphone and just spilling their soul without worrying about, ‘did you see how many keys he went through when he was doing that run?'”

This dovetails with the way Scum describes the production approach on CTRL. “Even if we loved a sound, a vocal layer or how much reverb was on the demo, we were dialing everything back so it was in your face,” he explains. “On Z [SZA’s previous mixtape], it was more effects driven. An ethereal playlist — there’s bits of her showing who she was but you had to dig for it. On CTRL, it’s transparent.”

Oak thinks that transparent quality is a large part of why “there is a broader percentage of R&B music penetrating to a wider audience now than there was in 2008.” And singers almost unanimously suggest that streaming will help that percentage stay up. “We don’t even have to be on the radio now to have successful tours or connect with a lot of people,” says Xavier Omar, who initially made an internet splash releasing music through the music collective Soulection before striking out on his own and landing in Spotify’s top R&B playlist, Are & Be, as an independent act. “Regardless of labels or radio, R&B has found a way to be prominent again.”

Shanachie’s Grass thinks, almost paradoxically, that the uber-modern streaming world heterogeneity that defined the early days of pop music, will help R&B in the process. “When I was a kid, 15 years old, the top 5 might be a song by The Beatles, Louis Armstrong, The Supremes, and a Johnny Cash record,” he explains. “There was a wide range. By the time you get to the ’80s and ’90s, the formats narrowed the range of what you hear. By the 2000s, those stations would play like ten records to a serious degree. In the last five years, people’s ears are getting wide again. That gives these types of artists an avenue.”

Still, R&B is struggling to find a clear lane. Nielsen Music counted hip-hop and R&B as a single genre when the company declared that rock was no longer the most consumed music in the US; as a result, it’s not clear how R&B is doing on its own. In addition, the boutique model for supporting R&B likely has limits, since there are only a small handful of stars with the interest, resources, and savvy ears to set up successful organizations. And ironically, they’re mostly set up by rappers or rap-focused — TDE, OVO — so dabbling in R&B is often more of side-project than a full-time commitment. Finally, the boutique situation is not a sure thing for an R&B singer: Teyana Taylor (G.O.O.D. Music) and Jhene Aiko (Artium) have also failed to match their early success.

On top of that, gender imbalance in the genre remains steep. Just one out of five leading artists on the latest mainstream R&B/hip-hop airplay chart is a female act. SZA could be a sign that tides are shifting. Or labels could return to business as usual — old habits die hard.

Yuna remains cautiously optimistic. “R&B could be a lot bigger than it is right now,” she says. “But the world is starting to embrace it the way it did before.”