"There are three amazing nominees for soul/R&B album tonight: one, a white kid from the Mickey Mouse Club, another the son of the dad from 'Growing Pains' and a strong soulful Caribbean woman of colour," said Sarah Silverman when presenting at the recent American Music Awards. "I don't know who will win, but I do know who should find this most ironic if she loses."
Justin Timberlake ended up winning. But we probably shouldn't be surprised anymore. It's been a peculiar year for commercial R&B music. Check a lot of "best of" lists for this year and you'll find a lot of interesting artists who are categorized as R&B in the mainstream eye. Call it the "gentrification of R&B" -- it's a broadening genre that is seeing a variety of pure-play, indie and hybrid approaches to the music. Blurred lines, indeed.
The issue of white artists liberally "borrowing" elements of traditionally black musical genres such as jazz, hip-hop or R&B is a story that's been told time and time again over the decades. For every Elvis, there was a Bo Diddley; for the Rolling Stones, there's Muddy Waters; Eminem, there's Biggie. And of course, this year it's about hailing a Justin Timberlake, a Robin Thicke, and even a Mayer Hawthorne at the top of the genre in the post-millennium.
It's a sensitive issue: while you don't want to bring up the dreaded "race card," it's hard to ignore the fact that an artist like Justin Timberlake is doing the same shtick as black artists but has a much easier time ascending the mainstream charts.
Looking at the top R&B and soul records of 2013, to say that it's cross-culturally diverse would be an understatement. But let's look at things from a critical lens. The record biz, despite being on an upswing, is still hurting. Limited budget, limited resources mean that every record has to be a hit. Taking chances often isn't an option; it's about hitting that critical mass and you're more likely to appeal to the mainstream (read: dominant Western culture) on a broader scale by backing blue-eyed soul singers such as Timberlake or Thicke over an artist of colour. So it's about one colour: green. But to say that race doesn't factor into the entire proceeding on some level is kidding ourselves.
Take, for example, Janelle Monae. Had a good year, but didn't make the dent into the commercial consciousness as we might have hoped. Would she have had a monster year if she was white? It's a bit facile to speculate but it often comes down to self-identification. Why would the mainstream need a Janet Jackson when it has a Britney Spears? Why would the mainstream need a Miguel when they have Timberlake?
And that's taking nothing away from Timberlake's talent: he's damn good. And he's just making music based on the R&B influences he grew up with. And the industry, seeing how Timberlake represents such a lucrative demographic, is all too willing to back that particular horse.
That said, it was a good, not great year for traditional R&B music. Honourable mentions go to artists like Kelela, Ciara, Fantasia, and even Brian McKnight who all created decent albums in 2013. But the definitive "Best of 2013" list is incredibly diverse with artists of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, all creating what they consider to be soul music.
Still. the irony Silverman astutely noted provides something to think about as you check out our best R&B albums of 2013 list (which, by the way, both Timberlake and Thicke are on, alongside Hawthorne and newcomer Rhye).