R&B music is one of the most popular genres today. Even folks unfamiliar with its history will still recognize the top R&B names today, such as Beyonce, Bruno Mars, or Alicia Keys.
R&B began as an expressive musical style in the urban Black communities across America in the 1940s. From there, it evolved to become a prominent American art form. So what is R&B music?
R&B music is also known as rhythm and blues or, occasionally, R'n'B. R&B is a conglomerate of several early 20th-century Black American music art forms. R&B first evolved in post-World War II Black communities and contained elements of soul, gospel, jazz, and of course, the blues.
R&B began with the soulful croonings of Sam Cooke, Etta James, and others and continues to The Weekend and Chris Brown.
Today, the genre is referred to as Contemporary R&B. This term differentiates modern R&B pop, funk, and rap fusions from the earlier, more soulful and spiritual sounds of R&B.
“Classic,” or original R&B, is usually considered to have died out somewhere in the 1970s disco era and before the mid-80s rise in rap and hip-hop. From there, classic R&B sounds blended with the modern scene and continue to be one of the most popular types of music.
R&B has become so interwoven with other music types that its unique characteristics can be hard to tease out. But the best R&B music definition is essentially its use of rhythm and blues—hence the name. Throughout its history, soulful singing and a strong backbeat have set R&B apart as an art form.
R&B musical arrangements are typically separated into a rhythm section and a horn section, although there is a lot of variation. In the early days, R&B music usually featured a piano and guitar(s) as well. Background vocalists were a frequent addition.
Contemporary R&B uses many of these older elements, but today it’s more common to hear a keyboard rather than a piano and synthesizers rather than horns. Throughout the decades, though, R&B has held on to its soulful singing style against a strong bassline or backbeat.
R&B’s influences and styles have given birth to many new genres over the years. Soul, rock’n’roll, ska, funk, disco, and more are all offshoots of R&B. It’s safe to say that this art form has completely changed the face of music in the United States and the world.
Just as important in defining the sounds of R&B is categorizing its lyrics. When R&B first began to develop within Black communities, many song lyrics focused on the struggle for freedom and the hope for change. Contemporary R&B has shifted a bit to include classic love songs, although traditional themes are still part of the genre.
R&B songs create momentum through repetitive yet rhythmic interlinking parts. As a whole, R&B songs are often mellow pieces with the singer very emotionally involved in the lyrics. Despite the emotional involvement, singers often come off as cool, calm, and collected.
R&B arrangements typically don’t call attention to any particular section of part of the song. Instead, all elements blend to create what some consider a hypnotic sound.
As with any type of music, the best way to learn and appreciate R&B is to listen to it. There’s so much to choose from that it can be hard to narrow down, but this should give curious listeners a good idea of how R&B has evolved through the ages.
Here are seven of the most famous and/or influential R&B songs of the last 70+ years.
Artist: Ray Charles
Year Released: 1954
This song became Ray Charles’s first hit and topped the R&B charts in January 1955. “I Got A Woman” is a great example of the early days of R&B.
Ray was originally inspired by a gospel tune he heard on the radio, and he and his band mixed the starter song with jazz-type rhythms. The prominent horn arrangement and the soulful lyrics combine to create a signature R&B sound.
Artists such as Elvis and The Beatles have since released covers of “I Got A Woman.” This is an example of R&B’s influences on the world of rock’n’roll.
Artist: Ben E. King
Year Released: 1961
“Stand By Me” is another example of an R&B song stemming from an old gospel tune. In this case, Ben E. King’s inspiration was the spiritual hymn “Stand By Me Father” by Sam Cooke. “Stand By Me” became a number one hit on the Billboard “Hot R&B Singles” chart.
“Stand By Me” has become both an incredibly popular and iconic song in American culture. Since its initial release, over 400 versions of the song have been recorded.
Interestingly, Ben E. King didn’t originally intend on singing the song himself. He wrote it and then offered it to The Drifters, who did not take him up on the offer.
Artist: Marvin Gaye
Year Released: 1971
“What’s Going On” shows R&B’s sometimes politically-charged calls to action. Marvin Gaye sings about police brutality and generally mourns social justice miscarriages. The song was inspired by police brutality witnessed in an anti-war protest in Berkeley, California.
“What’s Going On” became a number one hit on the Hot Soul Singles chart as well as the number two hit on the Billboard Hot 100 list. Marvin’s lyrics and song arrangement in this work is a good example of R&B’s crossover into soul and pop music.
Artist: Earth, Wind, and Fire
Year Released: 1978
“September” samples R&B’s inroads and crossovers into disco and funk and has a great chord progression. This is an example of how R&B bridged the gap between classic and contemporary styles. “September” was a number one hit on Billboard’s Hot R&B Songs chart, and also a number eight hit on the Hot 100.
Year Released: 1984
While many don’t consider “When Doves Cry” to be a strictly R&B love song, it’s hard to discount Prince’s iconic influence on R&B and American music at large. Prince reportedly wrote the original song in one day and played all the instruments as well as sang the lyrics in this popular tune. The lyrics also reflect some of R&B’s themes, mourning unresolved conflict in relationships.
Upon its release, “When Doves Cry” became Prince’s first number one hit on the Hot 100, staying at the top for five consecutive weeks.
Artist: Whitney Houston
Year Released: 1992
It’s hard to think of a more iconic song of the ‘90s, or indeed of Whitney Houston’s career, than “I Will Always Love You.” Originally recorded by Dolly Parton, Whitney’s version stayed at the number one spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 for 14 weeks—a record at the time. It was also a big international hit, topping the European charts.
Whitney’s gospel background and soul and pop fusions are easy to hear, making this song a hallmark of the Contemporary R&B genre.
Year Released: 2003
Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love” is one of the more well-known examples of modern Contemporary R&B. This chart-topping hit fuses pop, hip-hop, funk, and soul.
Jay-Z’s rap verses are an example of how R&B has made room for the more recent musical expressions of Black art forms. “Crazy In Love” became a number one hit on multiple charts, including Billboard’s Hot 100 and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop song charts. Like Whitney’s “I Will Always Love You,” the song went on to become an international hit
When it comes to R&B musicians that have made their mark, it’s tough to narrow down the list. And although many an R&B artist has become hugely influential and an iconic contributor to the genre. Here are five artists that tune the span of both classic and Contemporary R&B.
Born in a small town in South Carolina during the Great Depression, James Brown started singing in his church choir. James Brown’s musical career took off when he joined the group the Famous Flames. His first R&B hit, “Please, Please, Please,” reached number six on the R&B charts.
James Brown’s influences into the rock’n’roll, soul, and funk scene can be seen in such songs as “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Get Up Offa That Thing,” and “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag.” Later on in his career Brown also became an outspoken Civil Rights activist, penning pieces such as “Say It Loud: I'm Black and I'm Proud.”
There might be no other artist out there more deserving of a spot on an R&B list than the Queen of Soul herself. Aretha’s most famous song, “Respect,” is widely regarded as one of the most influential songs of the 20th century. The song also took the number one spot on Rolling Stone magazine’s Best Songs of All Time.
“Respect” was not only influential in the R&B world but the social sphere as well. The song’s demand for respect and equality was a call for Black civil rights as well as a feminist call to action.
Aretha is also well-loved for songs such as “Think,” “Rock Steady,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and “I Say A Little Prayer.”
Stevie Wonder has always crossed over into many genres, but it would be hard to make an R&B list without him. Showing incredible talent from the beginning, Stevie Wonder signed a record deal with Motown when he was only 12 years ago. “Fingertips, Pt. 2” was released in 1962 and became Stevie Wonder’s first number one hit on both the R&B as well as pop music charts.
From there, the child genius grew and went on to have a wildly successful career with songs such as “Superstition,” “Isn’t She Lovely,” “Higher Ground,” and “Ebony and Ivory.”
Stevie Wonder’s career has been so prolific and spanned so many musical eras that it can be hard to pin down his top works. One thing’s for sure—R&B wouldn’t be the same without him.
Some might be wondering why “The King of Pop” made an R&B list, but Michael Jackson’s vast body of work includes many important R&B pieces. It’s hard to imagine or mitigate the effect Michael Jackson has had on the R&B scene and the American music scene as a whole.
Similar to Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson’s career was incredibly long-lived and prolific. He began singing with the Jackson 5, itself a powerhouse of R&B hits, on the Motown label and from there went on to launch an incredible solo career.
Songs such as “Rock With You” encapsulate the blend of disco, funk, and R&B that helped to bridge the gap between classic and Contemporary R&B. Michael Jackson had too many hits to mention here, but such notables as “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” and “Man In The Mirror” were all R&B/pop hybrids.
It would be difficult to talk about Contemporary R&B without mentioning the 90’s R&B icons Boyz II Men.
The quartet came to prominence in the 1990s after signing on with Motown, and they’ve been enormously popular ever since. “Motownphilly” put Boyz II Men on the R&B map and “End of the Road” became their first number-one single in 1992. The song became a chart-topper not just in the United States but worldwide, staying at the top for 13 consecutive weeks.
The group is also known for hits such as “I'll Make Love to You” and “One Sweet Day” with Mariah Carey, herself a queen of Contemporary R&B.
Just as picking out the big names in R&B is difficult, it’s also tough to sum up the genre’s history in a nutshell. R&B is somewhat unique in that both classic and contemporary styles have always encompassed and yet made room for other evolving music styles.
The term “rhythm and blues” was first coined by music journalist Jerry Wexler. It was used to describe the new sounds emerging from the post-World War II Black communities across America, the songs that weren’t quite blues and too secular to be gospel.
This creative outpouring mostly began in the Black communities of large cities and urban centers in the Midwest and Northeast. The history of R&B is closely tied to the progress of the Great Migration.
The Great Migration refers to a roughly 50-year period beginning in the 1910s when large segments of the Black population began to leave the Jim Crow-dominated South. Relocating to what at the time were the nation’s largest urban centers such as New York City, Chicago, Detroit, and the like, people brought their culture, styles, and music with them.
In the 1940s, “rhythm and blues” became sort of a catch-all term used to refer to secular Black music, replacing the then-used “race music” nomenclature. In some ways, R&B has never moved beyond being a catch-all term. From the beginning, R&B artists frequently crossed over and mixed in other styles of music into their craft, not limiting themselves to any one form of expression.
And perhaps because of this crossover tendency, R&B has evolved many offshoots over the decades, most notably with the rise of soul in the 1960s. R&B and soul were almost synonymous for some time, but by the 1970s soul music’s popularity had started to wane and given way to disco.
And yet in many ways the R&B genre carried on through this period. Artists continued to incorporate R&B elements into disco and funk. Even though the genre’s close association with soul may have caused a pause, R&B made a strong comeback with the rise of hip-hop and rap in the mid-1980s.
The trend continued on, and today most R&B artists are hip-hop, rap, and pop crossovers. In fact, Billboard still combines the two genres on its top music charts.
Rhythm and blues was at first Black music marketed to Black people, but its soulful lyrics and catchy beats soon broke the color barrier and spread into the rest of America. Labels such as Motown and Atlantic Records (founded by Wexler) helped to popularize the genre.
As a Black art form, much of early R&B music carried messages of social injustice and the struggle for freedom. And although it has changed massively over the years, R&B continues to be an incredibly popular genre in the national taste.
Now known as Contemporary R&B, many of the same elements of classical R&B can be heard in modern arrangements. Today, R&B is often fused with rap, hip-hop, electronic dance music, rock, and country. Individual songs and artists such as Drake, Rihanna, and Post Malone regularly cross over between R&B and other music types. Many artists usually classified as “pop,” such as Beyonce, can also be put in the R&B category.
R&B is arguably one of the most diverse art forms out there. Beginning in post-war Black communities and exploding into the mainstream, R&B has always been a favorite flavor of America.
R&B has unquestionably influenced the national music scene for the better. R&B has given birth to almost as many genres as it originally wove together. And the rest, as they say, is history.