Black Music Renaissance is Happening Now – But Without the Women

Earlier this year, in fact in my very first article, I lamented about how black musicians were experiencing a lull in popularity – particularly on the Billboard charts.  That article was prompted by the fact that black artists were absent from the top ten of the Hot 100 for the first time in 27 years – or nearly 1400 consecutive weekly charts.

My how the times have changed…and in just six months!

Since I prematurely delivered black music’s eulogy with that inaugural djrobblog article, there have been eight albums by mainly black acts that have reached number one on the Billboard 200 album chart (all in the hip-hop genre).  That’s more than there’s been through the first seven months of any year in recent history.  (See my list of all the rap albums that have reached number one on the main chart by clicking here.)

Also, the entire top six on this week’s Hot 100 singles chart are either led by or feature black singers or rappers (including this week’s new number one artist, the reggae singer OMI).  Fourteen of the top 20 (including three by Canadian crooner The Weeknd) and 28 of the top 50 songs include black artists.

In all, there are 44 songs on the entire Hot 100 that are either by or feature at least one black singer or rapper.  I’m not going to do the research since that would be a Herculean task, but that number may very well be a chart record – at least during this decade when blue-eyed pop and EDM ruled the charts just a few years ago.

You’d think with all of this recent success and an apparent renaissance in black music popularity, that black women would be benefitting from some of it, right?  After all, during the 1980s and ’90s and into the early aughts, as black music surged in sales during the post-Thriller era, R&B women had a chart presence like never before.

In the four-year period between 1986 and 1989, for instance, eight albums by black women, including Sade, Whitney Houston (twice), Janet Jackson (also twice), Patti LaBelle, Tracy Chapman and Anita Baker, reached number one (compared to zero during the entire first six years of that decade).  In the many years since, through 2013, several more black women have enjoyed #1 albums, including Mariah Carey, Natalie Cole, Toni Braxton, Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, India Arie, Jill Scott, Aaliyah, Eve, Foxy Brown, TLC, Lauryn Hill, Destiny’s Child, Ashanti, Chrisette Michele, Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé – just to name a few.  Many of those artists had singles that regularly topped the Hot 100 and R&B charts as well.

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Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money,” which she performed at the recent Billboard Music Awards show, is one of only four songs by black women (in lead roles) on this week’s Hot 100.

However, this recent resurgence of black music on the all-encompassing Hot 100 singles chart is almost glaring in its omission of black women from its ranks.

Of the 44 songs by or featuring black artists, only seven of them include female singers/rappers.  And four of those seven are by the same woman: rapper Nicki Minaj.  The other three are split one each between Rihanna (“B***h Better Have My Money” at #22), Janelle Monae (“Yoga” at #82) and chart newcomer AlunaGeorge (“You Know You Like It” at #25).  [AlunaGeorge is a British electronic duo featuring black singer Aluna Francis].

Other mixed-race artists on the chart include singer Jhene Aiko, who is featured on Omarion’s “Post to Be,” and is of Japanese, Spanish, German, French, Native-American and African-American descent.  Natalie La Rose is a part-black Dutch singer (with South-African ancestry) at #49 with her recent top-ten hit, “Somebody,” featuring Jeremih.

And, of those seven songs (or nine – depending upon whether you include Aiko and La Rose), only four of them have black women in the lead (non-featured) role: Rihanna’s “B***h Betta…,” the AlunaGeorge song, Minaj’s “The Night Is Still Young” and Monae’s “Yoga,” with none of those being ranked higher than #22.

To further bring this point home, Rihanna’s former boyfriend Chris Brown and rapper Meek Mill (who is No. 1 on this week’s album chart), have five hits each on the Hot 100, including one on which they both collaborate with Nicki Minaj.  Thus these two men have more songs on the chart this week than all the women combined.

Rapper Meek Mill and R&B singer Chris Brown have more songs (9) on the Hot 100 this week than all the women combined (7).
Rapper Meek Mill, left, and R&B singer Chris Brown have more songs (9) on the Hot 100 this week than all the women combined (7).

So why are black women having such a hard time reclaiming some of the chart glory they experienced for the better part of two decades – especially during a period when black musicians occupy nearly half the songs on the Hot 100?

And are there any sisters on the verge of breaking through this proverbial glass ceiling?

To find the answers, I did a bit of research on other charts to see which female artists are getting radio love in other formats, like R&B/Hip-Hop or Adult R&B.  This yielded the following names of black women who are not currently ranked on the Billboard Hot 100, but are charting elsewhere: Jill Scott, Janet Jackson (yeah, I know it’s hard to believe…click here to see why she’s not), Tamar Braxton, Jazmine Sullivan, Vivian Green, Monica, K. Michelle, Leela James, Deborah Cox, AverySunshine, Tinashe and Tamia.

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Janet’s “No Sleeep” single fell off the Hot 100 after just one week at #67. But it’s still getting love at Adult R&B radio, where it ranks No. 6 in its third week on that chart.

Other R&B females who are not charting are between albums now, including Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, Ledisi and Chrisette Michele.

All four of those women have released projects for the better part of the entire millennium to date, but they are practically on opposite ends of the chart spectrum, with Keys and Beyoncé having had 13 Hot 100 Number Ones between them, while Ledisi has yet to even reach the Hot 100 and has only ranked as high as #19 on the R&B singles chart (although she’s had four top tens on the Adult R&B songs chart).  Chrisette Michele has reached the Hot 100 three times, but two of those were as a guest artist on male rappers’ hits and the third, her own “Epiphany,” never got higher than #89.  Both Beyoncé and Ledisi are rumored to be working on new material to be released later this year or early 2016.

So, aside from Beyoncé and Keys – who stand a better chance than most to return to the charts with their next releases, what’s preventing the other women from getting in on the recent gold rush?

There are likely many reasons, not the least of which is marketability.  Most of these women record in a traditional R&B style, with songs that could easily pass as soul music had they been recorded in the 1970s.  In fact, some of it’s been assigned the moniker “neo-soul” for nearly two decades now.  It’s not dance-oriented pop or crossover material and it doesn’t pretend to be.

That’s not a bad thing, in fact it’s good that at least somebody’s making music that still caters to the core R&B audience – particularly that older part of the audience who doesn’t want to hear the “N” and “B” words or an F-bomb being dropped in every other line.  However, neo-soul music is not a genre that’s been viewed as marketable to mainstream audiences, instead it is mostly targeted to the niche adult-leaning R&B market, and that market isn’t buying or streaming music at the rate its pop-leaning counterparts are.

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Chrisette Michele’s Epiphany reached #1 on the Billboard 200 six years ago, but she’s been shown no such love on the Hot 100 singles chart.

Another reason these artists aren’t being sustained may be a lack of vision by the labels to which the women are signed.  Singer Chrisette Michele was able to achieve a #1 album with Epiphany over six years ago.  That was due in some part to her linkage to more popular rappers (Jay Z and later Rick Ross) who featured her on their albums, thereby exposing her to a larger audience.

It’s not clear, however, that there was a long-term label strategy involving Michele, whose subsequent albums all sold less than their predecessors.  She has since left her previous label (Motown) to form her own.

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Jill Scott reportedly has a new album coming out next Friday, July 24, 2015. Will it return her to the top of the charts?

Another example of that would be Jill Scott, perhaps one of the premier neo-soul artists of the past 15 years.  Her début album (Who Is Jill Scott? – Words and Sounds Vol. 1) went platinum and was highly critically acclaimed in 2001.  Her subsequent albums have done respectably well, with her fourth, 2009’s The Light of the Sun, reaching #1.

But her début album still represents her most memorable work as far as singles go, with “A Long Walk” ranking as her only Top-50 song on the Hot 100 (#43).  “Gettin’ In the Way,” “The Way” and “He Loves Me” all charted in the top half of the R&B chart as well.

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“All the Way Home” was one of three respectable hits from Tamar’s 2013 album, Love and War.

In the case of more recently charting R&B artists Tamar Braxton and K. Michelle, they each took the reality TV route to achieve their current success (although both had been in the music biz for a considerable amount of time before their recent television stardom).

As a result of the TV exposure, or maybe in spite of it, both artists have released albums during the past three years that topped the R&B charts and just missed #1 on the Billboard 200 (each reaching #2).

But their music – at least in my opinion – isn’t anything that would win over the haters doubters who feel that their success has been mostly manufactured.  Sure they each have talents, and Braxton has had a few notable songs (2013’s “Love and War” and “All The Way Home” come to mind), but when you get right down to it, I wouldn’t expect those tracks or her others to be on most playlists some five to ten years from now.

However, the main reasons these women can’t get any mainstream love just may be the most apparent ones:  issues with sex and race in the music industry still prevail even in 2015.

Unfortunately, today’s pop music industry (including mainstream R&B), particularly where it concerns black musicians, is content to typecast many of its artists into the roles of sex-peddling, thug-wannabes who flaunt cars and street prowess – roles that many women can’t comfortably fit into.  This industry is still run by men and mostly white ones.  When it comes to openly expressing one’s sexuality, an artist has to look like Beyoncé or Minaj for it to be considered acceptable.

Black men can openly brag in their songs about money, cars and late-night trysts with multiple sex partners, and consumers will eat it up.  Women for the most part can’t do that, except for the occasionally explicit description of what it takes to satisfy her in the bedroom or what a man better be bringing to the table when he steps to her.

Men can refer to someone as a “stupid-ass b*tch” or a “dumb-ass trick” in a song and watch it race to #1 (see Big Sean, “I Don’t Fuck With You,” R&B charts, 2015).   Even superstar women, like Rihanna and Minaj, the two current highest-ranking black women on the Hot 100, have to respond in kind, even incorporating the “B” word in the song’s title in Rihanna’s case, or risk not getting played as much.

Those antics were not a required part of music – nor were they even acceptable – when Sade, Whitney, Mariah, Anita and so many other women were in their heydays fifteen or more years ago.  Back then, it was enough to have good vocal abilities or good music (or both) to get such musicians to the top of the charts.

Unless some of the contemporary black singers are willing to compromise themselves and their values to record the kind of music Rihanna, Minaj and, to some degree, Beyoncé does, they’ll likely continue to dwell somewhere other than the Hot 100 or the top of the Billboard 200.

And quite frankly, that probably suits them just fine.

And the Black Music Renaissance continues…

DJRob

P.S. To hear a special DJRob playlist of the latest songs by some of the R&B women I’ve discussed, click here.

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Singer K. Michelle has parlayed her appearance on VH-1’s Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta into a moderately successful chart career.
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