The End of an Era for Black Music

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Earlier this month, the Canadian alternative R&B artist known as The Weeknd (given name: Abel Tesfaye) ended an era started by the late Michael Jackson nearly 27 years ago!

Here’s the story:

The top ten songs in America for the week ending January 17, 2015, according to BIllboard magazine – the nation’s authority on such things – were:

  1. “Uptown Funk!” – Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars
  2. “Blank Space” – Taylor Swift
  3. “Take Me To Church” – Hozier
  4. “Thinking Out Loud” – Ed Sheeran
  5. “Lips Are Movin’ – Meghan Trainor
  6. “All About That Base” – Meghan Trainor
  7. “Shake It Off” – Taylor Swift
  8. “I’m Not The Only One” – Sam Smith
  9. “Jealous” – Nick Jonas
  10. “Animals” – Maroon 5

Notice anything unusual?  Well, if you’re under 27 years old there’s something about this top ten that hasn’t happened in your lifetime.  In fact, you’d have to scroll the calendar back to Feb 27, 1988, to find the last top ten list that looked like this one.  That was when the top songs in the USA were:

  1. “Father Figure” – George Michael
  2. “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” – Pet Shop Boys & Dusty Springfield
  3. “She’s Like The Wind” – Patrick Swayze (featuring Wendy Fraser)
  4. “Never Gonna Give You Up” – Rick Astley
  5. “Hungry Eyes” – Eric Carmen
  6. “Seasons Change” – Expose
  7. “Say You Will” – Foreigner
  8. “I Get Weak” – Belinda Carlisle
  9. “Don’t Shed A Tear” – Paul Carrack
  10. “Can’t Stay Away From You” – Gloria Estefan & Miami Sound Machine

Figured it out yet?

After that week in ’88, Michael Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror” moved into the top ten and unwittingly began a historic streak of nearly 1400 consecutive weekly charts (that’s just under 27 years!) in which at least one black artist was listed in the pop top ten – a streak that ended just this month when the song “Love Me Harder,” a duet by Ariana Grande & The Weeknd, fell from #7 to #11, where it sat for two weeks before returning to the top ten last week.  The Weeknd, who is black, was the bookend to an incredible run of nearly 27 years from March 5, 1988 – January 3, 2015, when black artists had an uninterrupted presence in that elite chart territory.  Incidentally, the last black solo act to rank in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100 was Bobby Shmurda, whose “Hot Nigga” (a/k/a “Hot Boy”) was there in November.  (And folks, despite his liberal use of black musical stylings, Bruno Mars is not African-American.)

To put this in perspective, the last time black artists were completely absent from the pop top ten, Ronald Reagan was president.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average was struggling to get back to 2000 points after the big stock market crash of a few months earlier (now it’s hovering at 18,000), and the Internet was still years away from coming to existence.

So why is this musical milestone significant?  Well it’s not…not if you don’t place it in the context of what’s been happening in race relations in recent months, or if you’re not a music fan that happens to have a bone of social consciousness inside you.  If you haven’t noticed, for the past two-and-a-half decades, black music and black culture in general have been adopted by mainstream America in unprecedented numbers.  Black music and culture in general have been accepted in society even when black people have not been.  This dubious level of commercial success for black entertainment hasn’t always been the case, however, and especially not for this long.

The rest of this article takes a long look back at the past 27-year streak of black music success on the pop charts and assesses the current state of affairs with R&B/hip-hop and where it might be headed.

Historical Perspective –  Coming Up From The Lean Years

Before the recently ended 27-year top ten streak began in March 1988, there were several times during the preceding years where black artists were completely absent from the chart’s upper tier…and for long periods of time.  In perhaps the most glaring example, during the post-disco and pre-“Thriller” years of 1981 and 1982, there was one such stretch from July – November 1982, when there were no black artists in the Hot 100’s top ten for 12 out of 13 weekly charts.  The one exception was a lone week in September 1982 when Donna Summer, whose heyday had passed two years earlier, snuck in at number ten with “Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger).”  She promptly nose-dived from #10 to #59 the following week, and a black artist would not reappear until that November when Lionel Richie’s “Truly” entered the top ten and eventually reached Number One.  That was quickly followed by the singles from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album, and black artists began a mini-streak of top-ten weeks that wouldn’t end until October 1983 when his “Human Nature” exited the region. That 11-month presence became the longest continuous representation of blacks in the pop top ten since the 26-month period between April 1978 and June 1980, which itself, not coincidentally, included the height and crash of the disco era.

But even those small winning streaks for black music pale by comparison to the one that just ended two weeks ago.  And this most recent era of success stands out not only because of its amazing duration, but because of the unprecedented diversity of artists who contributed to it.

For instance, everyone knows about the Michaels, Whitneys, Mariahs, and Janets of the world.  And who can forget the more recent contributions by superstars like Usher, Beyoncé, Alicia Keys and Rihanna?  You’d only have to dig a little deeper to find success stories by Anita Baker, Bobby Brown, Jody Watley, or one-album wonder Mishel-lé.  There were many black one-hit wonders like songstress Desiree (“You Gotta Be”) or former Arrested Development member Dionne Farris (“I Know”) or even self-proclaimed freakster, Adina Howard (“Freak Like Me”) and the countless others that number too many to mention here.

Black Music Popularity Explodes and Females Dominate!

Before 1988, one could safely argue that the only bonafide black female solo superstars on America’s pop music charts had been Diana Ross, Donna Summer and the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.  Yes, others like Chaka Khan, Patti LaBelle and Deniece Williams had enjoyed major R&B success, but their pop audiences were limited.  And sure, Janet and Whitney had begun their crossover assaults on the charts by the mid-1980s, but it wasn’t until their second major album successes that they could truly be listed among the elite in terms of repeated chart success.  By the time the recently-ended 27-year top-ten streak had begun in ’88, those two (Jackson and Houston) had opened the floodgates for the many solo women that would follow.  Toni Braxton, Karyn White, Sade and Anita Baker all had respectable chart success with Number One singles or albums on the pop lists.

One-named teen female singers like Brandy, Monica and the late Aaliyah also became mainstays on both the pop and R&B charts between 1994 and 2004.

And, as if those successes weren’t enough, five powerful black women have collectively dominated the charts for the past nearly 30 years.  From the beginning of the streak in March 1988 to the end of it this month, Whitney, Janet, Mariah, Beyoncé, and Rihanna accounted for 49 Number One singles between them!  That number increases to 56 if you include Janet’s and Whitney’s Number Ones on the Hot 100 between 1985 and March ’88.  And that number excludes the four that Beyoncé had with her group, Destiny’s Child.  Needless to say, black solo women have had a huge impact in music during the past nearly-30 years and were a big part of the top-ten streak that just ended.

Singing Groups Actually Still Existed

Speaking of Destiny’s Child, there were many other black girl-groups that rose to prominence during this era, like En Vogue, Salt-N-Pepa, TLC, SWV, and less-remembered acts like Xscape, Blaque, 702 or Total – all of whom reached the pop top ten.  Never before had so many groups of African-American women sold more records and enjoyed the collective success that these groups did in such a short period of time…not even during The Supremes, The Vandellas, and The Marvalettes’ days of the 1960s.  Yes, the Supremes had twelve Number One pop hits from 1964-1969, but that happened during a period when record sales were a fraction of what they became in the 1990s, and the Supremes were generally the only black female group enjoying that level of success back then.

And I can’t leave out their male counterparts.  Carrying on the tradition begun by groups like the Temptations, Four Tops, Spinners, and Commodores in the 1960s/’70s were ’90s male groups like Bell Biv Devoe, Mint Condition, Jodeci, 112, Jagged Edge, Shai, Next, Dru Hill, and record-breaking Motown act, Boyz II Men, which not only crossed over to the pop top ten, but made some of the biggest Number One songs in Billboard Hot 100 history.  Their first four Number One singles (“End Of The Road,” “I’ll Make Love To You,” “On Bended Knee,” and “One Sweet Day” – with Mariah Carey) spent a total of 49 weeks at #1.  Sadly, the 1990s may have been the end of the male singing group genre.  The only collaborative efforts by black male acts these days have come in the form of artists being featured on each others’ hits.  (Quick: name a black male singing “group” or self-contained band that’s actually had a top-ten hit – or any hit – in the past ten years.)

Rap and Hip-Hop Became Mainstream

Then there was the golden age of rap and hip-hop, a genre that has been a predominantly black music genre since its commercial beginnings in the late-1970s.  When rap finally hit its multi-platinum stride in the ’90s, there were perennial top-ten pop crossover acts like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 2Pac, and, of course, The Notorious B.I.G. releasing hit after classic hit.  Social consciousness (Arrested Development’s trio of hits) co-existed with novelty (Kris Kross’ “Jump”).  Groups like Naughty By Nature and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony added melody to the mix and were considered somewhere between serious and fun.  And black rappers successfully bridged the turn of the century with major top-ten hits by Jay-Z, 50-Cent, and Nelly, just to name a few.

Rap and R&B became so popular during the era that eventually various successful sub-genres sprang up, like new-jack swing (Bobby Brown, Bell Biv Devoe, Keith Sweat) and crunk, the latter of which rose to mainstream prominence in the early-to-mid 2000s with artists like Lil Jon and his cadre of featured acts gracing the upper end of the Hot 100.  Even southern rap got a bite of the top-ten apple with Atlanta-based OutKast taking three of their singles to Number One on the Hot 100 and even replacing themselves there with two of them (“Hey Ya!” followed by “The Way You Move” in 2003/04).  Having successive number ones is a feat that still only a handful of artists have accomplished (the Beatles famously replaced themselves at #1 twice in 1964, Boyz II Men did it in 1994, Puff Daddy in ’97, and Usher – twice! – in 2004).

And, whether you love him or hate him, one of the most successful rappers on the pop singles charts over the past eleven years has arguably been the often-cocky, yet socially aware Kanye West, who has certainly made a permanent impression on the pop music tapestry with a myriad of big top ten hits over that timeframe.

Black Record Labels and Producers Became Important

Then there were the music labels and producers.  Remember the record-breaking run of hits from the Murder, Inc. label (songs by Ja Rule, Ashanti and others practically tumbled over each other to dominate the charts in 2002).  The same had occurred for Sean Combs’ Bad Boy label in the last half of the 1990s (Bad Boy Records’ Number One songs in 1997 accounted for 22 of the year’s 52 weeks).  In more recent years, the long-lasting Cash Money label and its current stable of artists (Drake, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne) carried the black music top-ten pop chart torch, with each of those rappers regularly appearing on the Hot 100 in either lead roles or as featured acts.  These black-owned labels were the Motowns of the 1990s and 2000s, producing hit after hit for the younger generation of R&B/Hip-Hop fans with just enough pop sensibility to crossover to mainstream audiences – just as Motown Records had done 30 and 40 years earlier.

As for the producers, their successes seemed limitless!  With producers like Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis (whose productions for Janet Jackson could fill a chapter by themselves) and L.A. Reid & Babyface leading the way, the artists became less and less important.  What mattered more was who were behind the boards as the songs were being mixed in the studio.  Jam, Lewis, ‘Face & Reid were soon joined by trendier, younger cats like Teddy Riley, Timbaland, and Rodney Jerkins, among others.  In fact, it was legendary producer Timbaland who laid the groundwork for provocative female rapper, Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, whose biggest hit, “Work It,” matched Foreigner’s (“Waiting For A Girl Like You”) longstanding record for most weeks at #2 (ten weeks) by a non-Number One hit.

There Were Many Chart Kings and Queens – And One Ruled Them All

Arguably, the respective king and queen of R&B (or Hip-Hop/Soul in her case) – during the 1990s and into the millennium – were R. Kelly and Mary J. Blige.  The two of them each shattered longstanding records with their long-running #1 R&B hits – first R. Kelly in 1994 with, “Bump N’ Grind” for 14 weeks, then MJB in 2006 with “Be Without You” for 15 weeks.  Both records crossed over to mainstream and were just two of the many top-ten pop hits that both artists enjoyed over a 15-year span from 1992-2006.  R. Kelly became the biggest male solo act of the 1990s – according to Billboard Magazine – on both the R&B and pop singles charts.

As the new millennium arrived, R. Kelly symbolically handed the R&B and pop torch over to younger fellow crooner, Usher.  Billboard named Usher the top Hot 100 singles artist of the 2000s.  Midway through the decade, the singer from Tennessee had already racked up six Number One hits, including four in the same year (2004).  In fact, that year, Usher’s Number One hits ruled for 28 of the year’s 52 Hot 100 chart weeks.

And who was the top female of the decade on that chart, you ask?  None other than Beyoncé, who between 2003 and 2008 racked up five Number One singles and who, since 2003, has seen all five of her solo studio LPs debut at Number One on the Billboard album chart…a feat no other woman has accomplished.  While her presence in the upper tier of the Hot 100 singles charts has waned over the current decade (her only top ten since 2010 was last year’s “Drunk In Love”), she’s still a force to be reckoned with nearly 20 years into her professional career.

But perhaps the chart queen of them all was Mariah Carey.  She burst onto the scene in 1990 with her Number One R&B and pop crossover smash, “Vision of Love.”  She followed that with four consecutive Number One hits in ’90-’91, making her the only artist to have her first five single releases top the Billboard Hot 100.  At times, Ms. Carey’s only real chart competition seemed to be herself as she strung together another 13 Number One hits between 1992 and 2005, for a total of 18 (second only to the Beatles with 20).  In the process of doing this, she became the only artist to ever have the biggest hit of two consecutive decades.  In the 1990s, the biggest hit of the decade was “One Sweet Day” – Mariah’s duet with Boyz II Men, which still ranks as the longest-running Number One single in Hot 100 history at 16 weeks.  For the 2000s, the biggest single on the Hot 100 was her “We Belong Together,” which – at 14 weeks – became one of seven Number One songs by black artists to spend at least 13 weeks atop the Hot 100 in the chart’s history.

Unprecedented Dominance – Top-Ten Takeovers!

So strong was black music’s dominance during this era that, at various times, EVERY song in the pop top ten was by a black music artist.  The first time it happened was in January 1993 when the following acts owned the top ten for two straight weeks (listed in order from #1-10): Whitney Houston, Wreckx-N-Effect, Shai, Boyz II Men, P.M. Dawn, Snap, Shanice, Bobby Brown, TLC and Mary J. Blige.  It happened eleven years later in Feb/March 2004 when the top ten was shared exclusively by these acts for three consecutive weeks: Usher featuring Lil Jon & Ludacris, Chingy featuring J. Weav, Twista featuring Kanye West & Jamie Foxx, OutKast (two hits – one featuring Sleepy Brown), J-Kwon, Cassidy featuring R. Kelly, Beyoncé, Ludacris (on his own), Ruben Studdard, and Alicia Keys.  The year 2004 was also notable in that EVERY Number One pop hit that year was by a black artist and all of them graced Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles chart…a feat never before or since accomplished by African-Americans.

The complete list of black artists, genres and accomplishments over the past 27 years is understandably too long to capture in this space.  But suffice it to say that we may never experience a streak – or an era – like that again in our lifetimes, especially given the current state of black music in America.

Billboard Changed the Rules AND the Game

In fact, the golden era of black music may have actually died years ago…its tombstone having been symbolically carved in October 2012 when Billboard Magazine elected to cut the R&B/Hip-Hop Singles list in half from 100 positions to 50.  The trade publication also changed the formula so that the R&B/Hip-Hop chart is no longer fueled by R&B/Hip-Hop stations and sales (i.e., what R&B music fans listen to and buy or stream).  It’s now simply a subset of the Hot 100 pop singles chart, from which Billboard essentially extracts the songs they deem R&B/Hip-Hop and lists them in the same order on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop singles list as they appear on the Hot 100. So whichever song happens to be the highest ranked pop single by a black or rap artist is by default the #1 R&B/Hip-Hop single, the 2nd-highest pop hit is the #2 R&B/Hip-Hop single, and so on.

The week that this chart change occurred, Rihanna’s pop hit “Diamonds” was artificially propelled to #1 R&B/hip-hop because, well, Rihanna is black and because the song happened to be the highest-ranked song by such an artist on the Hot 100 pop list – even though it was receiving hardly any R&B/hip-hop radio airplay at the time (it later received moderate airplay on R&B stations).  Similarly, the white rap duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis dominated the top of the R&B/Hip-Hop list after this methodology change not because their songs were dominating R&B/Hip-Hop radio, but because they were rappers who happened to have the top songs on the pop chart and Billboard decided that naturally translates to the R&B list.  At one point in 2013, the duo simultaneously had three songs listed by Billboard in the R&B/Hip-Hop top ten – including the more-talking-than-rapping, socially conscious “Same Love,” which received scant R&B/Hip-Hop airplay at best.  And last year’s “Fancy” and “Black Widow” by Iggy Azalea were both afforded the same R&B chart listings (each ranked at Number One) even before they were actually picked up by R&B/Hip-Hop stations…merely because Azalea is a “rapper” and had achieved corresponding top-ranking on the Hot 100 pop chart.

Basically, what Billboard did with that methodology change was tell America that black music radio and fans no longer have their own identity or influence, and cannot be a gauge for determining what R&B/Hip-Hop songs are most popular.  This now has to be determined by the mainstream pop audience.  Billboard has defended the move by essentially stating that music and genres are no longer divided by racial lines and that what’s popular with the mass majority is what’s popular to those who traditionally listen to a specific genre.  It is my belief that that philosophy has further contributed to the demise of black music in general.  Record labels and promoters had already ceased to invest in quality artist’s long-term development, instead opting for the quick hit and fast profits.  But with Billboard’s October 2012 methodology change, traditional R&B/Hip-Hop artists now stand even less of a chance for long-term success – with rare exception – as labels no longer have any real incentive to promote and develop them, instead opting for the pop hit and the fast buck.

Will the Latest Youth Movement Rise to the Challenge?

I’m not suggesting that the Billboard chart methodology change is the sole reason for today’s dearth of quality R&B/Hip-Hop music.  Case in point, several gimmicky #1 pop crossover songs from the ’00s actually predated this change, like “Bump, Bump, Bump” by B2K and P. Diddy, “Laffy Taffy” by D4L, “Slow Motion” by Juvenile, or “This Is Why I’m Hot” by Mims.  None of these songs are memorable or even played in recurrent status today – yet they were in high demand at the time they topped the charts.  Those throwaway singles and others like them probably could be just as easily blamed for the current state of black music as anything that’s happened in more recent years.  Equally to blame could be the way in which music is made today, with the vocoder and auto-tunes replacing true singing (thanks to Akon, T-Pain, Chris Brown and others) and misogynistic song lyrics that have become more the norm than the exception.

I’m also not suggesting that there are NO artists deserving of credit for keeping quality hip-hop alive (Kendrick Lamar, anyone?), or that an artist has to be successful on Billboard’s various singles charts to be considered legitimate (see critically-acclaimed Kweli, the Roots in their heyday, Wale and countless others).  However, considering that the next song by a black artist poised to crack the top ten – excluding last week’s rebound by The Weeknd – is titled “I Don’t Fuck With You” by Big Sean featuring E-40, which sat at #12 on the Hot 100 for the week ending January 24, 2015; or considering that one of the songs that kept the black top-ten streak alive in recent weeks was Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Nigga” (or in its cleaned up form, “Hot Boy”), I don’t think a resurgence of black quality music is on the horizon.

Bottom line: If another 27-year run of top ten hits by black artists is to begin, Big Sean, Bobby Shmurda, and similar youth-leaning artists (like current rap queen, Nicki Minaj) are the ones that will have to do it – or at least start it.  And maybe in the year 2042 someone will look back to 2015, and say ‘remember when…?’.

Then again, I doubt it.

(This article represents one man’s views and is not meant to suggest that my opinion regarding Billboard’s policies or the quality of today’s music is the only one or the right one)

…DJ Rob

 

 

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