A week ago, the singer who goes by the name of Jacquees went onto Instagram and declared himself the ‘King of R&B’. And the internet responded with a collective ‘who?’.
His overconfident assertion garnered ridicule from all spectrums of the genre’s fans, However, it also did kickstart an industry-wide discussion on who actually is, with many artists themselves chipping in with their own 2 cents. Still, it makes one wonder if there is even a king of R&B right now?
Seeing Tank place Usher at #1 on his list isn’t surprising. His beastly run in 2004 is unrivaled by any of his peers and most artists in any genre from past to present. “Yeah!” sat 12 weeks atop the Hot 100 before being dethroned by himself with “Burn”, then after a non-consecutive 8 weeks there, he replaced himself once more with “Confessions Pt. II”. He then ended off the year with a 4th #1 song with “My Boo” and also with 2004’s highest selling album – Confessions. To date, the record has sold over 20 million copies worldwide. So, calling Usher the king of R&B back then was an understatement, he was the king of music. Every upcoming R&B singer became an Usher knockoff, his sound flooded the airwaves and R&B subsequently shifted to the tune of Usher.
Yet in 2018, he turned from trendsetter to trend-follower as he released a trap-flavored collaborative album with producer Zaytoven – “A”. It sold a measly 15k copies in its first week compared to Confessions‘ 1.1 million. It’s the final nail in the coffin that proved Usher’s run as the king has long been over and since his reign, there hasn’t been a single R&B artist that has been able to drive cultural conversations and industry trends as much as he did.
Taking a look at the Billboard’s year-end top R&B albums chart, its top 5 positions is depressingly filled with releases from 2017 with XXXTentacion being the sole 2018 project at #2, who was a rapper instead of an R&B singer. The Weeknd’s only release this year – My Dear Melancholy, holds the #6 spot and is an EP. The rest of the list is then rounded off with past year albums from, again, The Weeknd (Starboy, Beauty Behind the Madness), H.E.R. (H.E.R.) and Bob Marley (what?). In a rap dominated music industry, R&B barely stands out as much as it used to anymore, with many of its notable players being relegated to support roles on today’s biggest hits (hello, Ty Dolla $ign and Ella Mai).
A strong case for an actual current king of R&B would be one of its most problematic stars – Chris Brown. His hits may not have hit as hard as his mentor Usher, but his career has seen a lot more longevity; an admirable quality for someone that has been circling around the throne for years now. Clearly a singles-driven artist (despite his monstrous 45-track album would like you to believe), Chris Brown is a veteran when it comes to radio and club hits. A #1 song or album may have been out of his grasp for a while now but his numbers are still some of the strongest in R&B even if they aren’t the flashiest.
Reliably consistent, Chris Brown can be seen as a leading force in R&B due to his unshakeable commercial significance over the course of his career since his debut in 2005. However, he just doesn’t command the attention that someone at the pinnacle of a genre should. That title deservedly goes to The Weeknd and, to an extent, Beyoncé (‘king’ is just a title, screw gender restrictions).
How do you make an EP the biggest R&B record of 2018? Dropping it as a surprise release at the tail end of March, the project is the usual blend of Weeknd tropes with forlorn crooning and depressing nihilism packed from front to back. The quality of MDM or even most Weeknd albums are nothing to write home about, but the people love him and his chart successes reflect that. Arguably the biggest R&B star of the past 5 years, only an artist of true commercial dominance can atop charts worldwide without a single piece of marketing.
And who else does this better than the surprise drop queen – Beyoncé? With her past 3 releases (Beyoncé, Lemonade, Everything is Love) all drop without any warning, Queen B reminds us and the industry every time that she plays by her own rules. A genius when it comes to marketing her brand and image, her innovations to ensure lasting commercial supremacy is a force to be reckoned with. Yet, the same can’t be said about her music because as good as it is, her work just lacks the bite to inspire her peers or the generation to follow in her artistic footsteps.
Enter Frank Ocean. A quick listen to any R&B newcomers today from Choker to Ryan Beatty, to new releases from established acts such as Blood Orange and Kevin Abstract; Frank Ocean’s influence runs both deep and wide. His previous studio albums – channel ORANGE and Blonde (sorry Endless) were works of art that showcased Frank’s intricately intimate lyricism and woefully bittersweet songwriting. The projects themselves aren’t revolutionary nor are his vocals flawless, yet there is this shared desolation and melancholy that many R&B artists in his lane attempt to reproduce in their own music.
10 years down the line, Frank Ocean’s current small (that hopefully expands significantly from this time of writing) but potent discography will go down as works that will inspire the minds and ears of millions. It’s difficult to pin down what makes Frank such an irreplaceable force in R&B, but this article tells it better than I ever could.
Still, out of all the artists mentioned above, none of them truly fit the mold as the ‘King of R&B’. Each of them encompassing an aspect that the others lack, it seems that the throne may remain empty for now. With the music industry as saturated as it is, it’s difficult to pinpoint a single artist within a genre that towers over the rest. Even in hip-hop, the Drake vs. Kendrick debate has been going strong for the past 5 years; let alone in a genre like R&B that doesn’t have clear standout acts like them.
Instead, there shouldn’t be just one single king in R&B. Chris Brown, Weeknd, Beyoncé, and Frank Ocean all make wildly different music despite being cut from the same cloth. So instead of pitting them against each other, there should be an encouragement for them to expand within their own lanes. Ideally, the genre shouldn’t see itself progressing in a single, monolithic direction but a diverse burst of individualities that can only improve R&B for years to come.