R&B’s changing voice: How hip-hop edged grittier singers out of the mainstream

Tank, a veteran singer with a decade and a half of R&B hits, remembers the moment when rappers took over the airwaves.

“Bone Thugs-n-Harmony are the Jesuses of melody rap,” he says. “What they did was theirs at the time; nobody could touch it, so nobody did. But when Nelly came around [in 2000] with hip-hop fully infused with melody, that’s when people started to take notice. Then Ja Rule came. It’s like, ‘Hey – you’re in my lane!'”

“We didn’t stop and realize what was happening,” Tank continues. “With hip-hop growing and taking over at the rapid pace that it was, I would say us R&B guys couldn’t compete – and we didn’t compete.”

The ascent of rap on mainstream radio has had wide-reaching consequences for R&B, fundamentally changing the types of voices you hear in the genre’s mainstream. Historically, singers with a mastery of clean, high tones – from Patti Labelle to Deniece Williams to Ralph Tresvant to Usher – flourished next to singers who favored lower, rougher registers, artists like Barry White, Chaka Khan, Anita Baker and Toni Braxton. This variety allowed for a breathtaking range of expression: No other genre celebrated as many fine gradations of the human voice as R&B. But as melodic rappers became ever more dominant, the lower-register R&B singers largely disappeared from the mainstream, and young singers hoping for mainstream success began staying away from deeper tones and rougher textures.

“I’m in my high interview voice so I won’t frighten you,” jokes Braxton, whose low vocals graced multiple platinum-selling records during the 1990s. “I’m prejudiced because I’m a contralto, but I don’t hear many of them anymore.” Kuk Harrell, a vocal producer for superstars like Rihanna and Usher, offers a similar observation. “I really do miss that lower-register voice,” he says. “That’s not to say we don’t have great emotions out of higher-voiced singers, but that particular thing is not here.”

“A certain grit went into something else,” adds the singer Bilal. “Ain’t nobody singing like Teddy Pendergrass no more.”

Why did the doors close for deep and gritty vocalists, who were an important part of R&B’s mainstream as the genre progressed through soul, funk, Quiet Storm, disco, Eighties synth fusions, house music and the hip-hop-inflected mutations of the Nineties? More than 20 conversations* with artists, producers, label executives and radio programmers indicate that low-register R&B singers were squeezed on two sides at the turn of the millennium: First, rappers took over the vocal ranges that once belonged to R&B, and then struggling labels abandoned R&B groups, which traditionally supported a wide variety of voices. These shifts were compounded as mainstream radio stopped playing R&B songs, which limited the avenues of exposure for all R&B singers but especially hurt those who favor low, throaty intonations.

Read more at Rolling Stone.