For most of this decade, R&B/Hip-Hop radio has lived with a dearth of uptempo R&B product. There are mass-appeal rap records with an R&B feel. There are legitimate R&B ballad hits, more at some times than others, but true uptempo R&B hits (even with a rap included) are a mere trickle. There’s a Mary J. Blige “Family Affair” here, an Usher “Caught Up” or “Yeah” there. But it’s been nearly a decade since the last period where songs such as Brandy & Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine” or Next’s “Too Close” were a regular fixture in the top 10, not the exception to the rule.
The tempo shortage has many different sources. Rap itself is a mid-to-downtempo genre these days, which influences the type of tracks being offered to all acts. The Mainstream R&B artists of the type who might still be inclined to make an uptempo record are often already exiled to Urban AC (so you have to credit Brian McKnight for trying to stay contemporary on his recent “Used To Be My Girl”).
But mostly, R&B’s tempo shortage stems from the early ’90s, when many programmers first started to believe that rap and ballads were the source of the true hits at the format, while uptempo R&B provided balance at best. With labels releasing fewer albums and fewer singles from a given project, there is less willingness to use up what could be an artist’s only shot on a record that might not generate immediate reaction.
With Mainstream Top 40 gaining traction these days, you have to wonder if some of its strength is coming from having uptempo, radio-friendly rhythmic music when R&B has little of its own.
And yet, when “Check On It” by Beyonce or “I Don’t Wanna Know” by Mario Winans do emerge, those songs become not just durable research monsters for R&B radio, but also multi-format hits, confirming that the demand for such product still exists. And with Mainstream Top 40 gaining traction these days, you have to wonder if some of its strength is coming from having uptempo, radio-friendly rhythmic music when R&B has little of its own.
That brings us to Justin Timberlake and his reverse crossover from Top 40 to R&B/Hip-Hop stations. At this writing, “My Love” has just cracked the Top 5 at R&B/Hip-Hop radio. The previous single, “SexyBack” got to No. 21. In New York, there was a period when the songs between them were getting more than 110 spins a week on WWPR (Power 105) and on WQHT (Hot 97), with “My Love” is in power rotation at both. (Hot backed “My Love” down to only 50 spins this week, and “SexyBack” has finally run its course at both stations.)
That sort of pop-to-R&B crossover was common until the late-’80s. Putting Hall & Oates and George Michael aside, it’s been long forgotten just how much pure pop product used to get at least a smattering of R&B airplay. In the Frankie Crocker-influenced early ’80s, Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock And Roll,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart,” and John Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over” all played on at least one of New York’s Urban stations. Even REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” made Billboard’s Hot R&B singles chart in the mid-’80s. When dance music re-emerged in the mid-’80s, acts like Expose’ got their first exposure on stations like WRKS New York, because there was nowhere else to go.
Then the first Churban stations popped up and stations like WRKS decided to better define themselves by ceding the pop and dance music. There might have been an occasional R&B artist like Lisa Stansfield who just happened to be white, but the search for the right pop crossover, so much a calling card for PDs like Crocker or Sonny Joe White in the early ’80s–pretty much ground to a halt. And once there was an additional format between R&B and Top 40, the reverse crossovers were the songs that came from Rhythmic Top 40–songs that are often “pop” mostly by dint of which record label department worked them first. Akon currently has two uptempo hits at Rhythmic Top 40 but his “I Wanna Love You” is only becoming a solid R&B radio hit now while “Smack That” is still sitting below the top 40.
That Timberlake crossed over faster than Akon can be traced back to the mid-’90s resurgence of teen pop. R&B vocal groups like Boyz II Men had famously broad appeal. As it turned out, so did the pop acts influenced by them. Ten year olds don’t care much about format distinctions and when acts like the Spice Girls or Backstreet Boys did autograph sessions or listener events in their early days, the crowds were integrated.
R&B radio didn’t usually acknowledge Top 40’s teen acts; (WGCI Chicago made a brief, heavily publicized attempt to play the Backstreet Boys, but they were the exception.) But finally, toward the end of their hitmaking streaks, acts like ‘N Sync and Britney Spears got a handful of R&B spins by working with producers like the Neptunes until, ultimately, Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River” became a No. 11 R&B hit. Since then, there hasn’t been a lot of reverse crossover, but there have been a few notable ones: Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” getting to No. 10 last year; Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous” getting to No. 25 earlier in 2006.
It has always made sense for R&B programmers to look for the right crossovers–not as a way of expanding the base, but to acknowledge that there are pop records that appeal to the base. But one also can’t help but wonder if “SexyBack,” “Promiscuous” and “My Love” are finding a home at R&B/Hip-Hop now because there’s so little other medium-to-up R&B product that fills that need. After all, the genre’s high-profile producers are spending a lot of their time working with pop acts. And “SexyBack” had the advantage of already being a radio hit and coming from an established artist–even if it built its story elsewhere.
Some labels do seem to see the opportunity in the current tempo shortage. The ads for Universal’s new Taio Cruz single, “I Just Wanna Know,” allude to filling a hole at radio, for instance. And the kickoff single from this Fantasia album is uptempo, not the ballad that led last time. And as with all the years that Mainstream Top 40 suffered from a lack of uptempo, center-lane product, there are still songs to play when PDs are willing to go looking for it. Until now, the only question was whether listeners missed tempo. Now that we have some guidance on that score, one can only hope that R&B acts with tempo, different sounding records or both have the same shot.