R&B music is one of the most important styles to have come into existence. It built on the struggles of certain people and combined elements from some of the most innovative and lively music styles of the early 1900s to create something that is now synonymous with modern popular culture.
In this article, we’ll take a long look at R&B music as a whole by defining it, identifying the key elements of the genre, pondering its history and evolution, and finally looking at examples of great R&B songs throughout history. By the end of the article, you’ll have a solid understanding of what the music style even is and how important it has been to the music industry as a whole for the last 70-plus years.
What Exactly Is R&B Music?
Perhaps one of the best ways to define R&B music is to look at the traits that were prevalent in the genre throughout its different iterations. Classical R&B mostly ran from 1950 through 1980, with the genre pivoting in the 1980s and remaining fairly consistent through today.
Classical R&B typically used musical arrangements that had a rhythm section and a horn section, but there weren’t well-defined rules for how that was incorporated into a song. This meant there was a lot of variation and creative freedom available for the artist performing it. A piano and either one or two guitars were almost always used, with background vocalists being one of the most frequent additions to the music.
Modern R&B—or contemporary R&B—still uses a lot of the same elements of classical R&B, though it’s been added, innovated, and modernized since the genre was born. It includes the prevalent use of synthesizers instead of horns and keyboards instead of pianos. The two shining examples of the elements the genre held onto are a soulful singing style and a strong bassline or beat in the track.
But those are just the sounds of R&B. The lyrics are just as important when you’re defining the genre.
R&B began its development in Black communities, which in the 1950s—and for quite a while afterward—were horrifically oppressed. Those songs largely discuss themes of freedom, the struggles of those communities, and the hope for change and a brighter future. And while R&B has had a lyrical shift in the years since its inception, the genre still often produces music that talks about those same themes in addition to classic love songs.
And finally, one of the most important things about R&B music is the emotion the singer portrays. Despite typically coming off as cool and collected, the singer is always invested in the lyrics, and you can literally feel the emotion pouring off of their lips as they sing.
Defining Traits of R&B Music
While we have already done a fairly exhaustive explanation of what R&B music is, it’s still good to go over a quick summary of its defining traits to develop a good understanding of what it is in the first place. So, here are the quick notes for the things that define R&B.
- Emotional and soulful singing.
- A pervasive beat.
- Either an instrumental section that includes horns and a piano or—in the modern day—synthesizers and keyboards.
- The music is generally made by African Americans with lyrics that typically reflect their life experiences and struggles.
The History and Story of R&B Music
R&B music has continually changed over time to include and inspire various other genres, sounds, and styles. It found its start in the 1940s, though the term R&B didn’t really become commonplace until the 1950s. It’s important to note that the R&B genre doesn’t include the classic blues and jazz standards that appeared earlier than these dates. In fact, R&B as a genre came into being only after the end of WWII.
One of the earliest uses of the term “rhythm and blues” came when Billboard used it to replace “race records” as a category of chart listings. The abbreviation “R&B” followed shortly after. In the beginning, the genre was mainly focused on blues records, the style of music most often associated with the genre itself. But that wasn’t the only thing it typically represented.
R&B music was more of a catch-all phrase used to describe any music made by, or specifically for, African Americans. Music made by Black musicians is still often categorized into the R&B genre today, though the traits of the genre are much more defined than in the last 70 years.
As a genre, the first iteration of R&B music ran from approximately 1950 through 1970. Typical commercialized R&B music featured a piano, one or two guitars, a bass, drums, and a saxophone. It drew largely on gospel, jazz, and blues music to create rocking music with a pervasive beat running throughout the instrumentals. Often, backup vocalists would also be employed to give the track what we now think of as a bit of soul.
In the 1950s, R&B had a huge influence on the development of the rock and roll genre, serving as a precursor for both it and other styles that incorporated the electric blues and soul styles. Without the R&B genre, rock music as we know it would simply not exist today. So, it’s no surprise quite a few early R&B artists and songs have been honored with inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
But this was a bit of a double-edged sword. While “R&B” often referred to music marketed for Black communities, it still had loose themes that made it easy for it to become a blanket term for any sort of new or ethnic music.
Soul music, rock and roll, and even gospel all got rolled into the R&B category in the 1970s. Bands and musicians like The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Animals, and even Elvis Presley were referred to as R&B artists in the 1960s. This sweeping generality of and usage of the term made it much harder to pin down exactly what R&B was during that time.
By the 1980s, R&B music had become much more defined. The rise of contemporary R&B in that decade combined pop, soul, funk, disco, electronic music, and the newfound hip hop style to create the R&B genre we know today. But, while the rise of contemporary R&B mostly killed off classical—or original—R&B, contemporary R&B has become one of, if not, the most popular genres of music in the world today.
Examples of R&B Throughout History
Some people learn best when they can see—or hear—examples of what you’re trying to convey. So, here we will be giving examples of R&B music, utilizing some of the most iconic works in the genre, to show the changes it underwent throughout the decades since it was first recognized.
I Got A Woman – Ray Charles, 1954
I Got A Woman is one of the best examples of early R&B music you’re going to be able to find. It was built on the gospel song It Must Be Jesus, mixing elements of jazz and secular lyrics to create something new. The song would eventually go on to become one of the founding examples of the entire soul music genre. Other artists like Elvis Presley and The Beatles would go on to cover it in later years, and its legacy would live on in samples for other tracks like Kanye West’s Gold Digger.
Stand By Me – Ben E. King, 1961
Ben E. King’s Stand By Me might be one of the most recorded songs in all of music history with over 400 different versions being recorded since he first performed the song in 1961. Again building on an older gospel tune, he actually intended the track to be given to The Drifters, but after they rejected it, he recorded it himself. Even today, this feel-good hit appears in other pieces of media, including a film of the same name that was released in 1986.
What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye, 1971
R&B music was very much like other genres, in that it took on political issues quite often. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On was largely a reaction to the Vietnam War but was also inspired by his witnessing a case of police brutality in California during an anti-war protest. It serves as one of the songs that helps bridge the—tiny—gap between soul and R&B music, rising to the top of the Hot Soul Singles Chart and placing number two on the Hot 100 after being released in 1971.
Purple Rain – Prince, 1984
Purple Rain was the title track for Prince’s 1984 album, and any of the singles that came on that album could have served here as an amazing example of the change in R&B music in the 1980s. This one was a power ballad that reunited R&B and rock music to produce one of his most iconic signature songs. While originally written as a country track in conjunction with Stevie Nicks, the incredibly long song got a makeover into one of the 1980s best R&B hits.
Waterfalls – TLC, 1994
The 1990s saw even more innovation in the contemporary R&B scene, but it also saw the genre becoming even more mainstream and nearly merging with the pop-music side of the industry. Waterfalls became TLC’s signature song and an international hit single. As their second number-one single on the Hot 100, it topped the US charts for seven weeks and reached the top 10 in numerous other countries.
Crazy in Love – Beyoncé Feat. Jay-Z, 2003
Crazy In Love is an amazing example of the modern melting pot that is contemporary R&B. Merging pop, hip hop, and R&B together on Beyoncé’s debut solo album, the song was an instant—and massive—success. It brought back some elements of 1970s funk and was one of the most important R&B tracks of the 2000s because it helped the genre find a new direction to go in. It would also end up winning numerous awards and had incredible success on the US charts, catapulting her career as a solo artist.
Diamonds – Rihanna, 2012
Just as Beyoncé largely helped define R&B in the 2000s, so too did Rihanna in the 2010s. Diamonds is one of her most successful songs, rising to the number-one spot on more than 20 country’s official charts in 2012. It continued the trend of R&B music melding into the mainstream music world, a perfect pop and dance number that upheld the core tenets of the R&B genre.
Say So – Doja Cat, 2020
Say So was released as the fifth single from Doja Cat’s 2019 studio album Hot Pink. While it’s solidly a pop and dance song, it incorporates elements of 1970s funk, disco, and modern rap to make something that’s nearly unique. A massive hit for her, the track gained a huge amount of traction after going viral on TikTok. The original version made it to number five on the Hot 100, but subsequent remixes would see it reach the pinnacle of that chart.
The Lasting Influence and Legacy of R&B Music
R&B music as a genre is one of the most important styles of music that is out there. The early years of the genre laid the foundation of rock music as a whole, and later iterations would spawn numerous genres like funk, soul, disco, and hip hop while also merging into the pop and electronic styles we know and love today.
It would be impossible to list all of the important artists who contributed to the evolution of R&B, but we’ll include a—relatively—short list of the music legends that dabbled in it. From Michael Jackson and Prince to Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, and even the likes of Mary J. Blige and Boyz II Men, so many amazing musicians have helped it on its way.
Today, pop music as we know it is synonymous with R&B and hip hop. A genre that started out being labeled as only for one community now has more reach than any other genre on the planet. A simple look at the history of R&B is all it takes to show just how far-reaching its influence is and how deep its roots really go.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
quality content for the Music Grotto website. Dakotah is passionate about music in a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop to country and lo-fi to metal, and he enjoys creating music pieces for Music Grotto.