R&B Through the Decades: Seventies Through Today and Beyond

Written by on March 1, 2024

An experimental and stylistic genre, R&B is loved by many and continues to push the limits on music production, stylistic choice, and vocal ability. Branching off of genres such as jazz, blues, swing, soul, and gospel, the genre has extended far from its origins. Formally known as Rhythm and Blues, R&B dates back to the 1940s and was originally a broad genre combining many African-American influences at the time.

Today, we will highlight some of my favorite R&B songs from each decade to truly appreciate the changes and progression of such a beautiful genre of music.

1970s: “I Want You” – Marvin Gaye

The 1970s were the official bridging from genres such as soul, disco, and funk that dominated the 1960s. Transitioning from a groovy sound, artists such as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, and Earth, Wind & Fire broke out in their respective genres.

“I Want You” by Marvin Gaye is about a man who passionately wants his love to be reciprocated. As always, Marvin Gaye’s gorgeous voice glides on this track, and the instrumental is beautiful as it combines funk, disco, and soul elements.

1980s: “Baby Be Mine” – Micheal Jackson

As we transition from soul and funk into influences of pop and electronic-based music, we are exposed to artists such as Micheal Jackson, Prince, Diana Ross, and Janet Jackson. As the genre rapidly changed, the 1980s set the foundation for the iconic 1990s R&B era with pop, futuristic, and experimental sound.

“Baby Be Mine” by Micheal Jackson is about a man professing his love to a girl. Throughout this track you can hear the funk and disco influences with Micheal Jackson’s vocal inflections that created a new sound for the genre.

1990s: “Bullet Proof Soul” – Sade

What most would consider the peak of R&B, the 1990s was an era that explored the style of many influential artists, including Sade, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Aaliyah, D’Angelo, Toni Braxton, Erykah Badu, and many more. We also saw the rise in R&B groups such as TLC and Destiny’s Child. With influences from hip-hop, electronica, and UK soul, a new standard for the genre was born to produce a unique sound.

As difficult as it was to choose one song from this era, “Bullet Proof Soul” is a graceful song that uses a metaphor to describe how love is like a gun. The chill UK soul influence and smooth vocals Sade brings to this track flow nicely.

2000s: “You Don’t Know My Name” – Alicia Keys

The 2000s introduced multiple iconic artists such as Alicia Keys, Beyonce, Rihanna, and Usher while continuing the trends from 90s R&B. This era morphed early 2000s pop with 90s influences from hip-hop, R&B, neo-soul, and UK soul.

“You Don’t Know My Name” by Alicia Keys is about a woman infatuated with a man who doesn’t know her. This song features a sample from “Let Me Prove My Love to You” by The Main Ingredient. Alicia Keys’s beautiful, raspy tone and sensational piano instrumental provide an amazing track with soulful influences.

2010s: “Broken Clocks” – SZA

The 2010s paved the way for an experimental style of R&B that took from influences such as jazz, indie rock, neo-soul, and electronic music. This era of R&B began to challenge the limits of music production, incorporating sampling and electronic influences into their tracks. We were introduced to voices such as SZA, Sampha, Frank Ocean, Summer Walker, Bryson Tiller, and Solange, who were at the forefront of alternative R&B.

“Broken Clocks” by SZA is about a girl struggling to make ends meet and running away from past relationships. You can hear the electronic complexity in production from this track when compared to older eras of R&B. This song features a sample from “West” by River Timber and Daniel Caesar. With SZA’s unique, smooth vocals, Ctrl was one of the most popular and classic examples of R&B albums from the 2010s.

2020s: “Bittersweet” – Lianne La Havas

As we enter into present-day R&B, the genre has taken a new route and has begun to rise in popularity. Many artists are returning to soulful roots after huge pop influences dominated the 2010s. There is a higher emphasis on vocal ability, competition, and music production as the genre becomes more saturated. Artists that have ruled this era of R&B include Daniel Caesar, Lianne La Havas, and Brent Faiyaz.

“Bittersweet” by Lianne La Havas is about a girl realizing that something in their life needs to change and then taking the steps to do so. This entire self-titled album is a beautiful display of the emotions one goes through in a relationship. Lianne La Havas’ gorgeous tone, music production, and engaging lyrics create a soulful start to her album.

The future of R&B: “There Will Be No Crying” – Cleo Sol

As the R&B genre continues to grow and flourish, the complexity of production, sound, and vocal ability will continue to be tested. I am hopeful that artists like Cleo Sol and Victoria Monét will continue to make music that challenges the genre. From the 1970s to the present day, we can see a dramatic range of styles throughout this genre. With the incorporation of sampling, experimental instrumentation, and computer production, I cannot wait to see the future of R&B. 

If you liked the artists mentioned today, check out the playlist linked below that includes R&B songs from 1970 to the present day.

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