NEW YORK — Tank was nervous after sending his manager a preview of “When We” — he’d never released a song that explicit. “He’s like, ‘You’re crazy, but it’s jammin’!’” the R&B singer recalled. “It ended up being my biggest record ever.”
Released in 2017, the seductive chorus of “when we (expletive)” was obviously too explicit for radio, so a “clean” version used the phrase “when we touch.” Despite releasing his first album in 2001 and crafting hits like “Maybe I Deserve” and “Please Don’t Go,” it was “When We” that’s been Tank’s most successful, finishing No. 1 on Billboard’s 2018 year-end adult R&B airplay chart.
“I didn’t reinvent anything vocally — a little R&B here and there, tapped into my rap cadence, tapped into my Migos (style),” Tank, now 47, said. “I was competitive.”
Being competitive — and collaborative — with hip-hop is one of the reasons today’s R&B is more explicit. Last year’s Luminate Year-End report found that R&B/hip-hop is America’s most popular genre, accounting for the most U.S. on-demand song streams and the largest share of total album consumption.
“It just seems a little bit more extravagant now because some of the R&B singers are acting like rappers,” said Colby Tyner, senior vice president of programming at Radio One and Reach Media, which operates the largest urban radio network in the United States. “It was a clear separation of church and state. Now, it’s a little bit together and so the music reflects it.”
So how did R&B go from Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You” to Chris Brown singing “(expletive) you back to sleep”? It’s complicated.
“It used to be that television and radio was where you got your content. And if it was television and radio, it was censored because of the FCC. Well, you got YouTube, you got all these streaming services and you got social media. So, we are in the authentic era,” said Tyner. “We (radio industry) are the last sort of bastions of ‘we can’t do that’ because we’re controlled by the government regulations.”
During interviews over several months, The Associated Press asked those who create the music and industry experts about changes in R&B. Ahead of Sunday’s 65th annual Grammy Awards airing on CBS and Paramount+, here are some of their thoughts in their own words:
THE HIP-HOP EFFECT
Just one offensive or curse word can lead to a parental advisory label, so what’s defined as explicit can be subjective. It’s the parent test: Would they want their children listening? While Hollywood has an independent ratings board, record companies and artists determine what receives a parental warning.
As hip-hop grew in popularity, Billboard had to adapt; Some charts began grouping rappers and singers together, triggering fights for airplay which remains a sore subject. And with the recent explosion of melodic rap — a blend of rapping and harmonizing — spearheaded by artists like Future, Drake, Lil Uzi Vert and Travis Scott, the Grammys now recognize it as a category.
In the 1990s, a period considered by some as R&B’s last golden age, it was almost unthinkable that an artist would curse because radio couldn’t play it. None of the top 25 songs on Billboard’s 1990 Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart required an explicit label. In 2022, with rap more dominant, all but one in the top 25 — Beyoncé's “Break My Soul” — needed a clean version.
“There was definitely some explicit R&B ... but there’s no limit to what you can say sexually in hip-hop. And then when R&B and hip-hop merged, you had the hip-hop and R&B world —- so that’s literally what happened. And so now, the R&B singers have taken that way of speaking from the hip-hop cats. And the hip-hop cats have taken the melodic singing.” — Robert Glasper, four-time Grammy winner, 2023 R&B album nominee.
“Chris Brown is the top of the food chain....He lives and rolls like a rapper. He has an entourage like a rapper. His energy is like a rapper — not like Tevin Campbell in the ‘Can We Talk Days,’” said Tyner. “He can make the most sensual, classic, urban AC or R&B record that you would love, but he also can express that other side as well.” — Colby Tyner, SVP of programming, Radio One and Reach Media.
“We started having to compete with rap music, which is extremely explicit — extremely ... When you’re trying to compete for space on a chart or in a playlist, and these are the things that they’re playing, how do you find your way? How do you even get into the conversation? And so, our language has kind of had to evolve to be competitive.” — Tank, five-time Grammy nominee.
NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN
Themes of romance and sensuality have always breathed within soul music, but much of today’s R&B has replaced innuendo with bluntness. But while profanity has increased, artists are divided on whether the actual content has changed, citing classics like Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” “Prince’s “Darling Nikki” and much of R. Kelly’s sexually-charged catalog that dominated the ‘90s and early 2000s.
“The stuff my mama used to be listening to in the car: Marvin Sease and Clarence Carter — ‘I be stroking!’ That stuff was pretty vulgar! … So, no, I don’t think it’s more explicit.” — Muni Long, 2023 Grammy nominee for best new artist.
“A lot of R&B artists were just as savage back in the day — they just had to be tame. Think about it: the record companies forced them to be clean cut and preppy and all those things. I think now, artists have found their freedom.” — Rico Love, vice-president of the Recording Academy and producer.
“I think music was still explicit back in the day — they just had a better way of delivering it. You go all the way back to Rick James, ‘Super Freak’ — they just had a beating-around-the-bush type of way that they would say things.” — Yung Bleu, R&B recording artist
While hip-hop’s influence might be the lowest hanging fruit, it’s only one factor within a larger explanation. Psychologist Jean Twenge, author of “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy--and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood,” says technology has decreased many rules of the past.
“More technology just allows people to be more independent. And that’s been just a very, very steady change in culture in the U.S. and in many other countries over the past hundred years … individualism is at the root of an enormous number of cultural changes that we see today,” explained Twenge, who authored a study on the rise of swear words in American books. “These changes have affected everybody, not just young people. ... The society has definitely shifted more in that direction of being more casual and favoring self-expression more.”
Film and TV have also become more explicit in depicting sexual situations, nudity, violence and language. Pop music carries more warnings than ever, and even friendly-family artists like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift have released albums labeled as explicit.
“It’s not just R&B, the world is more explicit … even in the 90s, it would have been great to use a couple of cuss words in a couple of songs. It would’ve just hit so much better if you could’ve just went there because it just would have said it better.” — Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, 11-time Grammy winner, 2023 best traditional R&B performance nominee.
“This generation has kind of become numb to it, the same way as like someone could be bleeding on the floor and someone will be on the phone and just step over that person … we’ve become numb to a lot, and I think music is included.” — Ashanti, Grammy winner.
“They say, ‘the truth shall set you free.’ So, I guess the more honest you are, the more free you’re going to be. And that’s where we at. We say whatever we got to say … it’s just direct — literally direct. And if you don’t like it, you just don’t like it, and that’s how we feel.” — Lucky Daye, Grammy winner, 2023 best R&B performance nominee.
Generation Z and younger Millennials only know a world with the internet, and nearly all teens — 95% — have access to a smartphone, according to a 2022 Pew Research Center study. As information flows faster with each generation, some believe young people are learning mature subject matter earlier, and it trickles into what they create. Making and releasing music is easier than ever; expensive recording studios or record labels are no longer barriers.
“This generation feels very free and open, and a lot of people who wouldn’t have had access to create music back then, they can now create in their bedroom. So, there is a vast amount of product coming out. So maybe that’s why it seems like there’s so much explicit music because there’s just more music now, period.” — Chloe Bailey, five-time Grammy nominee.
“I think art is a reflection of life ... this generation deals with those things more explicitly. I think there’s more access — the internet made that so, where it’s like we get information way quicker. As a father with little kids, they’re getting things quicker than I ever did.” — PJ Morton, 2023 Grammy nominee for best R&B album.
“I think it’s just the natural progression of now it’s the next generation. … this generation just has everything at their fingertips.” — Robert Glasper, whose “Black Radio lll” is nominated for best R&B album.
While it’s not hard to guess most teenagers and social media are inseparable, 84% of adults 18-29 say they use at least one social media site, according to 2021 data from Pew. Naturally, social media behavior can influence the content choices people make with their music.
“The best way to get clicks and streams is let me be as wild as I could possibly be. So, if I’m an R&B singer talking about what sexual positions that I like and how I do it … people are going to pay attention,” said Tyner, the Radio One exec. “Artists would kill to have a “WAP” (by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion) or a big song like that because honestly, really, it only takes one song. You get that one song that’s a monster record, you can live off that song for the rest your life.”
“Everybody’s just trying to outdo each other. It’s all a popularity contest. So, whoever gets talked about the most, that’s what it is. And the more risqué you are, the more attention, the more you get talked about.” — T-Pain, two-time Grammy winner
“Sometimes you have to get out there and say things to catch people’s attention…I like being creative and witty and having the double meaning for certain things and being subliminal. But some people like to just splat it on out there!” (laughs) - Ashanti
“Maybe people feel like that’s what they need to do to get the sales or get the attention. You know, it’s a lotta shakin’ out there (laughs) ... there’s a lot of lyrics that are like cringe if I’m listening to it with my daughter. But music is self-expression — people express themselves however they feel like they need to express themselves.” — Brandy, Grammy winner
While there is crossover of younger artists on the adult R&B airplay chart, which generally features more traditional R&B, the content is far less explicit. Only 11 of the top 25 songs from last year’s year-end chart were labeled explicit, with eight of the 11 by younger artists. On the year-end Hot R&B chart which tracks mainstream R&B, 19 of the top 25 songs carried an advisory.
Mary J. Blige, a nine-time Grammy winner who has been successful through R&B’s changes since the 90s, says it’s all about expression.
“Just like when we were growing up, we came from a place where we expressed ourselves from where we were living and how we were living. So, these new generations are expressing themselves,’’ she said.
Blige, a nominee for album of the year at Sunday’s Grammys, says she can relate to younger artists.
“I’m so proud of them. I love them. They’re doing exactly what we did: They’re speaking from their experience, and I respect that,” Blige said. “I have so much respect for their artistry.”
Brooke Lefferts and John Carucci in New York contributed to this story.