R&B had a difficult 2012. I know that those who heavily supported/continue to support the genre are probably dismayed by that initial statement. I too am dismayed, but the statement couldn’t ring truer. The issues with R&B in 2012 lie within (1) commercial viability and (2) identity crisis. Most issues within the genre fall within one of these two central issues.
Commercial issues are the most troubling R&B issue of 2012. Can you name one R&B album that was certified platinum in 2012? How many gold R&B album’s materialized from 2012? I don’t have to do major research to tell you that I don’t recall one platinum R&B album in 2012 and not many (if any) gold certified ones. That’s a serious downward trend from previous years. It is disheartening to me in particular as R&B is a genre I have supported for years and years, but seems as if it continues to cool off and has shrunken its ‘commercial’ base (I won’t throw a cheap GOP joke in here, but I thought about it).
The debut numbers for R&B efforts released in 2012 are the first signs of this commercial drop-off. You will notice that peak positions on the big chart are not the issue as many of the artists debuted solidly by that account, but it is the numbers that are troubling. Here are numbers and promo singles for notable R&B albums released in 2012:
- Estelle‘s All Of Me (released February 28, 2012), debuted at no. 28 on the Billboard 200 Chart with 15,000 copies. Previous effort, ’08s Shine peaked worse at no. 38 (nearly 15,000 copies), but benefited from hit single “American Boy”, a no. 9 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.
- Robert Glasper‘s Black Radio (released February 28, 2012), debuted at no. 15 on the Billboard 200. This could be considered a triumph for the relatively unknown jazz-pianist outside of jazz circles. Glasper is nominated in R&B categories within the 2013 Grammy nominations.
- Melanie Fiona’s The MF Life (released March 20, 2012), debuted at no. 7 on the Billboard 200 Chart with 34,000 copies sold its first week. “4 AM” arrived ahead of the effort back 2011 and went on peak at no. 81 on the Billboard Hot 100.
- Monica’s New Life (released April 9, 2012), debuted at no. 4 on the Billboard 200 Chart with 69,000 copies sold its first week. Singles “Anything (To Find you),” “It All Belongs To Me,” and “Until It’s Gone” were released ahead of New Life with none making a dint into the pop charts.
- SWV‘s independently released I Missed Us (released April 17, 2012), debuted at no. 25 on the Billboard 200 Chart with 14,000 copies solid its first week.
- Tank‘s This Is How I Feel (released May 9, 2012), debuted at no. 9 on the Billboard 200 Chart with 30,000 copies solid it’s first week. This was a marked improvement peak position-wise than 2010’s Now or Never which bowed during December of 2010 at no. 35. That said, Now or Never bowed healthier with 44,000 copies sold. Singles “Compliments” and “Next Breath” served as promos.
- Eric Benét’s The One (released June 5, 2012), debuted at no. 32 on the Billboard 200 Chart (unsure of number of copies). Singles “Real Love” and “Harriet Jones” served as promos for the effort; neither charted on the Billboard Hot 100.
- Usher’s Looking 4 Myself (released June 12, 2012), debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 Chart with 128,000 copies. Singles promoting the album included “Climax” (no. 17) and “Scream” (no. 9).
- Bobby Womack, The Bravest Man in the Universe (released June 12, 2012), debuted at no. 181 on the Billboard 200 Chart. Single “Please Forgive My Heart” arrived ahead of the effort.
- R. Kelly’s Take Me Back (released June 26, 2012), debuted at no. 5 on the Billboard 200 Chart with 68,000 copies. Singles “Feelin’ Single” and “Share My Love” gained little pop traction.
- Chris Brown’s Fortune (released July 3, 2012), debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 Chart with 135,000 copies. Brown had released several singles prior to the release of Fortune including “Strip” (no. 37) and “Turn Up The Music” (no. 10
- Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange (released July 17, 2012) debuted at no. 2 on the Billboard 200 Chart with 131,000 copies sold its first week. Single “Thinkin Bout You” had been around since 2011, but didn’t pick up traction to a wider audience until this year after Channel Orange had materialized.
- Elle Varner‘s debut effort Perfectly Imperfect (released August 7, 2012), debuted at no. 4 on the Billboard 200 Chart with 33,000 copies sold during its first week. Single “Refill” garnered success on the R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
- Trey Songz’s Chapter V (released August 21, 2012), debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 Chart with 128,000 copies. “Heart Attack” was the promo single ahead of Chapter V, peaking at no. 35 on the Billboard Hot 100.
- Angie Stone‘s Rich Girl (released September 18, 2012), debuted at a tepid no. 109 with only 4,000 copies sold. Previous effort ’09s Unexpected had a worse peak position (no. 133). Stone’s best debut week was was 2007’s The Art of Love & War for the revived Stax label, which bowed at no. 11 with 45,000 copies. Being fair, Stone has never had a top 10 album, but peaking in the 100s on the Billboard 200 is never triumphant.
- Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dream (released October 2, 2012), debuted at no. 3 on the Billboard 200 Chart with 71,000 copies sold its first week. “Adorn” had began picking up traction prior to it’s release, but gained more once the effort had already peaked.
- Faith Evans led compilation R&B Divas (released October 2, 2012), a companion soundtrack to the brief television series, debuted at no. 46 with nearly 11,000 copies. Faith Evans’s popularity has been waning considerably in recent years with 2005’s The First Lady being her last notable triumph bowing at no. 2 with 157,000 copies. R&B Divas was promoted by Evans’s “Tears Of Joy”, which charted on the R&B/Hip-Hop Songs Chart but failed to chart on the Billboard Hot 100.
- Brandy, Two Eleven (released October 15, 2012), debuted at no. 3 on the Billboard 200 Chart with 65,000 copies. This marked a substantial peaking improvement from ’08s Human which peaked at a tepid no. 15. Much like Tank‘s This Is How I Feel, Two Eleven sold less copies than it’s former album upon its debut week. Human managed a healthier (not by much) 73,000 copies, which was a huge drop-off from the 129,000 copies that graced 04s Afrodisiac.
- Ne-Yo’s R.E.D. (released November 6, 2012), debuted at no. 4 on the Billboard 200 chart with 66,000 copies sold its first week. Ne-Yo had a Billboard Hot 100 hit with “Let Me Love You (Until You Learn To Love Yourself),” which peaked at no. 9.
- The Weeknd‘s Trilogy (released November 13, 2012) debuted at no. 4 on the Billboard 200 Chart with 86,000 copies sold its first week. The Weeknd is a ‘burgeoning’ artist by all means in the U.S., receiving a boost through his work on Drake‘s Take Care (“Crew Love”) and growing single “Wicked Games”.
- Rihanna’s Unapologetic (released November 19, 2012), debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 Chart with 240,000 copies sold its first week. Rihanna’s promo single “Diamonds” also topped the Billboard Hot 100 ahead of Unapologetic‘s release.
- Keyshia Cole’s Woman to Woman debuted at no. 10 on the Billboard 200 Chart with 96,000 copies. Singles “Enough of No Love” featuring Lil Wayne (no. 89) and “Trust And Believe” promoted the effort ahead of its release.
- Alicia Keys‘s Girl on Fire debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 Chart with 159,000 copies sold.
After studying the numbers, notice which albums were the most successful. Rihanna’s Unapologetic leads the charge, garnering her first no. 1 album and selling the year’s healthiest R&B total of 240,000. Yes, I know, many wouldn’t categorize Rihanna as ‘legitimate’ R&B, so if we eliminate her, notice that everyone else firmly planted within the R&B genre sold no more than 159,000 copies. Guess who that was? An underperforming Alicia Keys album called Girl On Fire. Who’s next? A critically panned Chris Brown album entitled Fortune with 135,000 copies sold, down from F.A.M.E.‘s gaudier numbers. As stated previously, the numbers are down for R&B and continually cool. When top R&B artists can’t sell as if they are on autopilot (Alicia Keys, Usher, Chris Brown, Trey Songz, Ne-Yo, R.Kelly), ‘Houston, we have a problem.’
R&B’s biggest problem might be what I diagnose as an identity crisis. R&B has been cooling off and so many of its artists have turned their back on pure R&B in favor of crossing over with pop and dance trends. The biggest trend may be this new crossover with EDM (electronic dance music). There is no problems with wanting to do different experiments, but the problem is that you risk alienating your core constituency. Ask Usher and Chris Brown, who saw their numbers much more underwhelming than expected. Usher did the EDM/Pop crossover thing much better than Brown’s hedonistic version that involved references to bass lines, condoms, and “trumpet lights”, but saw a 200,000 copy drop from the sales of 2010’s Raymond v. Raymond. Ouch. Brown’s drop-off from critically acclaimed F.A.M.E. wasn’t pretty either, dropping from 270,000 to 135,000. While there are takers for both artists and albums, I speak as a fan of both (I’m not big on Brown as of late), that I prefer their previous approaches to this pop/crossover style.
Alicia Keys has even experienced some ID crisis and y’all know I hate to criticize “My Boo”. I prefer both her voice, songwriting,
and overall approach on her earliest efforts (Songs In A Minor, Diary of Alicia Keys, and even the more neo-soul moments of As I Am) to recent efforts The Element of Freedom or Girl On Fire. Her sales have reflected this identity crisis as well. Keys has tried to drive in in a more pop-oriented direction, almost completely stripping her neo-soul stylings. Girl On Fire has succeeded more with a popular single earlier than later than The Element Of Freedom, which had a bomb with promo single “Doesn’t Mean Anything” which sounded too similar to “No One”.
R. Kelly is trying to preserve classic R&B as of late, but given his salacious past, he’s not as interesting when he’s not comparing women to jeeps or urging his lady “let me stick my key in your ignition, baby!” Write Me Back has a triumphant moment in “Clipped Wings”, but face it, there’s not enough innuendo for the same singer/songwriter who bragged of “The Greatest Sex” or even as recently as messing with the “Same Girl” with Usher. And guess what? Write Me Back sold under 100,000 copies, a first for an R. Kelly album.
Others have both regained yet re-lost their steam including Monica and Brandy, both teen R&B stars from the past. Brandy may have better aimed for the ‘modern’ R&B album than her “Boy Is Mine” duet parter Mo, who basically delivered a safe album characterized by its balladry and sleepiness. Keyshia Cole had a run, but seems to be past her lucrative peak as of late.
Newcomers/Young artists Frank Ocean, Miguel, and The Weeknd all have tremendous promise, but do they have enough backing to eventually push them to RIAA certified albums? Will their alt-R&B nature force them to try to opt for more crossover means to achieve commercial success by pop standards? And what about that excellent album we slept on by Melanie Fiona with the superb “Wrong Side of a Love Song”.
What is the future of R&B? Will it still have the basic tenets of the past or will it completely trend pop? Should we make a big issue over these numbers or just see how the style fares in 2013?