At the beginning of December, the song perched atop the Billboard’s Top Hip-Hop/R&B Songs chart didn’t sound very much like an R&B song at all. It was Rihanna’s hulking, sulking “Diamonds,” the lead single from the Barbadian diva’s seventh album Unapologetic, and it veered so close to goth-pop that Zola Jesus covered it. The song exploded into the top spot after some behind-the-scenes changes: positions on that chart, once based solely on radio airplay by stations within the format, are now calculated using sales and streaming data, as well as airplay from all radio stations — including those that don’t specialize in R&B. Suddenly Ri-Ri’s dark, M83-recalling single was a totem for the decline in R&B’s influence on the pop landscape and the genre-busting possibilities the style once held. The R&B lights who did manage to break into the Hot 100′s Top 10 did so by adapting to the dance-heavy pop landscape: Usher threw down an electronically smoothed-out club come-on in “Scream”; Chris Brown went the pop-cyborg route with “Turn Up The Music” and “Don’t Wake Me Up”; and Ne-Yo’s “Let Me Love You” melded his supple voice with skyscraper beats and a self-esteem-boosting message.
Yet despite this lessening of big-tent influence, R&B had a particularly strong year creatively. Perhaps the rush of records came from artists’ acceptance that a pop crossover was not only difficult and distant, it was maybe not even desired. The result was records that felt freer to experiment and dig in aesthetically. Miguel’s second album, Kaleidoscope Dream, is by far the best example: It pushes the genre’s aesthetic boundaries as far as they can go while being mindful of the fact that the music is still also known as “soul.” The singer’s 2010 debut, All I Want Is You, was a slow burner, with woozy love songs like the title track and “Sure Thing” eventually gaining a place on R&B radio. On Dream, Miguel shot higher, melting together funk, rock, pop, soul, hyper-personal lyrics and even a little bit of Jason Mraz-style acoustic goofiness (listen to “Do You” and Mraz’s unkillable “I’m Yours” back-to-back) in a way that was as idiosyncratic as it was thrilling; “Adorn” used Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” and Gregory Abbott’s “Shake You Down” as a springboard for a 21st-century plea for love, while the hollowed-out, glassy-eyed “The Thrill” summed up the dark side of the YOLO philosophy with a swaggering guitar riff and an ominously encroaching backing choir.
Along with Frank Ocean, whose similarly intimate and unified Channel ORANGE came out this year, Miguel received overwhelming amount of critical adulation. The two of them virtually own the Grammys: Ocean received six nominations, Miguel five. But they were far from the only R&B artists successfully playing with genre boundaries. Elle Varner’s Perfectly Imperfect, was a confident, intricately-crafted debut that allowed Varner’s bubbly personality ample space to effervesce into moments of sheer bliss. The love-intoxicated “Refill” winds itself around a hoedown-ready fiddle line; the saucy “Sound Proof Room” is a sexually confident promise of mutual pleasure; she even goes into coffeehouse mode on “Damn Good Friends,” where she uses an acoustic-guitar bed to plead her case to a pal for whom she has romantic feelings. Former Diddy-Dirty Money singer Dawn Richard continued the forward-thinking legacy of that group on her Armor On and White Out EPs, which wrapped futuristic (and, as on the pounding-yet-sweet “Miles,” retro-futuristic) trappings in her tender voice. And Canadian singer-songwriter Melanie Fiona’s The MF Life placed retrofied tracks like the back-patting Motown pastiche “Watch Me Work” and string-aided “Wrong Side of a Love Song” side-by-side with the moody, narcotic “4 AM.” Working in the shade of larger artists, these records nonetheless worked with pop-R&B materials to produce hyper-personal, uniquely stamped projects.
For all the slippery, boundary-striking music being made, there were still plenty of artists who paid homage to the endlessly-renewable resource of the genre’s past. Luke James’s octave-leaping “I Want You” updated the love-song-as-gospel template, the singer’s falsetto reaching Maxwellian heights as he joyously proclaimed his devotion. Anita Baker released her first single in seven years, “Lately,” in the spring; the song picks up almost exactly where her earlier hits like “Sweet Love” and “Giving You the Best That I Got” left off. And then there was R. Kelly’s Write Me Back, the sequel to his 2010 throwback album Love Letter; this time, the Pied Piper updated his touchstones slightly, channeling Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and the greats of ’70s Philadelphia soul. Kelly also garnered headlines with new chapters of his Trapped in the Closet saga, the twisty hip-hopera that had been dormant for five years. Not only did the plot developments multiply like soap bubbles, Kelly engaged in a little bit of retroism of his own, using Trapped‘s signature melody as a jumping-off point for homages to Michael Jackson and ’70s blaxploitation music.
Such homages could be seen as callbacks to an era when flipping the dial could result in a surprise bounty of soul; in contrast, 2012 was when longtime New York radio rivals Kiss-FM and WBLS merged into a single station in order to make room for an outlet of ESPN Radio. But this narrowing of the radio market didn’t stop artists from releasing trial-balloon singles. James parlayed his chart success (and soaring voice) into an opening slot for Beyoncé during her comeback stint in Atlantic City. Ciara, whose last album came out in 2010, released a smattering of singles that culminated in the sprawling “Sorry.”
One R&B artist who remained a mainstay on Top 40 radio (despite taking a hit in album sales) was Ne-Yo, who supplied vocal assists for the likes of Pitbull and Calvin Harris; his clean tenor helped ubiquitous tracks like “Give Me Everything” slice through top-40 radio’s clutter of big beats. But Ne-Yo’s real strength has always been his plainspoken, sturdy, and utterly hummable songwriting. R.E.D. represents his Solomonic attempt to split the difference; during interviews leading up to the album’s release, he was frank about wanting to please all his fanbases with the album. (“If there’s six R&B records [on the album], then there’s six pop records so that everybody can come to the same damn concert and stay for the whole damn show,” he told Angie Martinez of the New York radio station Hot 97.)
The flip side of the airy “Let Me Love You” is the regret-soaked “Should Be You,” a brooding Quiet Storm track that reunites him with his frequent foil Fabolous; there’s even a country crossover attempt, the feather-light, Tim McGraw-assisted “She Is.” The end result is almost the polar opposite of Kaleidoscope Dream — Ne-Yo sees the fracturing of the landscape ahead, and his dancing-all-over-the-map record is his own, nimble response. While R&B as a genre had the ground shifting underneath it in one way or another, the best records embraced the exhilaration that comes from uncertainty.