R&B is wallowing in its past: It feels like nearly every commercially successful R&B single at the moment is built on a prominent sample or a conspicuous interpolation of an old hit.
It’s not the act of sampling itself that’s troubling. The sampler is one of the more extraordinary inventions in the history of pop music. Time and time again, sampling, interpolating or just honoring old records has led to vital creations, from Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” to D’Angelo’s “Send It On” to the Weekend’s “Tell Your Friends.”
But in the last year-ish, it sounds like R&B singers and producers have decided that sampling a major hit with an absolute minimum of change is the quickest — the only? — path to chart success. These artists are not sampling as a way to reframe an old record or spotlight a particularly compelling passage that might have been overlooked. This is sampling as karaoke, where the in-your-face rip of an already-successful single serves as a silver bullet to counter listeners’ presumed bias against the unknown.
Several up-and-coming artists have used this formula to land their first hit. Summerella’s “Do You Miss It” (Top 20 at mainstream rap/R&B radio) swipes Mary J. Blige’s honeyed boasts from “I Can Love You.” Nicole Bus’ breakout “You” (a multi-week Number One at the R&B radio format known as Urban Adult Contemporary) shares its backbone with the Wu-Tang Clan manifesto “C.R.E.A.M.”
But more established artists are also using obvious flips as a crutch. Ella Mai’s “Shot Clock” (over 140 million streams in the U.S.) lifts from Ginuwine’s “So Anxious” by way of Drake’s “Legend;” Chris Brown’s “Undecided” (nearing 100 million streams) grabs its melody from Shanice’s euphoric “Your Smile;” Guordan Banks’ “Can’t Keep Runnin'” (Top 25 at Urban AC) reimagines the Gap Band’s chiming hit “Yearning for Your Love;” DJ Khaled and SZA’s “Just Us” (Number 43 on the Hot 100) goes for the throat by parroting Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson.” Dinah Jane’s “Heard It All Before,” currently rising at mainstream radio, borrows from Lauryn Hill’s war-torn “Ex-Factor,” even though Hill’s track was flipped by both Drake and Cardi B for hits in 2018.
There is a certain logic to R&B’s current obsession with its past. While the genre’s commercial prospects have improved recently — R&B’s share of total song consumption grew from 9.5% in 2017 to 11.2% in 2018 — it still lags behind rap, which accounted for nearly 25% of all singles listened to last year. So a contemporary R&B singer can goose up listener interest by reaching back to a time when R&B still ruled the charts: 1999, 1991, 1980.
This retro impulse is intensified by modern systems of distribution for R&B. Since R&B listeners are not voracious streamers — at least when compared with hip-hop fans — radio has more influence in the genre. And radio programmers are quick to reward the I-loved-this-20-years-ago factor, especially in Urban AC, a format that favors older listeners.
But the sheer volume of options available on streaming services can also nudge R&B singers towards glaringly-obvious rips. When battling to stand out amid the deluge of new music that arrives daily on Spotify and Apple Music, plenty of writer-producers and music executives believe a tinge of the familiar provides a crucial assist to a single.
There’s still excellence to be found through imitating old hits. Ari Lennox’s “BMO” might use the same sample as Busta Rhymes’ rowdy masterpiece “Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check,” but the two tracks tease out slightly different melodies from Galt McDermot’s “Space.” As a result, Busta Rhymes’ single suggests a slam-dance in a haunted-house; “BMO” conjures a slow-dance in a bedroom.
While Lennox coaxes a different energy from a familiar source, many in R&B are settling for bland recycling. These samples aren’t just less interesting, they are counterproductive: Singers end up accidentally undercutting their own authority, emphasizing the primacy of the old stuff rather than the vigor of the new. If a prominent sample does all the melodic heavy lifting, it shoves the singer rudely out of the spotlight — in his or her own song.
For the listener, the initial thrill of sample recognition (“Ms. Jackson!”) — the feeling that stops you from hitting skip — curdles quickly into wariness, a suspicion that your nostalgia is being used against you. This feeling is magnified when so many tracks rely on the same approach, and that approach is so creatively threadbare.
There’s no denying that the recycling is working on the charts — a slew of hits in the last year alone. But historically, R&B has served as the melodic engine for all the rest of pop. As the genre fights to regain its commercial luster by carefully retracing past steps, it’s in danger of abdicating that role.