There has always been a correlation between church and R&B music. For decades your most successful singing acts started in a Baptist choir. It was so cemented in the fabric of the genre that it felt like an assembly line. Church is often where people learned to sing passionately about the Lord. They were coached and nurtured to have big voices with tons of character. However there seems to be a change in that church to superstardom pipeline as of the past decade or so. People are beginning to become less religious and more skeptical of church. The pews being empty has single handedly changed the landscape of the R&B genre.
“She was raised in Illinois
Right outside of Chicago
Some of the best cookin’ you ever had
Yes, it was and I miss her
Hey woman, if you’re listening
I said I miss you baby”
In church the pastor or even a church member gives something called a testimony. It’s usually an account of something they survived or just managed to get through. It usually is dramatic but it serves a purpose. What gave R&B music so much character and presence was the incorporation of the “testimony” in songs. Controversial but legendary crooner, song writer, and composer R. Kelly is the perfect example of incorporating a testimony. In fact his 1995 album R. featured a church theme. Kelly grew up in a church and it sounds amazing when he adds that flavor to the most detailed and metaphoric songs you could think of. The lyrics above are from “When A Woman’s Fed Up”. The lyrics are at the end of the record and don’t have much to do with the song, but it almost makes the song.
Robert Kelly has turned the bridge into a full blown testimony about the woman who got away and it’s incredible. Other examples are songs like “I Wish” where he famously begins to sing at the end of the record about his mother and friends passing for someone to “Come on and braid my hair”. What exactly did that have to do with the song? Perhaps a memory of his mother braiding his hair triggered the rant. That genius can only be found in a church. That testimony is what R&B is lacking. Artists would be able to place a testimony on any type of record. It wasn’t always just about showing off or sex. There were many other emotional ingredients in R&B. As raunchy as the Aaron Halls, R.Kellys, and Jodecis were, the reality is there was a balance of many nuanced topics aside of sex.
With the lack of church in music we now have music with less soul, instrumentation, power vocals, and testimonies. These kids didn’t have to go to church every Sunday and it shows. So what can we expect for the future of the genre? Will the soul ever return? Sure there are tons of amazing R&B projects out but the line between R&B and hip hop are getting thinner. The question is have we permanently lost what church instilled in our R&B legends of the past? Is there truly no church in the wild? Only time will tell.