On Billboard, R&B and Country Music & Respecting Black Art

A couple of days ago I was scrolling down my Twitter timeline, as one does. I came across a tweet from Billboard‘s official chart account. The tweet listed the top five titles on their Top R&B Albums chart for the week dated June 15, 2019:

  1. Free Spirit, Khalid
  2. Long Live Love, Kirk Franklin
  3. American Teen, Khalid
  4. HOMECOMING: THE LIVE ALBUM, Beyoncé
  5. Legend, Bob Marley & the Wailers

My first reaction was confusion, why on Earth were a gospel album (Long Live Love) and a reggae album (Legend) on the Top R&B Albums chart? I was immediately reminded of a tweet from MNEK (read my review of his Language album here). His tweet took issue with U.K. Official Charts; Ignorance Is Bliss, the new album from grime rapper Skepta, was recently named the #1 R&B album in the U.K. This is an interesting conundrum, especially in the wake of the recent controversy surrounding the country music-ness of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.” A look at this week’s Billboard Top R&B Albums chart reveals that Long Live Love and Legend appear to be the only questionable entries. However, a quick glance at the 2018 year-end Top R&B Albums chart shows that XXXTentacion’s 17 at #2; the album is influenced by many genres, but at its core it is a hip-hop album. Over in the U.K., this week’s Top R&B Album chart features a stunning five Eminem titles (two in the top ten) as well as albums from the likes of Nas, The Notorious B.I.G., Kendrick Lamar, and Travis Scott. This obviously goes without saying, but none of these acts are R&B artists nor have any of them made an R&B album.

Beyoncé and Dixie Chicks performing “Daddy Lessons” at the CMAs via Rolling Stone.

This week’s Billboard Top R&B Songs chart begs even more questions. The top ten includes “Just Us” by DJ Khaled & SZA, “Wake Up” by Travis Scott, and “You Stay” by DJ Khaled, Meek Mill, J Balvin, Lil Baby and Jeremih. While SZA is primarily an R&B artist, I would argue that “Just Us” is a pop song; the most “R&B” element would be the OutKast sample. Travis Scott’s “Wake Up” is a run-of-the-mill hip-hop song that features a poppy hook that is sung by The Weeknd who is uncredited. Finally, “You Stay” may have a hook that is sung by an R&B artist (Jeremih), but there is literally more rapping than singing on the track. According to Billboard, the Top R&B Songs chart “ranks the top 25 R&B songs by combining airplay from all formats of radio stations, digital download sales, streaming data and YouTube views of R&B songs.” The most important part here is that the songs are classified of R&B before data is tracked. This begs the question, in 2019, what is R&B music?

Traditionally, most people would agree that R&B music consists of soul, neo-soul, new jack swing, contemporary R&B, quiet storm, and smooth jazz. When you think of R&B music you think of Aretha Franklin, Nat King Cole, Mary J. Blige, and Lalah Hathaway…. not Travis Scott and DJ Khaled. Understandably, genre lines are becoming less and less clear with each passing day. Nevertheless, it does appear that official charts mostly lump black artists into their R&B, Rap, and Hip Hop charts and make it inexplicably harder for them to land on other charts despite the genre of the song. For example, in 2016, after the release of Lemonade, one of the album tracks, “Don’t Hurt Yourself (feat. Jack White)” peaked at #16 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. Just one listen to the track proves the song is unequivocally rock, there is nothing R&B or hip-hop about the song. It has the hallmarks of rock music (harsh drums, brash guitar, growls), features one of the most successful and acclaimed rock artists of our time, and even the GRAMMYs nominated the song for Best Rock Performance. Why was “Don’t Hurt Yourself” excluded from Hot Rock Songs chart when, in 2019, Panic! At the Disco’s “High Hopes,” an undeniable pop song, is enjoying its record-breaking 31st week at #1 on the chart.

INDIO, CALIFORNIA – APRIL 28: (EDITORS NOTE: image has been converted to black and white.) Billy Ray Cyrus (L) and Lil Nas X pose backstage during the 2019 Stagecoach Festival at Empire Polo Field on April 28, 2019 in Indio, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Stagecoach)

Another example comes courtesy of Beyoncé (again) and Lil Nas X. Beyoncé’s acclaimed Lemonade album covered a plethora of genres. An argument could be made that one of the tracks, “Daddy Lessons,” is a country song. It has the guitars and yee-haws and she sings about her Second Amendment right and the Bible, does it get more country than that? The Country committee rejected Beyoncé’s submission of “Daddy Lessons” for Best Country Song and Best Country Performance at the GRAMMYs. Furthermore, “Daddy Lessons” was performed at 50th annual Country Music Awards with country legends, The Dixie Chicks. Nevertheless, the song was only allowed to chart on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs where it peaked at #26. Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” was the focal point of a larger controversy when Billboard removed it from its Hot Country Songs chart. In an official statement to Rolling Stone, Billboard stated that “upon further review, it was determined that ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X does not currently merit inclusion on Billboard‘s country charts. When determining genres, a few factors are examined, but first and foremost is musical composition. While ‘Old Town Road’ incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” Even after Billy Ray Cyrus was added to the record-breaking remix of “Old Town Road,” Billboard continued to prohibit the song from charting. “Old Town Road” is a tricky situation, for every country element there is an equal hip-hop element. One could also argue that the song is just a meme and Lil Nas X had no intention of creating a genuine country-rap hybrid song. Regardless, Billboard has let songs that lean more pop than country chart on Hot Country Songs like Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Backroad” and Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” It is important to note that both “Body Like a Backroad” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” were allowed to chart on Billboard‘s Pop charts.

Country and Rock music, despite their largely Black origins, are currently primarily white spaces. Right now it seems that official chart companies like Billboard are offering more protection to white music spaces in comparison to black music spaces. Why can rap songs by Post Malone chart on the R&B, Hip-Hop, and Rap charts but rock and country songs by Beyoncé cannot chart on the Rock and Country charts? If Billboard is going to be strict with their interpretation of musical genres, there has to be a uniform method. They can’t be strict for country and rock and let anybody and any song chart on the R&B, Hip-Hop, and Rap charts. Furthermore, Black artists are allowed to create music outside of R&B and Hip-Hop even if those are their primary genres. Taylor Swift was able to validly shift from country to pop, the same should be true if SZA decides to drop an alternative album for her Ctrl follow-up. These genres must be protected. All too often black art gets co-opted and the pioneers are never properly compensated or credited. Because of this, black music spaces cannot be open to any and everybody, they deserve the same respect and reverence that their (now) white counterparts get. The Billboard genre song charts were originally based on radio statistics, but in 2013 those charts began using the same methodology on the Hot 100 and incorporating streaming and sales genres. As Billboard‘s rankings are further questioned and Rolling Stone’s official charts loom nearer, let’s continue to protect black art in all aspects, including the charts.

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