R&B is what happened when rhythm and blues got a glossy modern polish with distant echoes of disco and funk. Of course, it’s sometimes hard to hear traces of either funk or disco in modern R&B. And in fact, many 21st-century R&B hits feel closer to dance-pop or hip-hop than classic soul music or vintage rhythm and blues. The story of contemporary R&B really starts in the late ’70s and early ’80s, a time when several strains of African-American music began to mingle in innovative and unexpected ways. That was the era when innovators and future superstars like Prince and Rick James started to combine slickly futuristic synthesizer hooks and smooth disco rhythms with elements of traditional funk and soul, setting the template for the R&B sound of the ’80s and beyond.

With the release of Thriller in 1983, Michael Jackson took this hybrid style to mainstream heights, breaking sales records around the world and singlehandedly making R&B one of the key ingredients in pop music for the next several decades. In the late ’80s, singer and producer Teddy Riley coined the name “new jack swing” to describe a funkier, party-ready brand of R&B that was heavy on hip-hop style and attitude. By the ’90s, rappers and R&B singers were constantly collaborating on each other’s songs. As MCs started rhyming over R&B instrumentals and enlisting R&B singers to sing the hooks, it gave hip-hop mainstream appeal. On the flip side, artists like Mary J. Blige led the charge to bring hip-hop beats into R&B, which birthed hip-hop soul and further blurred the lines between the genres. Of course there’s always been room for soulful ballads and slow jams in modern R&B, as anyone who’s swooned to a Mariah Carey or John Legend hit knows well. The late ’90s saw the rise of the movement known as neo-soul, which abandoned the glitzy, synthetic sound of much modern R&B for the kind of classic musicianship that had seemingly been swept away. Of course, the foundations of R&B have always been built on innovation and the unexpected, and it keeps on evolving, whether you’re looking for a club-ready banger from Beyoncé or an adventurous jam from D’Angelo.



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