Justin Timberlake and the disappearance of black R&B artists

Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake is everywhere. Or at least he seems to be.

The actor and pop/R&B phenom recently hosted “Saturday Night Live” for the fifth time — a historic event that drew appearances from comedic heavyweights like Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase — and followed that up by co-hosting “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” for a series of consecutive nights dubbed “Timberweek.”

In February, he was named the creative director of Bud Light Platinum, and a slick new commercial for the beer features the crooner performing his comeback single “Suit and Tie,” which he also performed at the Grammy Awards alongside rap mogul Jay-Z. This summer, JT and JZ will embark on a joint stadium tour that stops in 12 cities. 

And this week, Timberlake drops his much-hyped third album “The 20/20 Experience,” which follows up his 2006 multi-platinum masterpiece “FutureSex/LoveSounds.”

With the barrage of well-timed advertisements, performances and hosting duties, the superstar’s return to music after a seven-year hiatus feels like a pop culture tidal wave. And the excitement is — ahem — justified, because his genre-bending brand of R&B fills a massive void left by artists like Rihanna, Chris Brown, Ne-Yo and Usher. All of them launched their careers in R&B to one degree or another, and all of them have since switched to a dance-pop sound that inspires fist-pumping sessions and dominates club dance floors, but leaves little in the way of lasting impact.

Currently, there are few black artists who can lay claim to successful R&B careers. The-Dream is still making breathtaking R&B, but he has gained the freedom to do so by writing and producing mega-hits for other artists and forming his own label imprint, Radio Killa Records. Beyonce is certainly a superstar, but it’s hard to describe her music as R&B, even if you slap a “contemporary” label in front of it. Frank Ocean is a young mover and shaker in urban music, but it’s telling that the Grammy he nabbed was for Best Urban Contemporary Album; even the Grammys don’t quite consider his music R&B.

Solo artists Tyrese, Ginuwine and Tank formed the supergroup TGT in 2007 to combat the takeover of techno-style pop music and resurrect the dying R&B genre, but they’ve yet to release an album. Keyshia Cole and Mary J. Blige both bring a hip hop-soul aesthetic to R&B, but these days, you’re not likely to hear much of their music on mainstream radio. Trey Songz hasn’t wavered from his sex-charged — and often shirtless — brand of rhythm and blues, but while he’s achieved some success in urban spheres, he’s far from a household name.

So one has to wonder why black R&B artists in a genre once brimming with black genius have either switched to pop or been marginalized by the mainstream, while white artists like Timberlake — along with Robin Thicke, British sensation Adele and the late, great Amy Winehouse, for example — have managed to make soulful R&B music that achieves enormous success. Adele’s album “21,” for example, has sold over 10 million copies, and her monster single “Rolling in the Deep” sounds like it leapt straight out of 1967.

One has to wonder why mainstream black music, once rich with R&B that promoted love, tenderness and substance, now includes one of two types of songs: vapid pop numbers by artists who sound more like robots than real people, and commercial rap tracks that glorify violence, materialism and misogyny. It’s hard not to conclude that this shift in style, one that minimized music of positivity and substance, was orchestrated by record label and radio executives in an effort to re-shape the sound of black music, and perhaps the perception of black people.

So Timberlake’s success, while well-deserved, inherently speaks to the limitations and pressures placed on black artists in comparison to the artistic freedom granted to white artists. It forces us to question whether Timberlake, if he was black, would be given the latitude to explore pop, funk, rock, soul and R&B, all while blending retro elements with futuristic sounds, or if he would be pressured by label bosses to conform to the same watered-down, generic pop standard so many one-time R&B artists now call home because “that’s what listeners want.”

This is not a knock on Timberlake. His music is some of the best that’s being made today. As the former member of bubblegum boy band NSYNC, no one would have been surprised if he faded into obscurity and resurfaced years later for a questionable stint on “Celebrity Apprentice.” The fact that he’s forged a massively successful career in a dying genre and become a highly bankable star drawing checks from corporate behemoths like Budweiser and McDonald’s (remember the “I’m Lovin’ It” advertising campaign?) is a testament to his talent, likeability and hard work.

Timberlake deserves the accolades he’s received, but his achievements inevitably call into question why black R&B artists with comparable talent haven’t risen to similar heights. Are these black artists in a genre that once birthed legends like Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and James Brown in control of their careers — or are they following orders? Are they looking to branch out and experiment with pop by choice, or is that move being presented as the only option?

Great music knows no skin color, but the success of white R&B artists and the disappearance of their talented black counterparts from the mainstream suggests that the forces involved have as much to do with race as music. The question we should all be asking ourselves is what music executives have gained by minimizing the black presence in mainstream R&B — and what we as listeners have lost.

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