Whatever happened to R&B radio?

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Remember when there was only one format of R&B radio? Today's there's mainstream R&B, Adult R&B (a/k/a Urban A/C, a/k/a quiet storm plus "jammin' old school," a format pioneered by Chicago's V103, which positioned itself as "your home for hits and dusties" a full decade-plus ago), Rhythmic Top 40 (a/k/a black music for white people - lots of booty-shakin' jams and faux-thuggishness, since that's what most white folks think blacks do, bust nuts and bust shots), Smooth Jazz (a/k/a instrumental black pop plus Anita Baker and Sade, and depending upon your market, Steely Dan and Phil Collins, too)... can you even imagine Anita Baker getting played on a mainstream R&B station these days? (And Quiet Storm shows at night don't count.) Hell, for some of 'em, even Mary J. Blige is nearly pushing it. But is Ciara really anyone's idea of a future core format artist?

Mind you, this is no rant against youth-oriented R&B or hip hop; Ciara's made some cracking singles herself, and there's something about Omarion that just kills me (let's see if he can keep it up; later for Bobby Valentino, who feels like the definition of "one-hit wonder," and possibly the same for the over-touted Chris Brown). But where's the room in the format for grown folks? How did MJB, just in her mid-30s, damned near become the oldest artist R&B radio will play? Prince may get a few curiosity spins, especially with his new "this time, I'm really back" single "Black Sweat," but that's probably the extent of it, and Charlie Wilson and the Isleys wouldn't be getting love from today's youth-focused stations if not for the patronage of a certain Mister Robert Kelly. Jill Scott's initial success, meanwhile, now looks more like a fluke than anything; don't expect to hear her outside of Adult R&B anytime soon.

To cite just one example, you know what followed De La Soul's "Me Myself and I" to #1 R&B back in '89? It was a friggin' Natalie Cole ballad, the gloppy "Miss You Like Crazy." I can't fathom a radio station - at least not a terrestial one - playing both of those hits, let alone back to back. Yes, I understand that radio formats (of all stripes, with the exception of country) have splintered like a sledgehammered woodpile over the past 10-15 years, all in the name of narrowcasting for ad dollars. There aren't any true top 40 stations around these days, either. (Though the format's mainstream variant, with its Matchbox 20-to-Bow Wow segues, comes closer than you might think.) Thinking of what once was likely never again will be saddens me, though.

Exceptions certainly exist. Fantasia may have Jazze Pha- and Rodney Jerkins-helmed club jams on her debut album, but the songs that broke as the hits, big hits, were the sumptuous ballads "Truth Is" and "Free Yourself." If Fantasia's the contempo Patti LaBelle (and she is), I guess that makes Alicia Keys today's Gladys Knight (and not just 'cause she covered "If I Were Your Woman" on her Unplugged). She's beat all the odds to already craft a small library of sounds-like-classics, most notably "If I Ain't Got You," which will endure after we're all dead. It's her "If I Were Your Woman," actually. Neither artist has sold as much as she has based solely on Adult R&B airplay (though it certainly helps - believe that grown folks buy records); you don't go top 5 on the R&B singles chart just by hitting the top of the former - just ask Kem.

Kem's a rarity becoming more common these days: a new artist breaking, fairly exclusively, at Adult R&B. You could argue that the likes of Dwele and Kindred the Family Soul have done the same, but neither of them has sold much, let alone hit #1 on the R&B album chart. Kem has done both, topping the chart with last summer's II. What concerns me is that soul music seems to be getting abandoned to Adult R&B. No, not all of it's good, certainly. But would an Angie Stone get a chance from mainstream R&B today? Her distaff counterpart, Anthony Hamilton, has had to fight for every radio spin he's received (especially since his boss, Jermaine Dupri, seems more concerned with Dem Franchise Boyz these days) - and the slooooow response to his new album's leadoff track, "Can't Let Go," shows that he's still gotta fight for his. Sigh.