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SZA brings back the blockbuster R&B Album

After the success of her sophomore album, SOS, the songstress has proven that R&B is alive and well, on its way to the top ... again
Author: Sisa Zekani
Thu, Mar 09, 2023

PHOTO: @Sza Twitter

In the music industry, a lot can happen in 6 years. Music trends come and go, superstar musicians become 'someone we used to know', and an app like TikTok can change the way music is consumed, marketed, and made. Luckily for SZA, 6 years was more than enough time to turn her into an era-defining artist.

As soon as it was announced that SZA's latest album SOS would spend a tenth week at the top of the American album charts, many people asked, "Why now?"? Especially because in many ways her debut album CTRL was released during an unfriendly environment for black women in R&B.

PHOTO: @SZA Instagram

Sales were at the lowest they’ve ever been, and radio tastes were favouring pop and trap music. This meant that labels were no longer interested in developing and promoting new acts that weren’t guaranteed to sell (like rappers) or easy to package (like white artists). So, we found a genre losing its identity, with every R&B single featuring a trap beat and a rapper.

Despite all of this, SZA's music still found an audience.

These people were young listeners who enjoyed her vulnerability and weren’t scandalised by her confessions of adultery, her struggles with mental health and her insecurities. They enjoyed her mellow rap-sung delivery over traditionally neo-soul/alternative productions. These were the people who would bring back R&B.

Creating a new generation of listeners who seek relatability and connection in the music they listen to – something often lacking in pop and hip-hop due to their bravado and bigger-than-life personalities.

The kind of openness that SZA portrays in her music isn’t new though. It’s in the identity of rhythm and blues.

A key feature of the genre has always been the openness of the soul and the bareness of emotions. This worked for decades as music about love, needing and relationships was easy to relate to. Usher’s Confessions – which sold 25 million albums worldwide – read like a diary entry of the then 26-year-old’s life. This is also one of the last true blockbuster eras we would get from R&B as the recession approached and people wanted music that was less reflective of their realities and allowed them a moment of escapism.

This is how EDM and hip-hop took over the charts.

The larger Lady Gaga, Lil Wayne and The Black-Eyed Peas became, the smaller the space for black R&B acts. It was boring to be a balladeer who sang gospel runs and danced like a young MJ. Everyone had to adapt. When Usher was collaborating with dance music producers it was out of necessity, Chris Brown adopting a rapper persona was out of survival and Ne-Yo working with Pitbull was an act of desperation.

Most interestingly though, while black artists were trying to keep up with a changing musical landscape, blue-eyed soul was having a resurgence. Bruno Mars, Robin Thicke, Adele, Ariana Grande, and Sam Smith were having huge single and album sales making music that was classified as pop but sonically R&B leaning. The message was clear – the industry didn’t mind backing an R&B act if they came in non-black packaging.

So, how did SZA manage to come back in 2022 and have the kind of commercial success that’s normally reserved for her white peers? The answer is streaming and TikTok. Ten years ago, the powers that decided R&B wasn't selling anymore, so they wouldn't invest in it, had a lot more power then than they do now.

Media and radio are no longer determining factors in an artist's success. The Gen Z generation picks their own superstars.

In a world of influencers and reality television stars, SZA who chooses relatability and honesty above mystique is the perfect artist for this new era of soul music.

Her album SOS with its genre-bending and raw appeal caught onto something that was always there but just not paid enough attention to – the children love to feel. This is the same consumer that turned Billie Eilish and Oliva Rodrigo into commercial juggernauts because those artists spoke in ways that Gen Z understood and could relate to.

If the world is fair the success of this new SZA record will mean, we get to see R&B getting a mainstream push again. That SZA is the rule, not the exception. Artists like Janelle Monae, Frank Ocean and Jhene Aiko who have been making some of the most critically lauded music in the industry can get the big budget funding and radio plays that their white counterparts get because it’s been proven that there’s still an audience for it. Hopefully, this also means the return of the R&B girl/boy group that we’ve been missing for 20 years.

As we celebrate SZA's success – let's not forget that more diversity of sound in the industry means more representation for those often left out. R&B deserves a seat at the table too.