Where the Girls At?

Jhené Aiko, Marsha Ambrosius, Ledisi, and the other brilliant women of R&B who aren’t getting their due in 2014.

Photo Illustration by Ellie Skrzat. Photos by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for BET and Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Jhené Aiko, Ledisi, and Marsha Ambrosius.

Photo illustration by Ellie Skrzat. Photos of Aiko and Ledisi by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for BET. Photo of Ambrosius by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images.

In 2011, the only person stopping R&B singer Marsha Ambrosius from topping the Billboard album chart was Adele. Ambrosius, the songwriter behind Michael Jackson’s “Butterflies” and former lead singer of Floetry, would’ve gone No. 1 with her album Late Nights and Early Mornings if its release didn’t coincide with the sales peak of the Adele juggernaut 21. Four years later, her follow-up Friends and Lovers tells a different story: Released a couple months ago, the album debuted with less than a fifth of Late Nights’ sales, and didn’t crack the Top 10.

What happened? Don’t blame the sales downturn on the album—it’s wonderful. Instead, a subtle shift in the way Billboard counts its song charts has had a dramatic effect on Ambrosius and a whole swath of female R&B singers like her. Because of that shift, for the last two years, the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart has acted as a virtual mirror image of the Hot 100. These changes have made this R&B chart a safer, whiter, and more boring place. And it’s making it hard to be a black woman singing R&B.

In 2012, the music industry’s oldest trade journal started counting digital and streaming sales, not just sales of physical CDs, chartwide. To understand what this means to female R&B in 2014, consider Billboard’s contorted history of assessing black consumer data. Until bar-code scanning of albums and singles became the norm on the album and Hot 100 singles charts in 1991, industry analysts relied on gentlemen’s agreement confirmations from retailers who often, to be polite, misrepresented sales. The result: Purchased albums were often undercounted. When Billboard applied this tracking system, known as Nielsen SoundScan, to what was then called the Hot R&B Singles chart in 1993, it confirmed what American kids had known for years: Hip-hop was our rock ’n’ roll. This led to instant results on the Billboard album chart. What many listeners remember as a golden age of hip-hop and R&B—Tupac, Nas, Mary J. Blige, TLC, and so on—happened in part because Billboard reflected with accuracy what the majority of white and black consumers bought.

But we call ages “golden” in retrospect. Slow to respond to the Internet and downright reactionary when it chose to regard Napster as a threat, the record industry saw a diminution in album and single sales after an early 2000s peak. As a kind of OK-you-win gesture, in 2005 Billboard included digital sales on the Hot 100 and album charts but, dithering, not on what was now called the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. For a while, the black charts could still boast an identity, a parallel world in which communal listening spaces occasionally overlapped with white pop culture.

Billboard decided in 2012 to count digital and streaming sales of singles so that they registered on every chart. Slate contributor Chris Molanphy’s meticulous and depressing account in Pitchfork of how the Hot R&B chart has evolved—and devolved—explains the impact. Now the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart looks a lot like the Hot 100. To achieve sales and radio parity, Molanphy writes, “Billboard also incorporated airplay across all radio formats into the genre charts; so airplay from Top 40 or adult-contemporary stations of, say, an R&B song would now count for the R&B chart, of a country song would count for the country chart, and so forth.” The inclusion of digital and streaming data skews all charts toward pop hits—a cataclysmic impact on the R&B chart. “Elsewhere it’s created a drive to find the songs that get the biggest and broadest audience response, which often are pop songs that can work as cross-format smashes,” noted an article published in Billboard itself last spring. Playlists at black stations have tightened as programmers switch to playing Lorde and Rihanna.

The effects of this change have been crafty and far-reaching. It may surprise readers that Rihanna’s R&B chart presence before 2012 had been miniscule. A mere week after the changes, as Molanphy noted, “Diamonds” zoomed from the 60s to No. 1. Her R&B and pop success were now indivisible. While Pharrell’s “Happy” and John Legend’s “All of Me” suggest a black resurgence on the Hot 100, and it’s heartening to watch Miguel cross over (“Adorn” lingered a record 20 weeks at No. 1 on the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart in 2012), for artists like Ambrosius and Ledisi, it’s small consolation. To distinguish the Rihannas from the Ambrosiuses, Billboard publishes an “adult R&B” chart as a programming equivalent to a halfway house. In other words, female R&B artists have had a rough two years. It’s true that sales are stagnant for everyone, but without charting, these women have trouble getting played on a more and more homogenized pop radio; without general airplay, these women stand little chance of selling or streaming the numbers commensurate with building careers. For Rihanna, selling or streaming fewer units is one thing; she already has a global audience. For an artist promoting a second album like Marsha Ambrosius and getting no pop radio play, it’s devastating. There’s no such thing as career development when pop stations won’t take a chance on her latest single; fewer people are going to download or stream her material.

Ambrosius’ sophomore release may rate as a sales disappointment, but it’s only a hair’s breadth less wonderful than the first. Far from demure and averse to shading her demands, she specializes in carnalizing the domestic life. Octave leaps and flutters, electric pianos and martial drums—Friends and Lovers puts traditional R&B in the service of a career woman who cooks breakfast in her lover’s shirt and can’t wait for another night of 69ing. To hear a woman in her late 30s like Ambrosius bask in the glow of a satisfying relationship as she does in “Love” or “Shoes” is a special pleasure.

Released in March, Ledisi’s The Truth offers similar visions of happiness, but girded by a sensibility that’s closer to anthemic. Her song “I Blame You” already sounds like a classic: Over finger snapped percussion and a voice with a physical range as deep as its emotional one, Ledisi describes a mature, fulfilled relationship, inverting the expectations created by the title. (Actually, she blames her lover for being so awesome.) It’s the kind of relationship that never stops surprising sexually and emotionally, and the song has made no pop impact. The adult R&B crowd agrees: In that format it’s one of the year’s biggest hits.

For a couple of years, fans of R&B blogs have touted Jhené Aiko (née Jhené Aiko Efuru Chilombo). A different strain of R&B history courses through her music: the synthed-out landscapes of Stevie Wonder’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale and Angela Winbush’s late ’80s hits. Her debut album, Souled Out, expands and deepens the sound of last year’s EP, Sail Out: a languid blend of acoustic and electronic instruments—as woozy as a bottle of red wine after sex—over which Aiko lays her crisp, cool vocals. It should appeal to those who’ve made radio hits and critical favorites of the productions of Chicago veteran No I.D. (Drake’s “Find Your Love,” Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake’s “Holy Grail”) and Los Angeles newcomers Fisticuffs (Miguel’s “Quickie”).

Lingering affectionately over polysyllables as if fingering a necklace, Aiko masters a quiet speak-song suggesting that little fazes her. With its submerged beats, acoustic strumming, and multitracked vocals holding notes into infinity, “Spotless Mind” conjures Tweet’s “Smoking Cigarettes” as much as Minnie Riperton. “It’s on you, it’s cool,” she repeats on “It’s Cool,”—a motto, not a mantra. Yet Aiko’s aversion to euphoria stems from her commitment to see the romance through; relationships last when people of good will understand each other without living from climax to climax, crisis to crisis. “Eternal Sunshine” describes the kind of romance in which flying kites and weekends on the beach unfold as an everlasting present. To write about relationships that don’t vacillate between emotional binaries is some feat, and her submerged piano lines and midtempo vamping can repel friction; she can be a bore. But at least half the songs on the album boast a hook, verse, or musical detail to treasure. 

Sustaining a career in 2014, however, requires more than small hits. As Beyoncé has discovered, it takes a shrewd promotional and release strategy for even a superstar to coax a response from pop radio. Sure, you know and love “Countdown” and “Love on Top,” but those songs peaked at Nos. 20 and 71 on the Hot 100; “Drunk in Love” was her first Top 5 single since 2009.

No lack of commercial propulsion should stop us from listening to and thinking about any of these artists and others. If country music, as it’s often said, tells stories, R&B chronicles romance and its discontents, with sex as salve and weapon, often in the same tune. John Legend and Usher will do OK. But we need these women. We need their stories.

Anyone interested in female R&B should check out Jennifer Hudson, going for an early ’90s house vibe on “Dangerous”; Sinead Harnett and producer Snakehips hopping up crackling electro arrangements on “No Other Way”; and Keyshia Cole enjoying the taste and feel of another woman with the help of a fractured DJ Mustard beat on “She.” And once in a while the old ways work. The No. 3 peak of Aiko’s Souled Out resulted from a classic career build: a recent No. 1 called “The Worst” from her last EP. It’s made me curious to see how well Mary J. Blige: The London Sessions does this holiday season too. After bangers like 2005’s “Be Without You” and 2007’s “Just Fine” her pop presence has waned, but whether this is a result of the Billboard changes or simply Blige entering one of her regular pop chart lulls—it’s happened before, in 1999 and 2003—we’ll soon see.

And there’s Jhené Aiko, who doesn’t sound like any of these women. Nor should she: R&B isn’t a genre, really, but an ethos—the turning world, not the still point. These singers will survive—thrive—so long as we keep looking for their music, even if the deck looks stacked against them. “That’s why I keep going,” Aiko sings on “W.A.Y.S.” “I gotta keep going.”