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Charting Black Excellence | Ella Mai & all the other current faces of R&B

Da’Shan Smith

 // Oct 26, 2018

Ella Mai // Instagram

'Charting Black Excellence' celebrates black artists and their current accomplishments on the Billboard charts, which often don't receive the proper recognition and attention.


Due to her recent series of success, Ella Mai is being called almost every honorific name in the book. The one that stuck out to the London import the most is “The New Face of R&B,” as she’s told Beats 1’s Julie Adenuga, last month. And while many will have their opinion on this notion (with some stans even championing their own favorite artist as such), the charts and radio airplay is proving her newly found moniker as fact.

As of the publishing date of this article, Ella Mai now boasts two Top 20 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Her debut commercial single, “Boo’d Up,” peaked at No. 5, and her current single, “Trip”—a striking reincarnation of the former—currently sits at No. 11. Mai is now just one charting position from having two Top 10 singles.

What’s even more impressive about the fast-paced adoration for “Trip” is it’s only one spot away from claiming the summit of the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart. “Boo’d Up” eventually broke a record on the same chart, making Mai the first woman to spend 16 weeks at the top, surpassing Mary J. Blige’s “Be Without You” (15 weeks in 2006; Miguel’s “Adorn” completed a 23-week run in 2013).

The triumph of “Boo’d Up” was monumental for R&B music in a time when many counted the genre out in terms of mainstream appeal for black artists. Prior to “Boo’d Up,” the last black female artist with a solo, purely R&B record to hit the Top 10 of the all-encompassing Hot 100 chart was Rihanna in March 2017 with “Love on the Brain.” The long-running Rihanna stan in me rejoiced at the accolade, but the militant music journalist of me screamed there’s a foul on the [radio and streaming] play.

Although charts shouldn’t be the end-all decider on who's dominating the scene, they do highlight the mass public’s perception of music. Ella Mai’s currently holding the torch, but just a year ago that title easily went to SZA. Aside from Mai, only two other black women can boast top 10 R&B-centric singles in 2018: SZA herself with “All The Stars” featuring rapping from Kendrick Lamar, and Normani on “Love Lies” with Khalid. Make it three, if we count the New Jack Swing of Bruno Mars’ “Finesse,” where Cardi B is rapping rather than singing.

But outside the Top 10, and in the deeper depths of the charts, R&B music is making a resurgence slowly but surely. Jhene Aiko’s Trip has spent 53 weeks (that’s more than a year) on the Billboard 200 albums chart. The 2017 album boasted some cult favorites for true R&B fans (such as “While We’re Young”) and some moderately successful radio hits (“Sativa”). Still, for an album that didn’t go after commercial fodder, a week on a chart where R&B seems not to matter is quite impressive. SZA’s CTRL has also passed 365 days on the chart, going on a two-year run at 71 weeks.

Another artist in the same boat is H.E.R. The first installment of the H.E.R. self-titled chronicles has also spent an entire year on the Billboard 200. Currently, H.E.R. and Daniel Caesar claim the No. 1 song on the Adult R&B Songs with “Best Part.” For H.E.R., this marks her second chart-topper after “Focus.” For Caesar, “Best Part” is also his second summit reacher, as “Get You” featuring Kali Uchis peaked in February. And although his debut album, Freudian, only peaked at No. 25 on the Billboard 200, it has now spent 58 weeks on that chart.

And we can’t forget the motion of 6lack who, like Ella Mai, can say he now has a No. 1 R&B album on that respective chart. While he hasn’t seen the Top 40 region of the Billboard Hot 100 yet, he’s made three indents on the chart. Released back in 2017, his debut EP/mix-tape Free 6lack has now spent 73 weeks on the Billboard 200.

To bring this Black Excellence full circle, never forget the week of April 14, 2018. That week three R&B songs simultaneously debuted on the Hot 100, becoming the first chart entries for three artists. Ella Mai would start her “Boo’d Up” chart quest; “Focus” finally landed H.E.R. in the mainstream realm she deserves; and Queen Naija got acclimated with “Medicine.” That week indicated that R&B’s presence was stronger than ever when it comes to music, and the success for all three artists predicted major crossover appeal to come.

Before this week’s Charting Black Excellence ceases, I wanted to make something clear to those who may argue that “none of these people are real R&B.” Of course, R&B has seen a massive overhaul of trap-flavoring (especially considering how our new school legends Usher and Amerie favored this sound for their recent releases). However, R&B works in waves, always catering to what’s relevant to the younger generation of lovers, just like other music scenes.

Through all the trap releases—and even a vocal trend labelled “cursive singing” (a la SZA)—these R&B songs are still moving the culture forward. As an entire audience, we’re all online discussing each new release like we should. In the past, R&B has evolved from Motown to post-disco grooves to New Jack Swing to hip-hop soul and neo-soul, in the same way trap&B will ultimately funnel into music’s next stage. Whatever that will be, what we know for now is R&B is finally back back. And better yet, our black artists are getting the shine they deserve.


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