The R&B played on the radio today sounds a lot like it did in the '90s. It includes the same story lines, from heartbreak to hot sex to falling in love, just as it did back when your mother insisted “you know nothing about that” whenever TLC came on. Even the samples used in today’s music are the same, jogging your memories of a fond time — back when R&B was lit.
But here's the thing: R&B is still lit — so lit there's a whole fest, Best Life Music Festival, coming to Miami to celebrate the genre. Its headliner, the California-born singer H.E.R., taps into the '90s by using references from Aaliyah, R. Kelly, and Lauren Hill in her music. Then she effortlessly flips these samples, creating relatable music for her younger audience. H.E.R. is the generational leader we need in R&B.
H.E.R., born Gabriella Wilson, began her career at 10 years old, when she sang her ass off to a cover of Alicia Keys' "If I Ain't Got You" on the Today show. Although she played a role in the music industry by being featured on BET and working behind the scenes in songwriting and background vocals, she disappeared from public view for years — until she reappeared as H.E.R. In 2016, she released a self-titled EP, reflecting on all of her lost love stories while wearing sunglasses to disguise her face and posting shady photos on Instagram.
“It’s easier for people to judge what they don’t like about someone when they know exactly what they’re looking at,” she says. “I just want it to be all about the music. Forget the clothes, the looks, the name, the backstory... you’re here for the music,” she told Refinery29.
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You don’t need to look into H.E.R.’s eyes to see her into soul. Her love language isn’t expressed through a shimmer in her eyes but through ballads from her heart. With its nostalgic samples, her music sounds familiar yet also thoroughly modern. This is how to keep a generation alive while still relaying its messages to a younger audience.
Instead of falling into the music industry trap of attempting to reinvent the wheel and create new subgenres, H.E.R. renewed a sound that stands on the foundation of classic R&B. We often forget R&B stems from the soul, and that soulful feeling is often lost when artists incorporate hip-hop, trap, and alternative sounds into the production. Though a good radio hit always includes a thick bass line, H.E.R. trades in booming 808s for a jazzy hook, allowing your parents to meet you halfway to appreciate this new take on the genre.
So, yeah, your favorite new R&B song is just a recycled sample from the '90s, but H.E.R. makes it sound good. The production on singles "Lost Souls," "Losing," and "Let’s Get Away" keeps us close to the root of rhythm and blues but also adds the breath of fresh air needed to make the music relevant again. H.E.R. is a leader in today’s era of R&B, not only because of her sample placement but also because she hits the spot many others miss: the passion in the music, which lies in the focus on her sound rather than on her appearance. While we await her debut album, H.E.R. continues to make strides, proving that R&B is not dead and that she’s here to give us the music we miss with a new and innovative twist.
Best Life Music Festival. With H.E.R. and others. 4 p.m. Saturday, September 15, at the RC Cola Plant at Mana Wynwood, 550 NW 24th St., Miami; bestlifefest.com. Tickets cost $65 to $150 via blockparty.us.