The R&B singer H.E.R. has never cracked the Top 25 on Billboard‘s Hot Hip-Hop/R&B Songs chart. But when she releases her debut album this fall, she can rest assured that plenty of listeners will be interested: She has already amassed more than a billion streams across various digital platforms.
H.E.R.’s music is leisurely and soft, two qualities that have been out of fashion in mainstream R&B for around 15 years. Her tracks blend easily into each other, and, more importantly, into down-tempo R&B playlists on both Spotify — where you’ll find her on “Chilled R&B,” “All the Feels” and “Love, Sex & Water,” each of which includes more than a million followers — and Apple Music. (Apple has “Alt-R&B,” “Future Funk” and many more, but does not make follower counts public.)
The powerful streaming service playlist is a thoroughly modern invention. But by nurturing singers who specialize in slow, pillowy music — not just H.E.R., but also Daniel Caesar, DVSN, Sabrina Claudio and Xavier Omar — these playlists to some degree replicate the dynamic of the radio format known as Quiet Storm, which emerged in the second half of the Seventies and helped transform Luther Vandross, Anita Baker and Freddie Jackson into R&B titans in the Eighties.
“It’s a new machinery, but the same idea that [radio personality] Melvin Lindsey had when he created Quiet Storm,” says Dave Dickinson, a radio veteran who used to program the Washington D.C. station WHUR — “home of the original Quiet Storm” — and now helms several R&B stations for SiriusXM. “The playlists are a way to present this music to a new audience, wrapping an old package in new paper.”
In the summer of 1976, Melvin Lindsey was an intern at WHUR when he was pressed into service as a substitute DJ. “He wasn’t a full-time announcer, and he was kind of shy, but he had a feel for music that told stories,” says Dickinson. “So he played Phyllis Hyman, Jean Carne, Norman Connors, things of that nature. He didn’t like to talk a lot, so he only took two breaks an hour. It was long suites of music.”
Callers loved Lindsey’s style, and his template became the basis for Quiet Storm, which was named in honor of the last great Smokey Robinson album. (The title track became Lindsey’s theme music.) The meat of the genre was “slow ballads, some instrumentals and deep album cuts,” according to Maxx Myrick, a 40-year radio veteran. This freed DJs of the need to play obvious singles, or even new songs — oldies and B-sides were welcome, as long as they fit in tone and tempo. ”It opened up the whole thing where ballads could break in without having to compete with up-tempo songs,” the noted critic Nelson George told The New York Times in 1987. In a Billboard article around the same time, he described the format “an alternative crossover route to broad commercial acceptance.”
The Quiet Storm sound is as versatile as it is non-invasive. “The lifestyle of people listening to that format, they have jobs and things to do,” says Kevin Fleming, a former record company and radio executive who now edits the Urban Buzz, a newsletter for urban radio professionals. “That evening format, laid back, cool out, is important — it’s a rejuvenating way to listen to your music.”
“You might be in a bad mood, and you want to hear something that will either justify your mood or change your mood,” Dickinson adds. “People want something they can study to, something they can play while they’re having a dinner party.”
The format immediately proved popular well outside of D.C. “Quiet Storm changed the game for a lot of black radio stations across the country, who adopted not only the format but the name,” says Myrick, who also spent time programming WHUR. It was also a boon for a particular group of singers who already specialized in plush and lush. For veterans like the Isley Brothers, the format helped them continue to score hits decades after they’d begun releasing music.
But things changed at radio when hip-hop crashed into the mainstream in the early 1990s. Rap pushed R&B into the background, and black radio split into formats now know as “Urban Mainstream,” which plays a mix of rap and R&B and targets 18- to 34-year-old listeners, and “Urban Adult Contemporary,” which plays almost entirely R&B and targets listeners aged 25 to 54.
As these formats cohered and calcified, they put young R&B singers in a bind. To get played on mainstream radio, a singer would likely have to subsume her sound to rap — sing over a tough hip-hop beat, make room for a guest rapper — or push the tempo on a club-friendly record. “I came up at a time before streaming, where the only sort of popular exposure you could get was radio, and that translated back and forth to the clubs,” Warren “Oak” Felder, a songwriter and producer who has worked with Usher and Kehlani, said last year. “That was when A&Rs were constantly telling me for a first single: tempo, tempo, urgency, urgency.”
For singers who preferred to keep things more relaxed, Urban Adult Contemporary radio offered a safe haven, but at a cost. First, Urban AC stations don’t reach as many listeners as mainstream ones. And second, young singers weren’t entirely at home in that format either, because the “adult” in the title refers as much to the singers as the listeners. Programmers expect what’s known as a “mature sound,” and they believe that often comes from mature adults. A recent Top 20 Urban AC chart included 12 artists above the age of 35.
As long as radio remained the primary way for an R&B singer to reach a wide audience, then, young R&B singers with a “laid back, cooled out” sound who were also interested in commercial success had few options.
The rise of streaming began to have a crucial impact on R&B in 2016, according to Latoya Lee, who worked closely with veteran singer Trey Songz and helped sign rising act Sabrina Claudio as an A&R at Warner Music Group. (She’s now Vice President of Creative at Atlas Publishing.) “I started to see a shift in the type of R&B that was gaining headway,” she says.
Streaming opened an alternative path for R&B singers to reach fans outside of radio. “It wasn’t about the club anymore,” Felder said, before using language that echoes the way programmers talk about Quiet Storm. “It’s what you’re listening to cleaning the house, cooking or at home reading a book.” And importantly, streaming was — and is still, to a large degree — a young listeners’ game. Singers who succeed on streaming services are not stuck with the older demographic of Urban AC listeners.
When it comes to streaming, playlists are increasingly central. A report by Midia Research this year suggested that 54 percent of streaming listeners now rely on playlists instead of albums to hear music, and 50 percent of all listening on Spotify takes place through playlists.
Playlists, especially mood- or genre-based playlists, tend to revolve around specific tones and textures. R&B’s flagship Spotify playlist is “Are & Be” (4.5 million followers), and it’s more of a catch-all — you might find H.E.R. next to the peak-hour-ready Drake single “In My Feelings.” But most of the other popular R&B playlists share characteristics with the Quiet Storm format, at least in the way they emphasize the serene, the gentle, the un-jarring: “Love, Sex, & Water” (1.45 million), “Chilled R&B” (1.39 million followers), “All the Feels” (1.34 million), “The Sweet Suite” (1.21 million), “Bedroom Jams” (896,000), “Alternative R&B” (724,000). The only other popular playlists of new R&B not in this vein are the more festive — and more rap-friendly — “Channel X” (1.48 million) and “Gold Edition” (1.23 million).
To take just one example, in a recent week, two of the top songs on “Sweet Suite” were straight out of Quiet Storm heaven: Baker’s “Angel” (1983) and the Quincy Jones-helmed R&B posse cut “The Secret Garden” (1989). A few songs later came a new tune from Summer Walker, a sleepy young singer with just four official tracks, and “Could’ve Been,” the latest single from H.E.R. You’d be hard-pressed to find a young singer who can hit notes like Vandross or Baker, but the ballads they favored are prized in these spaces — and, unlike in Urban AC, so are young singers. (No instrumentals or deep cuts, though.)
The popularity of Quiet Storm-like R&B from young acts on streaming services contrasts sharply with its limited presence on radio. But it may have become popular, in part, precisely because radio has ignored it: Any young person who wants a break from trap will have a hard time getting that on the airwaves, unless they tune into the local Urban AC station. The nature of streaming itself may also play a role in the popularity of this sound, since these services seem to be particularly good at signing listeners up for a smooth, unbroken listening experience in any genre — look at “Peaceful Piano,” which has a remarkable 4.76 million followers.
Lee, the former major-label A&R, also thinks these tranquil R&B playlists are tailor-made for a wear-your-feelings-on-your-sleeve era. “Back in the day it was like, ‘Fuck feelings, be hard, we like N.W.A., we don’t do none of that [R&B],’” she says. “Real talk, Drake helped with that: People aren’t afraid to be in tune with these emotions as much as they were before. These kids go to those playlists and get into their zone.”
Whatever the reason, this playlist ecosystem has helped elevate a number of young R&B acts that would have struggled to make money — i.e., get a radio hit, so they can tour — even three years ago. “Go online, these guys have a hundred million streams on songs that don’t get airplay,” says Jeff Robinson, H.E.R.’s manager, who also helped Alicia Keys become a star 17 years ago.
The biggest success story in this space so far is probably Daniel Caesar’s “Get You.” When he brought the acoustic guitar ballad to radio programmers, they turned it down across the board. “They all said, ‘Great song, doesn’t fit our format at urban,’” explains Jordan Evans, who co-manages Caesar. “We had to find another way to get into urban mainstream music. We had to find a backdoor entrance. So we said, ‘Let’s build our streaming numbers.’”
Caesar earned the support of Apple Music’s former head of hip-hop/R&B programming, Carl Chery, along with Mjeema Pickett, who handles R&B playlists at Spotify. (Chery is now at Spotify as well.) By the time Evans took the record back to radio, Caesar had over 50 million streams. “Get You” became a hit first at Urban AC before it crossed over to mainstream and became a hit on the same stations that played Migos. “It’s hard to deny when someone has a ton of streams, even if you’re only playing Young this, Lil this, YFN this,” Robinson quips.
A similar pattern has emerged for nearly every young R&B singer hoping to have success without club singles. The debut album from DVSN (featured on “All the Feels,” “Love, Sex, & Water” and “Alternative R&B”) has earned 171 million cross-platform streams to date without radio play. That helped propel “Mood,” the lead single from their second album, onto Urban AC. Brent Faiyaz’s Spotify releases have over 85 million streams (“All the Feels,” “Low-Key”), which helped “Gang Over Luv” earn modest play at mainstream radio. Sabrina Claudio (“Silk Sheets,” “Acoustic Hits”) hasn’t made the jump to radio yet, but she’s nearing the 400-million cross-platform stream threshold. Xavier Omar (“Alternative R&B,” “Boho + Chill”) also hasn’t gone to radio yet, but he has over 80 million Spotify streams.
And then there’s H.E.R., who sold out a small tour around the time she cracked the 200-million stream mark, according to Robinson. Her streams were already north of 600 million when the singer’s label, RCA, decided to push “Focus” to radio. “It’s gonna be the slowest tempo record at radio,” Robinson worried. But with that stream count behind it, programmers played “Focus” anyway.
Now H.E.R. is preparing to release her debut album. Robinson is confident it will find a home. “You may not necessarily want to hear trap music while you’re trying to unwind and the sun is going down and you’re trying to zone out,” he says. “Quiet Storm is relaxation time. This fits the bill.”
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