Chicago’s R&B music scene ever-evolving, with an eclectic mix of artists, soundsEvan F. Mooreon August 9, 2021 at 10:30 am

Chicago’s music scene — known for gospel, rock, funk, punk, hip-hop and the birth of house music — also has a long-standing history in the R&B scene.

Over time, music fans have seen Sam Cooke; Curtis Mayfield; Chaka Khan; Minnie Riperton; Lou Rawls; Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White; Mavis Staples; Donny Hathaway; Syleena Johnson; Jennifer Hudson; Jeremih; Chantay Savage, and, among so many others, make names for themselves in the Chicago R&B scene.

Chicago area singers Carl Thomas, Donell Jones, and Dave Hollister recently formed an R&B supergroup, “The Chi.”

What about the current group of local singers? How do they view the state of Chicago’s R&B scene? Whom do they look toward for inspiration? How can the local scene do better by the artists? Is the music — and the artists — all the same? Does anyone stand out?

Lauren Dukes, a singer who specializes in blues, soul, jazz and R&B, has mixed feelings about the Chicago R&B sound. While there is an abundance of access for creatives to share their music with the masses, she prefers traditional forms of R&B.

“Well, locally, something I definitely like is it’s easier and more accessible for the average independent artist who doesn’t have major label backing,” said Dukes, who recently released “Hectic Love Week,” a song from her self-titled five-song EP. “I gravitate toward artists that keep a more authentic sound; not that genres can’t evolve, but just that it’s more reminiscent of the R&B that has a message and substance — and feeling behind it.

“What I don’t like about the [Chicago R&B scene] is — this may not be subject to just locally — I can’t tell the voices apart. I think we’ve moved toward less singing — melodic rap. Not that there isn’t space for everybody, but rap has its own sub-genres. R&B doesn’t need to go into that direction. I’d like to hear more singers. The R&B artists I tend to gravitate toward are ‘sangers,’ as we say in the church.”

South Side-bred artist Matt B took the route less traveled by many R&B artists by releasing his early work in Europe and Japan, charting on the iTunes R&B charts. He says depending where one resides in Chicago, the sound varies.

“I think what’s great about local R&B is how diverse the sound is,” said Matt B, who says he works with the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) to bring local artists on the city’s radar. “You could go on one side of the city and you could hear more of an R&B and hip-hop blend. You can go on another side of the city and you can hear more of a blues and R&B sound.”

Chicago’s Josh K (right, with New York rapper Fabulous) is preparing to release his follow up to “Lovers Lane: Act 2.”

A common complaint from R&B fans — young and experienced — is that the musical content consists of sex primarily, instead of love.

So where does Chicago R&B fit in?

Josh K, who is preparing to release his album “Lovers Lane: Act 3” with features from Fabolous, Jeremih and Tory Lanez, says even though he prefers Chicago’s R&B sound from the ’90s — artists sounded “vulnerable” back then, he says — the genre is on the upswing.

“Compared to the last five years, I’d say the state of Chicago R&B is looking up,” said Josh, who cites local singer Tink as one of the city’s best R&B artists. “I feel like it’s starting to come back around full circle. We’re starting to get the spotlight on us a bit more which is great. … Chicago’s music scene is looked at only for drill and gangsta rap. I feel like Chicago forgets that there’s still R&B artists of our nature.”

BJ The Chicago Kid’s music is featured on season four of the Showtime series “The Chi.”
Luis Vela

And some artists, such as South Side native, six-time Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter BJ The Chicago Kid, who recently released “4 AM,” a four-song EP, says he prefers to stay in his own lane.

“I haven’t really been tuned into much; I’ve been recording so much music on my own and trying not to be a sponge — just being creative,” said BJ, whose music appears on season four of the Showtime series “The Chi.” “There’s a lot of ‘playground legends’ — I like to call them — who weren’t able to get [record] deals, and church singers.

“Chicago is one of those cities that breeds musicians, singers, producers and rappers, of course, as the new generation has shown us.”

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