Detroit-Exterior_Fox_TheaterUrban

Also known as urban contemporary, Urban was the term given to the R&B/soul music of the 1980s and ’90s. Like quiet storm and Philly soul, both strong influences, urban was very smooth and polished, but while its romantic ballads fit well into quiet storm radio formats, urban also had room for uptempo, funky dance tracks, which usually boasted the same high-tech, radio-ready production and controlled yet soulful vocals. That’s why, in spite of its name, urban didn’t usually have the earthy grit associated with the term “soul music,” preferring to tone down the raw emotion in favor of a slick refinement. Up until the late ’80s, most urban music was highly pop-oriented, often in melody but nearly always in terms of production. A number of artists — like Janet Jackson, Billy Ocean, and Whitney Houston — crossed over from the R&B charts to the pop charts, although there were others like Freddie Jackson, Luther Vandross, Stephanie Mills, and Levert whose R&B popularity never translated quite the same way. The urban landscape began to shift with the advent of hip-hop; producer and Guy member Teddy Riley crafted a fusion of the two, inserted occasional rap breaks, and dubbed it new jack swing. New jack made a superstar of Bobby Brown and proved greatly beneficial to his ex-New Edition mates as well. In addition to Riley, songwriting/production duos whose work straddled pop and R&B — like Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis (Janet Jackson), Denzil Foster & Thomas McElroy (En Vogue), and Antonio “L.A.” Reid & Babyface — dominated urban music at the turn of the decade, with Babyface going on to a hugely successful singing career in his own right. Urban and hip-hop continued to cross-pollinate during the early ’90s, eventually resulting in a new hybrid tagged “hip-hop soul.” Hip-hop soul was rooted in new jack swing, but the beats were funkier, more elastic and unpredictable; while hip-hop soul was still slickly produced, it had a grittier, more soulful feel than new jack. There was still a side of urban that retained roots in quiet storm and adult contemporary, though, and regardless of which side of the spectrum they fell on, the songs were increasingly becoming showpieces for elaborate vocal technique. Partly owing to the steep decline of mainstream pop/rock in the wake of alternative, urban more or less dominated the pop singles charts for the latter half of the ’90s, with major acts including Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton, R. Kelly, Boyz II Men, SWV, Blackstreet, Jodeci, Monica, and Brandy, among others.


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