This list is not based only on albums sales, nor pure vocal power, this list takes into account the artist impact. Each of these artist created music that represents how we look at life, how we deal with and cultivate relationships, and some of went so far as to show how we view the world. R & B is no longer the soulful rhythm genre of music it once was. It has now been co-opted by hip hop and pop. I am sure that many people will have issue with some of the people on my list. If you’re favorite artist doesn’t have enough material for a greatest hits albums, they’re probably not on this list.

1. Stevie Wonder  is pure musical genius! Mr. Stevie Wonder is a gifted musician who has one of the smoothest, melodic, and recognizable voices to every be heard on radio, hands down. Since the age of 13 Mr. Wonder and produced hit after hit and here it is four decades, 30 top ten hits and 22 Grammys later and his music still makes us smile. He was never one to sing easy song, he sung songs with difficult choruses, abrupt stops and unpredictable changes. His accomplishments and impact on the music world is unrivaled.

2.Michael Jackson  as a 10 year-old he blew most competition young and old out the water! M.J. wasn’t just a  talent, he was a true student of music. To Michael Jackson music is art and he used his versatility to navigate musical genres effortlessly. His songs went the extra mile, with sound and vocal effects to create a deeper ambiance. Through his voice you could hear the anxiety, sadness or stress of a song, it was Jackson’s musical experimentations that led to the creation of modern-day pop-music. Michael’s voice is as distinctive, his smooth harmonic sounds are timeless. He has been often imitated (Donnell Jones, Usher, Beyonce, Ne-Yo, Chris Brown and countless others), but never duplicated!  You can also credit him with the needless explosion of choreography in videos and stage performance.

3. Prince was musically and thematically ahead of his time. Compiling ten platinum albums and thirty Top 40 singles during his career. He infused dark funk, pop, gospel soul with R & B passion. It was Prince and Michael Jackson who and sustained Music Television and music video.  He is also the uncredited father of the “text message”. Prince is an ambitious, creative, inspired musician. His off-kilter, feminine voiced songs are not duplicate. From ballads, to love songs, to dance melodies Prince did it all.

4. R. Kelly  is an incredibly gifted versatile singer. Robert Kelly can bring you from high and passionate, to a playful sing-song flow with the greatest of ease. Kells, or the Pied-Piper of R & B manages to reinvent himself with each album. He has sung songs about topics that are relevant to the everyday man from finances, to love problems, to having faith in oneself. Billboard has acknowleded R. Kelly as #1 R & B artist of the last 25 years, go figure. His collaborations are legendary and the next time you are “Stepping”, or doing the “Slide” at a club or wedding reception remember that R. Kelly made it possible.

5. Ray Charles: His records were always filled with an expressed assortment of slurs, glides, moans, shrieks, wails, shouts, and hollers that were all beautifully controlled, disciplined and inspired by his musicianship. For over 40 years Ray Charles filled us with thought and empowerment. He composed, arranged and produced his music long before there was a corporate vehicle to do so. Whether he was tackling country music, putting in Latin-esque blues motif or call and responses with the back-up singer, Ray Charles was a musical explorer who pushed boundaries and the boundaries of race, a pioneer.  He had one of the most distinctive and powerful voices the industry has ever known and it’s a shame that more people don’t know his work.

Also in order and deserving to be mentioned for the great music and contributions to the R & B genre are James Brown, Luther Vandross, Lionel Richie, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pentergrass, Al Jereau, Usher,  Ron Isley, Smokey Robinson,  Keith Sweat, Al Green,  Freddie Jackson, Baby Face,  Barry White, Jackie Wilson, Peabo Bryson, Frankie Beverly, Brian McNight, Maxwell, Howard Hewett, Jackie Wilson, Jeffrey Osbourne, James Ingram, Avant, Lou Rawls, Brian Mcknight, Musiq and Joe.

What’s  Your Top 5?

by Push Nevahda

Black ghetto life is so absurd, pointless, hopeless and meaningless that one has to laugh to keep from crying, or go to the dance club to vent the frustration, fear, anxiety and anger rather than let life’s tragicomic existence send us to the asylum or the grave. The tragicomic motif is best seen in black comedy and black music. Black comedy validates and affirms the black ghetto experience while black music cushions the pain of such an experience, sustains the faith, and redirects the heart and mind from things that would otherwise propel one towards suicide, homicide or fratricide.

As one who has spent much of his early life living in the inner-city, I am personally aware of the tragicomic mode of ghetto-life, and the inter-play between music and comedy in such a situation. The way in which the black comedians (especially the ones on BET) bear witness to what is funny yet comforting to black folk because we are glad that somebody understands the depth of our struggle. In other words, black comedians validate the ghetto experience therefore reaffirming our sanity (at which sometime or another one is certain they have lost).  Much of Black life contains those salient dimensions of the tragicomic experience where we are often left to cry and laugh – or laugh to keep from crying – of our dilemma.

The late comic genius Richard Pryor was not necessarily trying to be comical but rather tell what it was like to be black in America. The humor in Pryor’s stand-up was in how raw and rich his stories, analogies, anecdotes and characters seemed – particularly to whites, most of who were completely out of touch with the everyday strivings of black ghetto life. For black audiences, Pryor’s humorous testimonials revealed the essence of what it meant to be black in America. Black folks laughed because Pryor had the gall to be so bold with the truth. Too, blacks realized through Pryor that they’d actually survived and strived through tumultuous times (or, as Curtis Mayfield would say, they managed to “keep keepin’ on”.)

Music is the language of black folk. It is how we articulate ourselves. Black music sustains blacks in the ghetto. Especially inner-city blacks, for whom life can be so ridiculous, that one has to go to the dance club to unwind from the long and arduous week of working, hustling, stealing, conning, begging, pillaging, scheming, blaming, cussing, and doing whatever else it takes to keep ones head above sea-level. So, when the weekend finally arrives, it’s time to release the pent-up frustration and anger, and let it go. And what better way to let it all go than with the titillating elixir of Hennessey, and the Isley Brothers soothing, soulful, and syrupy love ballad, Voyage To Atlantis. And, for the true bona-fide, dedicated, unionized, card-carrying member of the ghetto elite there is nothing comparable to sitting in the club listening to R. Kelly sing about the complex events and dramatic moments of black ghetto love, sex, lies and romance. This is what R. Kelly means when he sings in “Happy People”: “Where do we go soon as the weekend gets here/The club/Why?/ To party and have some fun/What is it that, Can come and take away all your stress, tell me/Music/No further questions, you have passed my test…”

I’d personally note R. Kelly – along with the rappers – as one of few artists to have fully grasped the tragicomic experiences of black ghetto life. For Kelly, the dance club serves as an alternative to the dangerous and frightening imminence of soul-death and ghetto-murder. Shuckin’, jivin’, gossip, conversations, afro-rhythmic dancing (aka ball-roomin’, steppin’ and the hustle), stress-quenchin’ drinking, and soul-stirring music necessarily beset the place and space for blacks to come together and soothe, caress, stroke, and embrace one another’s pains, aches, and other daily sufferings. In other words, for Kelly, the club – like church – becomes a sanctuary of healing, praising, testimony, and conviviality. Both the church and the club serve as psycho-social retreats for black flight from vicious societal bombardment, rejection, discrimination, and inequality – which is why most saved-and-sanctified folk feel just as comfortable in the club as they do the church. (As a matter-of-fact, most sanctified folk I know often head straight to the club the moment church services end.)

So, when we think of how black folks in the inner city cope with the loss of factory jobs, the rise in unemployment, poverty, homelessness, missed-meal cramps, high murder rates, thugs, bad kids, babymommadrama (yes, that’s a word), lousy politicians and school systems, ineffective protestations against the machines-of-urban-disruption, inequality, no quality, meaninglessness, hopelessness, etc., understand the centrality of BET and television shows like, DEF Comedy Jam and ComicView; understand the cultural necessity neighborhood hotspots and dance-clubs like Yesterdays, Floods and  Mr. Mikes (Detroit), Rain (Las Vegas), Liv (Miami), The Savoy and Club Mayan (Los Angeles), Santos Party House (New York), or the Halo Lounge and the Velvet Room (Atlanta); and understand the genius comical commentary of artists like Richard Pryor, Steve Harvey, Chris Rock, Cedric the Entertainer, and R. Kelly in the lives of common ordinary black folk.

Even if you hate Selento’ Watch Me (Whip/Nae/Nae) song, you must realize it is the Electric Slide,it is the Cupid Shuffle for this generation. Go to any outing and watch how that song brings children together, it unifies them, it is how they cope. For us, music, song, dance, and comedy will always be the vehicles through which we most freely express, articulate, and understand our plights and dilemmas. And on that note, that is “The Reason Why the Colored American Spends So Much Time in the Hood, Laughing and Dancing at the Club, While Drinking His 40 Ounce and Listening to R Kelly”  

Push Nevahda is an author, critical book reviewer, feared intellectual and freelance writer. Get to know him well…