This is a list for true R&B fans, as well as those who may not know a great deal about the genre. It was compiled using a strict barometer of great musical achievement, along with personal impact. Record sales mattered but were not the mitigating barometer. With that being said, enjoy!
#10. Keith Sweat.
When you think of a voice that is a dynamic blend of super silky, and earnest soulfulness, Keith Sweat from Harlem, NY should immediately come to mind. When you think of the ‘New Jack Swing‘ musical movement (1987-1993), Keith Sweat’s role as it’s innovator, should also come to mind. His early career started with a group called ‘Jamilah‘ in the 1970’s, but by the time of his 1987 solo album release ‘Make it Last Forever‘ which sold over 3 million copies, Keith Sweat had arrived. The single ‘I Want Her‘ was at #1 on the R&B charts for weeks, and #5 on the Pop charts. He followed that success with 1991’s ‘Keep it Coming’ which debuted in the Billboard Top 20. In all, the ‘New Jack Swing’ era of R&B owes a great deal to Mr. Sweat, and R&B fans understand this with conviction.
If you were busy falling in, or out of love in the 1980’s and 1990’s, Kenneth ‘Babyface’ Edmonds’s music probably helped you out. Known for the youthful appearance that garnered him the nickname ‘Babyface’, his voice had an intoxicatingly soothing quality that was anything but youthful. He has either written, and/or produced some 26 #1. ‘hit’ R&B tracks in his illustrious career. Oh, and can you can add several dozen nominations to go with the 11 Grammy Awards that he has been awarded, please?
#8. Bobby Brown.
Robert “Bobby” Brown is a lot of things to a lot of people, including one of R&B music’s ‘bad boys’, but for most people he is known as a transcendent artistic performer and singer. Prior to his well documented 1992 marriage to R&B Diva Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown was an original member of ‘New Edition’, and by prior I mean he was 9 years old when he started the group with friends Michael Bivens, and Ricky Bell. The group achieved recognition and much success, however mismanagement and fraud left Bobby without much financial stability to show for it all. In 1986 he embarked on his solo career and it started slowly. ‘King of Stage’ his debut, was only luke-warmly received. It was the release of ‘Don’t Be Cruel‘ (1988) that launched him into superstardom. Memorable hit singles like ‘Roni‘, ‘My Prerogative‘, and ‘Every Little Step‘ were included in the five top ten singles overall from his sophomore album. It also sold in excess of 12 million copies, making it clear that Bobby Brown had prodigious talent. His penchant for partying and drug use slowed down what could have been an even greater musical legacy. However, his career has seen record sales in excess of 20 million copies. His appeal has served him well in the hearts of many in the R&B community, and for that here he sits at #8 on our list.
#7. John Legend.
Born John Roger Stephens, he has blazed an early career that has had serious impact on Rhythm and Blues soul music in the 2000’s. His achievements include nine (9) Grammy Awards, one (1) Golden Globe, and even an Academy Award. As early as 2007, John Legend was honored with the Hal David Starlight Award in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Not bad for the 36 year-old whose debut album ‘Get Lifted‘ was released only 4 years prior in 2003, and certified Gold shortly thereafter. As his ‘Legend’ grows (Pun Intended) he will likely move to the hallowed positions near the very top of this and any other list.
Since beginning his musical odyssey at the spry age of 12, Usher Terry Raymond IV has seen a meteoric rise in his position as one of the most talented voices the industry has ever seen, or better put, heard. His second album My Way (1997), was responsible for his first Billboard Top 100 number-one single, ‘Nice & Slow‘. ‘My Way‘ went on to be certified six (6) times Platinum! Not to be outdone, his (2003) release of ‘8701‘ was a supernova of success, and his (2004) release ‘Confessions‘ literally brought the R&B universe to it’s knees, selling over 20 million albums to date, and included four (4) consecutive Billboard Top 100 singles. ‘Burn‘, ‘My Boo‘, and ‘Confessions Part 2‘, are stand out examples. It also holds the distinction of going Diamond in sales. Usher sold more R&B albums in the 2000’s than anyone. To date Usher has sold over 24 million albums, and 40 million digital songs in the United States. He has sold over 75 million records worldwide in total. That’s serious juice folks, ya heard?
#5. R. Kelly.
Not the first ‘bad-boy’ on this list, and almost certainly not likely to be the last, Robert Sylvester Kelly’s voice has the power to pierce even the most hardened of souls. It’s just that good. His body of work is impressive, the accounting of his record sales are even more so. Ever since his 1992 coming out party with the group ‘Public Announcement’, R. Kelly has proven to be a transcendent musical talent. Notable singles: ‘Bump N’ Grind‘, ‘Your Body’s Callin‘, ‘I Wish‘, ‘She’s Got that Vibe‘, and ‘I Believe I Can Fly‘. He has sold over 40 million albums in the United States to date, and in 2011 he was was named the most successful R&B artist of the last 25 years by Billboard Magazine. Overall, R. Kelly has released 12 solo studio albums, selling well over 100 million records worldwide. Thus making him the most successful R&B male artist of the 1990s. Where the aforementioned Usher went on to pick up the torch in the 2000’s. R. Kelly is one of the pioneers of ‘Hip Hop Soul’. Just listen for yourself, and you will hear exactly why.
#4. Marvin Gaye.
‘When I get that feeling, I need sexual healing…’ Indeed, Marvin, indeed. Lyrical content dripping with soul. A voice that seemed angel blessed. A man who was taken from us far in advance of what was fair. These things and a plethora more can be used to describe Marvin Gaye. The sound of his voice has always been a source of pleasure for his fans. Notable all-time hit singles: ‘How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)‘, ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine‘, (Grammy Award) ‘Sexual Healing‘, ‘Mercy, Mercy Me‘, and ‘Let’s Get it On‘. His career was tragically cut short in an unfortunate shooting death at the hands of his father. Posthumously, he has been awarded the ‘Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award‘, as well as inductions into the ‘Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame‘, and the ‘Rock and Roll Hall of Fame‘. Need anymore convincing? I didn’t think so. I think it is safe to say that the world misses Marvin Gaye’s voice. I miss Marvin Gaye.
#3. Stevie Wonder.
Born without the gift of sight, Stevland Hardaway Morris’s music seemed to describe the world with a combination of grace, and sensitivity, that was always greater than our own. The hits were many, and the impact unmistakeable across five generations. You’d be hard pressed to extend your hand and miss another human being who hasn’t been touched in some way by Stevie Wonders’ music throughout the years. Since his beginnings as a child prodigy, he went on to become one of the most influential and universally loved musical performers of the 20th century, and well into the 21st. All-time hits include, but not limited to: ‘Superstition‘, The iconic trumpets contained in ‘Sir Duke‘, ‘You Are the Sunshine of My Life‘, ‘Fingertips‘, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind‘, ‘My Cherie Amour‘, ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You‘, and many more if you can believe it. The rest can be stated as cold hard fact(s): 30 top ten hits in the United States. 25 Grammy Awards, which is also the most ever for a R&B male solo artist. 100 million albums sold worldwide. What endears him to this author is his lifetime of work with Civil Rights, and just social causes. In addition, as late as 2009, Stevie Wonder has been named a ‘United Nations Messenger for Peace‘. In 2013, was named in Billboard magazine’s list of 100 All-Time Top Musical Artists. This is but a proverbial ‘drop’ in the remarkable musical bucket, called Stevie Wonder’s career.
When I first heard ‘Little Red Corvette‘, I wasn’t even sure what ‘Prince’ Rogers Nelson was referring to. I had never heard of a little corvette of any kind. But I was willing to believe given that the music he produced during a prolific 12 year period that spanned the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s was, simply put, magical. Arguably not a ‘true’ R&B recording artist, his eclectic usage of guitar, keyboard, and even choir sounds was unmistakably Prince. His music had the well documented reality of being really, really, good. Some of his music made us feel better, optimistic even. ‘1999’ comes to mind, yet a great deal of his music skillfully spoke to our souls about his experience, and understanding of the human condition. His 1979 sophomore album ‘Prince‘ easily hit Platinum in sales. With memorable singles: ‘Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?’, and ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover‘ paving the way to the eventual release of albums ‘1999’ (1982), and ‘Purple Rain‘ (1984) with timeless songs such as: ‘When Doves Cry‘, ‘Purple Rain‘, and ‘Let’s Go Crazy‘, all of which charted top ten or better. ‘Purple Rain‘ sold more than 13 million copies in the United States. In addition, it spent 24 consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the pop charts. The film that spawned the soundtrack grossed over $80 million on it’s way to an Academy Award. Ironically, At one point in the year of our Lord 1984, Prince held the No. 1 album, No. 1 single, and No. 1 Film in the United States, at the same time! 1984 was the year of Prince. This solidified him as a mega-star whose style, music, and persona were as unique, and eclectic as the world had previously seen. He has sold over 100 million albums world-wide to date. Let’s put aside the name change and ‘The New Power Generation’ movement that came later, Prince’s musical contributions have proven to be well, ‘Princely‘.
#1. Michael Jackson.
Let’s put aside the drama, and upheaval that came to describe Michael during his last decade of life. Let’s celebrate the life that was tragically cut short in June of 2009. Is there a soul on this earth, or the next, that can argue the transcendent talent, showmanship, and impact Michael Jackson’s music showcased? Anyone? Not anyone who appreciates musical genius, in my opinion. Michael Jackson’s ‘Off the Wall‘ (1979) recording is considered by many to be the very best R&B/ Pop albums of all-time. Singles: ‘Off the Wall‘, and ‘Rock with You‘ also considered two of the very best ever. He is called ‘The King of Pop‘ for very good reasons. His ‘Thriller‘(1982) album is the best-selling release of all time. Over 65 million copies sold worldwide. Singles: ‘Wanna be Starting Something‘, ‘Beat It‘, and ‘Billie Jean‘ join the singles from ‘Off the Wall’ as some the very best ever. That’s two of the all-time best albums, and accompanying singles, in back to back album releases! He followed up those albums with ‘Bad‘ (1987), ‘Dangerous‘ (1991), and ‘HIStory‘ (1995). Each of which are among the best selling albums of all-time. Michael Jackson’s list of musical acheivements are legendary: Thirteen (13) separate ‘Grammy Awards’, A ‘Grammy Legend Award‘, A ‘Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award‘, Twenty-six (26) ‘American Music Awards’, wait there’s more. An ‘Artist of the Century‘ award, as well as, a ‘Artist of the 1980s‘ award, and thirteen (13) No. 1 singles in the United States alone. In December of 2015, the ‘Thriller’ album became the very first to surpass 30 million copies sold. Making it a certified thirty times (30x) Platinum! Easily the ‘King of Pop’. Michael Jackson ‘Moonwalks’ to the #1. spot…with a bullet.