The Rise of Spanish Language R&B

The Rise of Spanish Language R&B

R&B en Español’s evolution has had many faces. Though poorly recognized in the Latin American music industry, today’s generation of R&B Latinx artists are unafraid to defend the traditionally incorrectly categorized sound.

“We are just at the beginning phase of it,” says Danny Flores of COASTCITY. “There is still not a proper category for [R&B en Español].” The Grammy-nominated duo comprised of Flores and Jean Rodriguez infuse tropical beats with hip-hop and R&B. “I hope to one day have a Latin R&B category in award shows just like they have pop, norteño, and tropical,” adds Rodriguez. His 2006 debut solo album On was a Spanish-language R&B project that aimed to push the envelope in R&B en Español.

The rise of Latin trap undeniably accommodated its recent acceptance. The multi-genre wave, found in Bryson Tiller’s trap-influenced R&B paired with the alternative R&B vibes of The Weeknd, prompted a new wave of Spanish language R&B artists—enabling artists such as Jesse Baez and Lyanno with the trap-soul structure and fluidity to both sing and rap.

The Latinx community has historical ties to R&B—starting with its Afro-Cuban roots. The habanera rhythm adopted by African American musicians laid the foundation for the sound in the 19th century. The alignment resurfaced in the late ‘60s. The rise of boogaloo and Latin Soul—a fusion of Cuban styles like mambo, guajira, and guaracha along with R&B vocals and notes as well as southern California’s brown-eyed soul movement celebrated the integration of R&B in Latin music.

As American R&B evolved, Latin artists adapted. Though promoted as Latin pop, tracks resembling the ‘80s R&B wave of New Jack Swing—a hip-hop influenced fusion spearheaded by Janet Jackson’s album Control and visionary producer Teddy Riley—can be dated back to Nuyorican boy band The Barrio Boyzz in the early ‘90s. This style is heard in their collab with Selena on “Donde Quieres Que Estes” and Paulina Rubio’s “Amarte en Libertad.”

Melismatic cries echoed into the turn of the millennium. Frontman to Son By Four, Angel Lopez, prolonged single syllables throughout their track “A Puro Dolor.” The song incorporated back-up harmonizing similarly done in groups like Dru Hill and reminiscent of those of the “classic five era” like The Temptations.

All those influences can be heard in today’s crop of R&B artists. Girl Ultra, the reigning soul queen of Mexico’s emerging R&B scene, and the sensuous voice behind “Ella, Tú y Yo,” recalls that time.

Listen to Girl Ultra and others on our flagship R&B en Español playlist, Sentimiento:

“[R&B] was somewhat hidden in Nickelodeon shows,” she says crediting TLC and Destiny’s Child as major inspirations. “Sin Bandera, OV7—they were using R&B style percussions and melodies.”

The early 2000s also saw a spark in Afro-Latinx singers like Kalimba and Anais. Her R&B-influenced ballad “Lo Que Son Las Cosas” peaked on the Billboard’s Hot Latin Chart and remained there for six consecutive weeks in 2006. That same year Randy and De La Ghetto dropped “La Sensación Del Bloque,” a track singer Lyanno notes as an early R&B-inspired track.

“There’s confusion with what is R&B,” says Lyanno. The Puerto Rican native appeared in 2018’s remix to “Toda” by Alex Rose. Most recently, he reunited with Rose and Cazzu for his latest R&B single “Repeat” that also features singer Dalex.

“Many songs that have been categorized as ‘trap’ are R&B and trap soul,” says Lyanno, who is currently on tour with J Balvin. These trap soul sounds are present in “Egoísmo,” by Guatemalan singer Jesse Baez, who was one of the first in the new wave of Latinx R&B artists.

Rauw Alejandro is also a part of that freshman class. Since his beginnings four years ago, he is most known for incorporating the element of dance that has long been associated with R&B acts such as Chris Brown and Usher. Songs like “Detective” and “Que le Dé” encompass reggaeton and tropical beats with soulful vocals.

“We carry our culture and joy wherever we are in the world,” he says on the Caribbean pride that fuels his music.

Routinely associated with pop, alternative or trap, the journey towards proper recognition has been challenging for artists. Girl Ultra and Paloma Mami have been mislabeled as “trap” artist numerous times in the past.

“When I first started in Chile everyone categorized me as a trap artist [but] the only song I had released [had] R&B vibes,” says Paloma Mami about “Not Steady,” the single which gained her a deal with Sony.

“It’s an issue that Latin artists have to talk about because they’re putting us all under one category: Latin music,” says Girl Ultra. “There’s a huge spectrum of what Latin music is. We have to get rid of the prejudice of what Latin music should sound like.”

She’s not alone in that sentiment. Luckily, the future of R&B en Español is looking bright, with artists like Girl Ultra, Baez, Rauw Alejandro, COASTCITY,  Lyanno, GioBulla, and more reinforcing its sound.

It’s foreshadowed perfectly by Paloma: “There’s a whole new wave of R&B coming up and it’s so fire . . . it’s definitely going to push the genre forward and have American R&B [artists] get on [our] flow.”

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