You will get no argument from me about the plight of the contemporary R&B artist. A number one R&B album on the Billboard 200 here and there does not rule out how much the deck is stacked against them in this climate—particularly if you are a black woman (yes, even Beyoncé). Even so, I believe in aiming your grievances in the appropriate direction, which is why I’m already cringing at what lies ahead in Adele season. People are frustrated that black singers very rarely get to enjoy massive success doing distinctly black music as they did decades prior.
However, Adele is not the best example of how a white face can sell more with a black sound.
Adele is not like Iggy Azalea, or Macklemore, or any other white person borrowing from black cultural traditions. I’m perplexed that people even consider what Adele does to be soul or anything reminiscent of black music. In 2012, Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt accused Adele fans of being racist. Speaking with LA Weekly, Merritt explained, “She really has a lovely voice, but I only get suspicious when people get excited about British people who sound like American black people.”
Merritt went on to add, “Basically she sounds like Anita Baker. And people are not, you know, wild and crazy about Anita Baker.”
No the fuck Adele doesn’t.
As a child who reportedly (by my older sister) would cry in the car as a toddler when an Anita Baker song ended on the radio (then got home and cried again until it was played on a record player), I take great offense to this. I invite Stephen Merritt and others who share this sentiment to listen to Anita Baker’s One Night Only live album (now on Spotify). If anything, this is an example of racism in that white people get extra credit for simply showing up. It’s a similar problem I had with GQ christening Sam Smith “the new face of soul.” I imagine Jon B and Remy Shand are still somewhere pissed about that.
Ain’t no soul there, bih.
Adele has a lovely voice, but it does not possess the grit, fluidity, and genuine soulful tone of a singer like Anita Baker. Frankly, outside of “Rolling in the Deep,” which I suppose has a little kick to it—enough to get Aretha Franklin and many a black auntie to stomp their feet in salute—Adele is not at all soulful sonically or vocally.
Nevertheless, the “Adele sounds black” narrative has returned forcefully but is no less fraudulent a stance.
I quite fancy Adele as a person (see her latest Rolling Stone cover story) and a few songs here and there, but one reason why I don’t gravitate toward her as most on Planet Earth do is that her music is not soulful. Adele is not like Amy Winehouse, whom I adored and who serves as much more apt comparison to this sort of racialized critique. Adele is not Christina Aguilera, who impressed the late Whitney Houston with her rendition of “Run to You.” She’s not even the Australian singer Grace, who has a gorgeous cover of Nina Simone’s “Love Me or Leave Me” on NINA REVISTED: A Tribute to Nina Simone.
Don’t fall into the trap of crowning any white singer with a decent voice a soul singer.
Adele reminds me more of adult contemporary balladeers of the 1990s. Those women were always massive sellers, only the problem is somewhere along the way that kind of majorly white female singer managed to attain wide success again—but her black female more soul-leaning counterpart has not been as fortunate.
Yes, it is a shame that great albums from singers like Jazmine Sullivan, K. Michelle, and Tamar Braxton are not welcomed with open arms. It is a pity that Jazmine could sing the same “Hello” and not be met with the same fanfare, but be very clear that if Jazmine did sing the song, it would be a totally different one. There is plenty of blame to go wrong when it comes to such an unfortunate reality, but again, wag your fingers in the faces they belong.
Be upset about the plight of black radio. Be annoyed with the manner in which a single’s success is measured to place on the Hot 100 (iTunes sales and YouTube views are not the best place to gauge an R&B single’s true appeal). Be mad at these white folks who, yes, prefer their blackness with white aesthetics more often than not. But don’t be so vexed at Adele because while she may be a lovely singer, she is not a soul singer.
We can be angry about the unfairness, but we should also give our tradition far more credit. Don’t fall into the trap of crowning any white singer with a decent voice a soul singer. Adele could never. Don’t you forget that.