Among ever-changing music trends and shifting tastes, genre lines in Black music and beyond have continued to blur, particularly in the last decade. With so many of the world's biggest acts floating somewhere between pop, soul, hip hop, electronica, afro-fusion, and indie, artists like SZA, Tyler, The Creator, Burna Boy, and Lizzo are all adept at mastering these greys. Canadian acts like Polaris prize winner BACKXWASH, Winnipeg band Super Duty Tough Work, and Toronto-based rapper Exmiranda all flout the lines of metal, hip hop, jazz, soul, and funk in their own ways. On CBC’s new show The Block, many of these artists represent an entire class of Black artists, often making distinctly different music with shared sonic roots, who are good at almost anything.
With online platforms and tools making streaming, downloading, and even creating music easier than ever before, as well as the wildfire spread of hip hop—itself a genre borne of many others—as popular music’s dominant genre, these large collections of sounds are pulled closer together at every turn. From Prince to Kelis, defying categories isn’t a new phenomenon, but its accessibility, and fans who see musical fluidity as the default, definitely are.
Thanks to curated playlists across streaming that sort music into moods, listeners are drawn to music that fit a particular feeling or activity as opposed to hard-lined genre identifiers. According to music analytics firm Chartmetric, these contextual playlists typically have more followers than those based purely on genre. Where the lines between genres and regional sounds were previously far more pronounced, these barriers and borders are being eroded by not only technology, but a shifting musical landscape that encourages artists to bend the limits of popular music at their whims.
Solange is one of many prime examples of an artist mastering many sounds at once, pushing the limits of soul music by pulling from pop, indie rock, electronica, hip hop, and more. When Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” first landed on the country charts back in 2019, debates surrounding what made the song pop, country, or hip hop ensued. With many of his subsequent releases, his ability to seamlessly bounce between any one of these sounds is obvious. Canadian artists like producer Kaytranada infuse hip hop, and funk into soulful house, while rapper and singer TOBi blend hip hop and R&B with Afropop, working alongside Nigerian producers like Juls. After breaking into the international mainstream, Burna Boy has brought his definitively Afrofusion sound to R&B, EDM, Grime, hip-hop, and pop, most recently appearing on “Hey Boy” alongside singer-songwriter Sia.
Frank Ocean’s deeply personal music has always been hard to categorize beyond the ways its experimental nature helped shape alternative R&B in the 2010s. That same shift of artists rooted in soul with heavy infusions of other genres fueled the addition of the Urban Contemporary Grammy category—now referred to as Progressive R&B—in 2012. Designed as a category to highlight “ elements of R&B that may include samples and elements of hip-hop, rap, dance, and electronic music,” it counts Thundercat, Robert Glasper, and Free Nationals among this year’s nominees—all genre-hopping acts in their own right.
While it’s impossible to predict the next shift in our consumption of music genres, the dexterity of Black music, and Black artists, will likely lead the charge.