At Washington, D.C.'s DAR Constitution Hall, the crowd — a mix of distinguished salt-and-pepper goatees and shellacked updos — awaits Charlie Wilson, former front man for the Gap Band. But first En Vogue, the once ubiquitous, platinum-selling R&B group from the '90s, is opening the show.
Fifteen minutes past the scheduled start time, they emerge — minus Dawn Robinson — to muted applause. In a style that is all but extinct, they strut in unison, dressed in matching gold-lamé blouses, performing über-modified versions of the provocative choreography that once accompanied their award-winning singles. Time may have taken a toll on their two-step, but it's done nothing to their pipes. En Vogue sound as pristine as they did 20 years ago.
Two men stand in the audience, iPhones held aloft, mouthing the words to each and every song. As soon as En Vogue exit stage left, the duo makes a beeline for the exit.
"I thought they were amazing," said Renee Watson, 40, of Washington, D.C. "Especially considering that they had been gone for so long. I think they could make a comeback."
But could they? 2004 was the last time an R&B group made anything close to a comeback. That's when Destiny's Child reunited after a short break to release their fourth and final studio album, Destiny Fulfilled. Since then, unless you count the middling success of P. Diddy's male quintet, Day26, R&B groups and duos — male and female — have gone the way of the compact disc.
And their absence isn't easy to miss. From the beginning, vocal groups have long dominated R&B. Both the Supremes and the Temptations made the R&B group a mainstay of '60s pop music. The tradition continued with the Jackson Five in the '70s; DeBarge, New Edition and Guy in the '80s; and Dru Hill and the record-busting girl group TLC in the '90s. From 1991-2001, every month, you'd see an R&B group hanging out on the Top 10 Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop chart. Jagged Edge, 112 and Destiny's Child continued the popularity of R&B groups into the new millennium. But not for long.
For one thing, the music changed. Today's version of chart-topping R&B, hijacked by techno-club production, overdubbed vocals and hip-hop cadence, has sparked a fierce debate about the state of popular soul music. So which came first: the demise of the singing soul group or the deterioration of R&B music?
Who — or what — killed the R&B group?
Groups Are Hard to Manage
At Constitution Hall, the DJ drops the instrumental for the 1997 hit "Don't Let Go (Love)," En Vogue's best-selling single to date. Cindy Herron belts the first verse, making the absence of Robinson, who originally sang the verse, more apparent. Robinson, a known rebel whose refusal to renew her contract with En Vogue caused the group's first breakup, withdrew from plans to reunite and record another studio album this year. She took to Facebook to explain.
"OK, I'm getting angry emails from fans bcuz I'm not doing the new EV cd," wrote Robinson. "We are only on this planet for a short time then its OVER. I live my life my way & some hate me 4 that … I have valid reasons 4 my decisions." Of course, in-fighting and personality clashes have long been a feature of the R&B group, from the Supremes to Destiny's Child. Disbanding is an inevitable reality — one that's not lost on the audience. Time and success only intensify internal conflict. It's no surprise that few groups stay together.
"It's harder to manage a baseball team than it is to manage an athlete who's playing tennis in a singles match," said Danyel Smith, editor-in-chief of Billboard. "It's one thing to get one person to stage on time. It's an entirely different thing to get five people to stage on time. Groups are just notoriously difficult to manage."
Then again, groups unofficially — but sometimes intentionally — groom a standout who will eventually ditch the team for solo success, a trend dating back to Diana Ross' departure from the Supremes. Michael Jackson left the Jackson Five. El DeBarge chose a solo career over his siblings. Raphael Saadiq moved on from Tony! Toni! Toné! R&B group history is cluttered with the exits of group members in pursuit of solo careers.
It's the perfect catch-22, said Shanti Das, a 20-year music-business veteran and retired executive vice president of Motown. Record labels, Das said, often want to know that a group has a charismatic leader before they commit to risky contracts.
"Labels look for leaders in groups," Das said. "And that leader is often the breakout star."
Music producer Michael Bivins, a former member of Bell Biv Devoe and New Edition, doesn't see the pursuit of solo projects as a significant hindrance. Citing Destiny's Child as an example, Bivins, who is doing a reunion tour with New Edition, said that he believes talented group members should pursue their personal artistic goals and reunite respecting the other group members as individual artists.
"Sometimes there's so much talent within the group [that] you have to separate to let everyone live and breathe," Bivins told The Root.
Adds his bandmate Bobby Brown, who broke away from New Edition in 1988 to launch his highly successful solo career, "New Edition is built up of seven different artists … [but] we are a group."
Digital Killed the Group Star
Still, the difficult dynamics of managing a group and the lure of the solo career don't completely explain the current drought of the once all-powerful R&B group. Vocal groups thrived for more than 50 years, despite their long history of in-fighting and messy breakups. So what's changed? What is it about the 21st-century music industry that keeps groups from flourishing?
Part of the problem is the industry itself. Record sales have declined dramatically, so major labels sign fewer artists — all a casualty of the digital age.
Consider, too, the cost of bringing a pop song to market in 2011. NPR put a price tag on marketing a solo artist to the masses: One song, including advertising, songwriting and producing, costs upwards of $1 million. It's much more expensive to market a song for a vocal group, which explains labels' hesitancy to take on that risk.
"Compared to a solo artist, marketing a group means five airline tickets, five hotel rooms, five outfits, with each artist having their own stylist," Das said. "For female groups, it's even more with hair and makeup. It costs a lot of money."
Or maybe Facebook killed the R&B group. After all, we're living in the me-first era, when the individual uses social media to star in his or her own drama each and every day. Solo musicians can tweet their entire lives, immersing themselves in self-promotion, while fans foam at the mouth, waiting impatiently for their favorite stars' status updates. Groups don't fit well into this framework. After all, can a group tweet as one?
"Society's narcissism is totally a part of the group's decline," said Greg Kot, music critic for the Chicago Tribune. "We're experiencing the ultimate ego trip."
Music in Cycles
In the late '90s, boy bands like Backstreet Boys, N Sync and 98 Degrees re-emerged as pop music's latest obsession — and completely wore out their welcome. Boy-band fatigue may have turned the public off to groups altogether, but Kot also believes that the disappearance of R&B groups is typical of the cyclical nature of pop music.
"It's true that for any kind of trend on anything that gets overexposed on radio, people will burn out on it," Kot said. "Everything in pop music runs in cycles, nothing is built to last and things come back in new form 15 years later."
So is there space for R&B groups to re-emerge? Michael Cheung, manager of the all-male quartet Ahmir, is counting on it. The self-appointed "#1 R&B group on YouTube" has more than 45 million YouTube video views and 40,000 Facebook "likes." This is proof, said Cheung, of the public's desire to see the R&B group come back.
"Labels don't believe that a black group could make commercial music outside of the adult-contemporary category," said Cheung. "But Ahmir's fan base has shown that people want that again." Then again, Ahmir have made a name for themselves by riding the coattails of others: They mostly record covers of pop hits, from Rihanna to Pink.
Without groups, today's R&B is void of its most alluring quality: harmony. The sound of voices singing in unison is a timeless tradition that dates back centuries. Kot believes it's only a matter of time before fans hear that again, even if it's with a little twist.
In other words, Kot said, "Four Justin Beibers in one group may be the next step."
For the sake of the R&B group, let's hope not.
Akoto Afori-Atta is The Root's assistant editor. Follow her on Twitter.
Jozen Cummings contributed to this report.