A moment for RnB

Style inspired by the genre is back on-trend – and the music never went away. 

You might have noticed that the ‘80s and ‘90s are back in a big way. In music, the nostalgia shows up everywhere from Dua Lipa’s infectious pop hooks reminiscent of the genre’s finest gems to Normani’s sample of Aaliyah’s ‘One in a Million’ on her latest single ‘Wild Side’. What’s also made a comeback are the pieces that were staples in most of our childhood wardrobes during these two decades. Think baggy jeans, oversized jackets, chunky sneakers and trainers and the glorious tracksuit. These were just some of the items made famous by RnB singers who, in the genre’s heyday, topped charts, gave us iconic and infamous red carpet moments and influenced popular culture more than their poppier and generally white counterparts.


A crash course in the genre

The term RnB (rhythm and blues) was first coined in the ‘40s by Jerry Wexler, a producer who was looking for a new sound to sell to the masses. RnB as we know it blew up almost 20 years later thanks to Motown. It combined the blues, Doo-Wop and gospel in a way that not only reflected African-American life (and suffering) but also bridged the gap in a racially, economically and socially segregated country. It was the Black community’s answer to the sounds of Elvis and the Beatles (even though many would later argue that Elvis jacked his soul from lesser-known Black acts). Thanks to acts like the Jackson 5, The Supremes, Smokey Robinson (who’s famously written over a thousand songs) and Aretha Franklin, RnB started to heat up the charts – they were mostly songs about unrequited love, relationship woes or pure joy. There were also the socially conscious lyrics of Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder.

Then a thing called pop culture entered the mix in the early ‘80s. More and more young people were looking beyond their dysfunctional and broken homes for guidance and inspiration and whatever was happening on TV, in movies, the charts or on sports fields became part of everyday rhetoric. Black people wanted to see positive images of themselves in the midst of the crack cocaine epidemic. Stars like New Edition, a group of teenage boys with amazing voices from Boston, provided the soundtrack to this revival of pride that led to an unapologetically Black sound and dare we say… Black joy.


When RnB met pop culture

MTV was instrumental in bringing this sound – and happiness – to homes across the United States, and later, to the world. Radio stars became video stars and soon, kids were wearing what their favourite singers and rappers wore in music videos. Teddy Riley, producer and member of RnB boybands Guy and Blackstreet, pioneered a new sound called New-Jack Swing, which featured hard, industrial beats that were hip-hop influenced, more sensual lyrics and a sexier image (we have him and the cancelled R. Kelly to thank for baggy leather two-pieces and other S&M-inspired garb worn around the time).

RnB then became about the image – what you wore, whether you had a six-pack and were considered a bad boy – as much as it was about the vocal talent. Keep in mind that some of the most famous RnB singers had their beginnings in church, with big harmonies and even bigger voices being the requirement for praising the Lord and also, stardom.

Stars teamed up with producers to create a signature sound that no one could replicate and brought out the best in what they had. Michael had Quincy Jones, Janet had Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Prince had himself, for example. Then producers started being as big as the artists themselves. Babyface and LA Reid, Jermaine Dupri, Rodney Jerkins, Tim and Bob and Raphael Saadiq became some of the most sought-after hitmakers of the ‘90s. They pushed RnB to new frontiers sonically – combining with rock, hip-hop and dance music to create some of the biggest songs we’ll ever know. And for some of the memorable visuals and the impact that RnB had on fashion, we have music video directors like Hype Williams and stylists like Misa Hylton, June Ambrose and the great Dapper Dan to thank. Here are but a few memorable RnB fashion moments that you can proudly (yes, really) emulate today.


Iconic fashion moments to steal right now

New Edition’s short-shorts

Bright-coloured golfers and short-shorts? No, you aren’t living your worst private school nightmare – it’s the duo that’s set to be this summer’s go-to for downtime. New Edition’s oh-so ‘80s ensembles don’t look dated at all when you think of how much higher men’s shorts are getting. Pull on your favourite preppy, sports-inspired pieces at the top and embrace something shorter – even if you haven’t hit the gym since lockdown started.


Boyz II Men’s take on minimalism

Few outfits are as effortless as jeans and a T-shirt. It becomes about the fit, the quality, your accessories of choice and the swagger you have. Nathan, Michael, Shawn and Wanya made it a thing to wear all-matching outfits during their ‘90s heyday. Whether they were wearing three-piece suits or keeping it casual, they always looked effortlessly cool. This summer, bring out some light-blue jeans with a plain white tee. Top it off by layering with a layering shirt and some standout eyewear.


Ginuwine’s often-displayed abs

If there’s anything that gender-fluid dressing has taught us is that A) it was a thing before it even had a name (shout out to you, Dennis Rodman) and B) it will never not be bad-ass (even though previous examples of it are slightly cringeworthy). Case in point: Ginuwine in 2000. He loved this crop-jacket suit so much he wore it twice – once in black and another time in burgundy. We’re all for keeping suits traditional depending on the event but we’re also in full support of crop tops for men. Rock yours with all the confidence and swag necessary to have people asking if there’s any more room for them in those jeans.


Kid Cudi’s graphic content (cardigan optional)

A more recent RnB look that’s definitely worth copying blurs the lines between multiple genres. Sure, Kid Cudi is a rapper but who can deny hip-hop’s influence on RnB, and vice versa? He paid homage to Kurt Cobain while performing on Saturday Night Live by wearing a green cardigan akin to the one the rockstar wore on Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged recording in 1993. This look made less headlines than his second look of the night – the Off-White floral dress he wore, also in tribute to Kurt Cobain – but it’s just as culturally relevant, and arguably easier to pull off. Grab a graphic tee featuring your favourite icon, image, or obscure lyric reference, then layer a shirt and shirt over it.


Yours in Style.


Images by J Huang, Fernando Lavin, Mike Haupt, Steve Harvey, Brian Lundquist and, Dan Smedley, via Unsplash.