How British R'n'B finally came of age in America

Urban star Taio Cruz has just topped the Billboard 1

By Chris Mugan
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:39
Urban star Taio Cruz (pictured with Tinchy Stryder) has just topped the Billboard 100
Urban star Taio Cruz (pictured with Tinchy Stryder) has just topped the Billboard 100

When Taio Cruz leapt to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 last month with "Break Your Heart", it ought to have been a landmark for the rise of British R'n'B. Except he was not the first from that genre to achieve such a feat – the Londoner was following in the wake of Jay Sean, another homegrown artist that has topped the charts Stateside.

With Estelle already accepted by the cream of US soul and hip-hop communities, it really does feel like our artists are finally competing with their stars. After years of complaining about bland copies of American tastes and an underachieving rap scene riven by petty feuds, has UK R'n'B come of age?

Cruz certainly seems to typify an especially entrepreneurial brand of music-making that has long reaped rewards in the States. To achieve success, you need to network like crazy. Artists first get known nationwide by hanging on the coat-tails of established artists. The biggest acts operate their own imprints as part of major label contracts, such as Jay-Z with Roc Nation, and it is useful to get signed up by such a player.

It is just as important for them to guest on other acts' tracks, provide remixes and collaborate until they achieve their own success – only then can such performers take top billing and show their own influence by giving a leg-up to a new generation of wannabes. So Cruz broke though in the States mid-March with a remix of "Break Your Heart" that featured a guest vocal from US rapper Ludacris – a different version to the unadulterated original that topped the charts here last year, ahead of the release of his second album, Rokstarr.

Cruz had chosen well: Ludacris already had form as a lucky mascot with appearances on number-one singles for other artists, namely "Glamorous" by Fergie and Usher's massive comeback hit "Yeah!". Our dedicated Londoner's own success depends on much more though. He has only achieved his profile after several years of displaying a ferocious work ethic. Before releasing his own material, Cruz already had a reputation as a songwriter of some promise, working for the likes of Will Young. He was also able to spend time in the States with Tricky Stewart, the producer behind Rihanna's hit "Umbrella".

With 2008's debut album, Departure, as a calling card, he was able to count Simon Cowell as a fan. Following that, production and co-write credits included X Factor winners Leona Lewis and Alexandra Burke, with further work to come on panel judge Cheryl Cole's solo album, 3 Words.

In between, Cruz spent time in Philadelphia where he was able to help out in the studio with superproducer Jim Beanz, who was working on Britney Spears' Circus album, plus tracks for Justin Timberlake and solo R'n'B artist Brandy. He then returned to co-write Tinchy Stryder and Sugababe Amelle's chart- topping hit "Never Leave You", as well as earn a credit on boy band JLS's eponymous album.

It is an impressive CV, spoilt only by Sean pipping him to the top spot last October. Cruz has a knack for adding sweet vocal hooks over propulsive dance-pop tracks, something his fellow Londoner, Sean, achieved with his own number-one hit, "Down". The British-Asian artist was the first to be picked up by a US label – influential hip-hop imprint Cash Money – and his hit was graced by label mate Lil Wayne. "Down" has sold a massive three million units in the States alone, making it the biggest hit for a British solo male artist since Elton John in 1997 with "Candle in the Wind". Sean has not quite scaled the same heights with follow-up, "Do You Remember", which still racked up seven-figures in sales, thanks to vocal contributions this time from reggae star Sean Paul and rapper Lil John. Cruz will be pleased to achieve similar success with his next single, "Dirty Picture", that now comes with a guest appearance from Lady Gaga soundalike Kesha.

While the tabloids have whipped themselves into a frenzy over hip-hop group N-Dubz and their continual brushes with controversy, Cruz and Sean have quietly gone about their business. This despite the occasional poor standards set by their own role models. The latter's mentor Lil Wayne is currently serving a one-year prison sentence for weapon possession, though Sean still prefers to see Lil Wayne's work ethic as an inspiration. He told the US music news site Billboard, "You see where he's come from and how many albums he's done. He just does not stop, because the moment you do there's someone hungrier than you who's about to take you out."

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So Sean is already looking ahead to his next project, filmed recently in a studio with lead Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger hinting at a collaboration. He has even discussed the possibility of working with winsome country star Taylor Swift. It is hardly a surprise to learn he was studying to be a doctor before he found music, while Cruz boarded at a public school and, his label claims, turned down a place at Oxford. One UK artist to have actually benefited from an education under the dreaming spires, meanwhile, is Mr Hudson.

Benjamin Hudson McIldowie has yet to achieve comparable success in the US, though he does benefit from similar levels of support from high profile American artists, namely Kanye West and Jay-Z. Having for now jettisoned his band the Library, he has signed up with West's G.O.O.D. Music label and guested on tracks for both artists.

While devising a cleaner, more R'n'B-friendly sound for his protégé, West realised what a tough job he faced turning him into a household name.

Despite their lack of degrees, at least Sean and Cruz have studiously analysed Estelle's career to date, for she has set the template for transatlantic success in recent years. Estelle emerged back in 2004 with a distinctive, British take on R'n'B, as showcased on her debut album, The 18th Day. Without turning into a wholly US-sounding diva, she has managed to repackage her sound for a transatlantic audience, with help from soul star John Legend, who signed Estelle to his HomeSchool label.

She also received endorsements from the likes of Black Eyed Peas main man, who produced her 2008 US breakthrough hit, "American Boy", which featured a vocal from West.

"American Boy" went on to earn Estelle a Grammy, albeit only in the niche category of best rap/sung collaboration. Now based in the US, Estelle has further developed an ear for current American tastes.

Forthcoming single, "Freak" features the ubiquitous guest rap (this time from Canadian artist Kardinall Offishall), but also a more house-orientated sound thanks to French producer David Guetta, who cleverly splices in a sample from Soul II Soul's "Back to Life". Estelle has been in the studio working on further tracks with Guetta, alongside the likes of Legend, and Wyclef Jean, collaborations that may emerge on her forthcoming album, All of Me, tentatively earmarked for release late August or early September.

Yet Stateside success continues to elude UK rappers, even though they use similar sounds. Both Dizzee Rascal and Wiley have both achieved considerable crossover success here by mixing up the beats they work with.

Dizzee worked with American producer Armand Van Helden on his number-one hit "Bonkers", yet still struggles to get arrested in the US. He can regularly top the charts and win awards here, but UK rap continues to be too much of acquired taste for American ears.

Taio Cruz's single "Dirty Picture" featuring Kesha is out 26 April on Island

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