Differences Between R&B Music Vs. Hip-Hop Music

By Tom Becker ; Updated September 15, 2017
Vocals are a central component of both R&B and hip-hop.

Much of American music has its roots in African-American culture. Many musical forms, from country to experimental music, evolved from or alongside the music of African-American communities. Two particularly influential African-American musical forms remain popular today: R&B and hip-hop. While both these forms share common musical ancestors, they differ in a number of specific ways. Understanding the differences between R&B and hip-hop can help illustrate the variety and complexity of African-American music and the influence it has had on world culture.

Vocals

Largely secular musical forms, both R&B and hip-hop share roots in African-American religious musical traditions. The chord changes and vocal styles used in African-American churches served as the foundation for many R&B songs. While vocals in R&B tend to focus on clarity and musical virtuosity, hip-hop vocals rarely emphasize singing and stress complexity and fluidity or "flow." Backing vocals in both R&B and hip-hop feature traditional singing styles, but backing vocals usually accompany R&B singers, while they punctuate the lyrics of the rappers in hip-hop.

Instrumentation

R&B and hip-hop share a great deal in common in terms of instrumentation, as many hip-hop songs utilize samples from R&B and R&B-influenced recordings as their foundation. R&B bands usually consist of at least a drummer, bassist and guitarist, with supplementary instruments such as keyboards and horn sections. Hip-hop tends to utilize more synthesizers than R&B, as well as samples of vocals, dialogue and sound effects as components of the instrumentation. Even so, some R&B music does incorporate digital instrumentation, and some hip-hop features live bands.

Subject Matter

R&B music covers a wide array of subject matter, from the original blues songs of love and loss to more introspective, sophisticated songs of the contemporary period. Generally, R&B music focuses on tamer subject matter, compared with hip-hop, and it ranges from expressions of love to exclamations of sorrow. Hip-hop originated, in part, among rappers who would battle each other for supremacy in live, improvised performances. This tradition influenced much of the development of hip-hop, so that many of the lyrics concern the virtuosity of the vocalist or DJ supplying the music and beat. Hip-hop also arose, in part, from the experience of living amid extreme urban decay and reflects a harsher reality, expectations and values than R&B does.

Structure

The structure of R&B music shares more in common with jazz and traditional American popular music, compared with hip-hop. R&B songs generally have a recognizable chorus that repeats during verses, sometimes followed by a third movement or "bridge" that connects the verse to the final verses or chorus. Hip-hop tends to utilize a cyclical or repeating structure that reflects the use of a repeating sampled beat. Many hip-hop recordings have a chorus, often a sample, sung or chanted in unison live, which separates each set of lyrics.