The Return of Quiet Storm by Elias Leight of Rolling Stone

The R&B singer H.E.R. has never cracked the Top 25 on Billboard‘s Hot Hip-Hop/R&B Songs chart. But when she releases her debut album this fall, she can rest assured that plenty of listeners will be interested: She has already amassed more than a billion streams across various digital platforms.

H.E.R. Album Artwork (credit )H.E.R.’s music is leisurely and soft, two qualities that have been out of fashion in mainstream R&B for around 15 years. Her tracks blend easily into each other, and, more importantly, into down-tempo R&B playlists on both Spotify — where you’ll find her on “Chilled R&B,” “All the Feels” and “Love, Sex & Water,” each of which includes more than a million followers — and Apple Music. (Apple has “Alt-R&B,” “Future Funk” and many more, but does not make follower counts public.)

The powerful streaming service playlist is a thoroughly modern invention. But by nurturing singers who specialize in slow, pillowy music — not just H.E.R., but also Daniel Caesar, DVSN, Sabrina Claudio and Xavier Omar — these playlists to some degree replicate the dynamic of the radio format known as Quiet Storm, which emerged in the second half of the Seventies and helped transform Luther Vandross, Anita Baker and Freddie Jackson into R&B titans in the Eighties.

“It’s a new machinery, but the same idea that [radio personality] Melvin Lindsey had when he created Quiet Storm,” says Dave Dickinson, a radio veteran who used to program the Washington D.C. station WHUR — “home of the original Quiet Storm” — and now helms several R&B stations for SiriusXM. “The playlists are a way to present this music to a new audience, wrapping an old package in new paper.”

In the summer of 1976, Melvin Lindsey was an intern at WHUR when he was pressed into service as a substitute DJ. “He wasn’t a full-time announcer, and he was kind of shy, but he had a feel for music that told stories,” says Dickinson. “So he played Phyllis Hyman, Jean Carne, Norman Connors, things of that nature. He didn’t like to talk a lot, so he only took two breaks an hour. It was long suites of music.”

Callers loved Lindsey’s style, and his template became the basis for Quiet Storm, which was named in honor of the last great Smokey Robinson album. (The title track became Lindsey’s theme music.) The meat of the genre was “slow ballads, some instrumentals and deep album cuts,” according to Maxx Myrick, a 40-year radio veteran. This freed DJs of the need to play obvious singles, or even new songs — oldies and B-sides were welcome, as long as they fit in tone and tempo. ”It opened up the whole thing where ballads could break in without having to compete with up-tempo songs,” the noted critic Nelson George told The New York Times in 1987. In a Billboard article around the same time, he described the format “an alternative crossover route to broad commercial acceptance.”

The Quiet Storm sound is as versatile as it is non-invasive. “The lifestyle of people listening to that format, they have jobs and things to do,” says Kevin Fleming, a former record company and radio executive who now edits the Urban Buzz, a newsletter for urban radio professionals. “That evening format, laid back, cool out, is important — it’s a rejuvenating way to listen to your music.” Read more from Rolling Stone.