Jeff Fusco/Getty
Brad Wete
April 06, 2011 AT 10:26 PM EDT

Every couple of years the same question is asked of R&B music: “What happened to it?”

The inquiry is made as if the genre is dead or has mutated into something grossly unfamiliar. Sure, top-tier artists like Usher and Beyoncé seemingly have both feet firmly planted in pop music. But essentially, they are rhythm and blues singers.

The problem is, to me at least, that what R&B purists are looking for—soulful, non-Auto-Tune–assisted voices sans European club-inspired bass lines and obnoxious synths—is hard to find. Or maybe folks just aren’t looking hard enough.

Last night a capacity crowd piled into New York City’s Irving Plaza to catch two oh-so-talented yet not-so-famous R&B songstresses, Universal Motown’s Melanie Fiona and J’s Marsha Ambrosius, for BET’s Music Matters tour.

Fiona, a West Indian beauty, opened. In gold sequined top, denim cutoffs, and pumps, she ran through a few tracks from her 2009 debut The Bridge. Albeit commercially unsuccessful, it did birth a hit: the Grammy-nominated “It Kills Me.” The album didn’t connect with the masses and subsequently, the audience did not know most of the lyrics outside of its lone smash. Her set was no sing-along, rather an opportunity to discover a “new” artist.

However, the cheers she earned after each song her soaring voice let loose on is a testament to how great a performer she is. More promising than that were the cuts she played from her forthcoming set, The MF Life. The mood-transforming “Change the Record” and relationship exit ballad “Gone and Never Coming Back” stood out especially, as did her cover of Alanis Morrisette’s “Ironic.”

Headliner Ambrosius, better known as the singing half of beloved neo-soul duo Floetry, released her debut solo album, Late Nights & Early Mornings, a month ago and sold 96,000 copies its first week out. It wasn’t a huge tally, but it certainly validated the notion that her quaking vocals are needed and appreciated by plenty.

In a black leather dress, Marsha put the Plaza under her trance, singing sensual interpolations of “Say Yes” and “Freakin’ Me,” then launching into classic covers of Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” and Rufus’ “Sweet Thing.” She excelled, making the concert hall’s feel vacillate between a girl’s night out with a lengthy soliloquy on matters of the heart (The gist? Men are full of s—. Women, too.) and a heated evening of passion for two, cooing through the Michael Jackson single she penned, “Butterflies.”

R&B, as some believe it should be, lives, people. As a matter of fact, R&B never died. It might not be on your choice radio station or spun at the club. But trust me: If you search, you shall find. The next time someone wonders where it went, send them Marsha’s way.

(Follow the Music Mix on Twitter: @EWMusicMix.)


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