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Quietus Artists Of 2010

Digging Deeper Into The Aesthetic: Alex Macpherson's 2010 In R&B
Alex Macpherson , December 24th, 2010 05:10

Alex Macpherson delivers a righteous state of the R&B nation address and recommends five songs you should check if you haven't heard them yet

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If any one trend defined R&B in 2010, it was that people continued to grasp at any excuse not to listen to it. The charts have pretty much been drained of it by now, even in the US, in favour of a sound that's best summed up as "the worst it's actually possible for house music to be" - a remedial sub-Black Eyed Peas, sub-Guetta mess performed either by irritants such as Ke$ha, nonentities such as Taio Cruz or former R&B singers desperately clinging on to the marketplace such as Usher.

Few critics can take the moral high ground, though: the closest there was to genuine widespread critical enthusiasm for an R&B record in 2010 came with Janelle Monáe's The ArchAndroid, an album mostly praised for how it broke out of R&B - into overly busy Broadway retro rock & roll performed with all the emotion of a game show host, but never mind. And as in 2009, there was always the tedious sight of rock critics creaming themselves over indie bands "doing" R&B: last year, Dirty Projectors were praised to the skies for being influenced by Mariah Carey (though mysteriously, none of this praise made it as far as Carey's own album). This year, we have tedious wimps Gayngs and How To Dress Well - an insult to all fashionable people everywhere - lauded for "doing" R&B, as though an entire genre was a stylistic gimmick. Actual R&B artists "doing" R&B were, judging from the amount of press they attracted in comparison, clearly inadequate.

Except, of course, those rock critics were completely misguided, as ever. If they're honest with themselves, they never liked R&B much anyway - merely buying into the male auteur myths of Timbaland and the Neptunes, never understanding the emotional centre of the genre in the singers and their ballads. Their loss: the no man's land that R&B acts find themselves in nowadays has proven to be fertile terrain indeed. That's not to say there weren't disappointments. Rihanna, somewhat inevitably, followed Rated R - the darkest, most forbidding and most compelling album of her career - with Loud, a lazy hotchpotch of songs with so little thought put into them that it's probably best to assume they were all just demos she found on the cutting-room floor. Ne-Yo trailed Libra Scale with somewhat alarming pronouncements along the lines of concept albums about Japanese animé; if only the inconsequential material that actually emerged was half that interesting.

The year's two best R&B albums were made by Jazmine Sullivan and Ciara - though both had contrasting gestations. Sullivan's Love Me Back fully-formed and raring to go, an exhilarating blast through the Philly soulstress's unstoppable creativity and force of feeling. Ciara, for the second album campaign in a row, suffered tortuous postponements and underperforming singles - but almost miraculously, her decision to return to her street dance roots, essentially abandoning the pop market, paid off. Basic Instinct plays to her strengths: 5000bpm club workouts on which Ciara is less a singer than an athlete; opulently carnal grinds such as 'Ride', synths rising like steam from the bass; ballads like sensuous, tactile cocoons. If anything, its only flaw is that it's too short: with leaked tracks such as the power-play of 'Blauw' and unbearably pretty unofficial remixes of her own unofficial remixes also doing the rounds this year, the quality of Ciara's total output has been rather astonishing.

Elsewhere, though, established auteurs such as Erykah Badu, Sade and The-Dream were responsible for some of the year's highlights in any genre: each in a way that cleaved closely to expectations, each proving that digging deeper and deeper into your own aesthetic - into yourself - is one of the most richly rewarding artistic strategies of all. Badu flipped the critic-pleasing, zeitgeist-catching politics of New Amerykah Part One into a concentrated study of deep feeling for Part Two; The-Dream all but abandoned any pretense of being a pop star in favour of pushing his production sound to, in his words, "that other level beyond that other level; Sade stuck resolutely to a stateliness that, as smooth and suave as it was, brooked absolutely no compromise.

But then there were the names even less likely to be given their props: those still trying, commendably, to walk the tightrope between commerce and credibility, those whose selling point couldn't be neatly wrapped up in the mainstream press as an "artistic vision". Fantasia, for instance, the 2004 American Idol winner who attempted suicide in August following gossip linking her to a married man. Weeks later, she dropped an album that was a revelation: from the star-spangled romance of 'Falling In Love Tonight' to the scabrous, shape-up-or-ship-out ultimatum of 'Man Of The House' (a contender for the single of the year), what shone through on Back To Me was the sheer strength and resilience Fantasia conveyed. Her voice is sufficiently big and dramatic to awe, but also warm and generous enough to be relatable: there seems to be no distance between audience and performer when she sings.

Also keeping it very much real was Tennessee native and R. Kelly protégée K. Michelle, whose free mixtape, What's The 901?, was an integral part of my summer. Don't go to her for prettiness or with bullshit: this is straight-no-chaser real talk throughout, and she's unafraid to "come up out these earrings" if necessary. In her words: "What I ain't gon do is call my pops / What I ain't gon do is call no cops / I'm no Jazmine Sullivan, bustin' all your windows out / I'm from Memphis, Tennekee: I'mma bust you in your mouth." She was also responsible for the best cover/remix of 2010, no contest, taking B.o.B's unforgivably soppy 'Nothin' On You' and flipping it to dissect its sweet nothings and reveal them as lies. She, too, addresses the "beautiful girls all over the world" - but she's there to both warn and comfort them after they've been left high and dry. And in so doing, this hard-ass's tender side is revealed, as she croons: "It's alright to cry - but hurry up, dry your eyes; he's only one man, don't let him ruin your life."

Her mentor, too, had been busy. R. Kelly's Love Letter is the kind of album that non-R&B fans would barely give a second glance to - but it is one that fully deserves the over-used epithet "return to form". For most of the past decade, his outrageous talents have ended up being overlooked in favour of first controversy and then the bizarre minstrelsy of his Trapped In The Closet films - initially the perfect vehicle for his oddities, they soon became an ugly excuse for white, indie audiences to point and laugh at the funny black man. Love Letter, then, is a wholly welcome move. There's nothing - well, almost nothing - wacky about it. The focus is entirely on Kelly's ability to craft and perform beautiful, classicist love songs that show off the richness of his voice to full effect against a lavishly orchestrated backdrop. And if the arrangements weren't enough of a clue, Kelly confirms it in 'Music Must Be A Lady': this is an album about being in love with music above all. "Baby, as sure as I'm a singer, you'll be right there by my side," he croons, his identity by now entirely intertwined with his gifts.

The strength of a genre isn't just in its personalities and geniuses, though. Keri Hilson and Trey Songz will never be anyone's idea of legendary artists - but you'd be a fool to overlook the best of their 2010 material. Songz, so inconsequential for so long, reacted to what seemed like a default surge in popularity (someone, after all, needed to replace the fallen Chris Brown) by palpably pushing himself further than most had thought possible. Passion, Pain & Pleasure was one of 2010's best surprises, in particular its final third of gorgeously textured, understated, post-Dream slow jams that were still eccentric enough to include Songz, mimicking a doorbell.

Former industry songwriter Hilson, meanwhile, is perennially hampered by a common-sense professionalism - but while she'll never be larger than life, her basic hard graft and talent means that she'll come up trumps every so often. Indeed, she inadvertently lit something of a touchpaper with this year with two contrasting videos: for 'The Way You Love Me', a Pussycat Dolls-style banger destined for "strippa in my mind" playlists across the world, Hilson bestowed upon the world its entire quote of crotch-grinds for probably the next decade, and a slut-shaming shitstorm ensued. For the charming 'Pretty Girl Rock', she took us on a whistlestop tour of icons of black female pop culture beauty - an endearing message that recast the song as self-affirmation, not mere vanity. Both, of course, were equally valid representations of both Hilson herself and women generally: perhaps it took someone as chameleonic as her to illustrate that. (And her No Boys Allowed album is a decent effort, too.)

In September 2009, tennis player Kim Clijsters swept to the US Open title, one month after unretiring and 19 months after giving birth to her first daughter. Several press reports subsequently speculated on the ways in which pregnancy could heighten a woman's athletic powers. When Kelis released her fifth album in May 2010, it was as though this had been extended to musical energy. Flesh Tone was both paean to motherhood and pure endorphin rush, riven with both tenderness and euphoria; of all the R&B stars to dive into European house this year, only Kelis pulled it off with panache and creativity. (Of course, she was also pretty much the only one who failed to translate this move into actual sales.)

It's a mark of how strong R&B is that this column still barely scratches the surface of what's out there - El DeBarge's unexpectedly excellent comeback album Second Chance and Danish duo Quadron's delicate, off-kilter eponymous work deserve mentions too. And there's the fondness of the UK bass scene for R&B, with producers including Girl Unit and Kingdom utilising R&B vocal samples in some of the year's best club hits, and Local Action Records even putting out a tribute to Cassie, who despite her seemingly permanently stalled mainstream career has become something of a cult figure for many. (A betting man might want to place some money on the former Diddy protégée's unreleased demos being "discovered" 20 years hence and released as lost classics.) Those who refuse to give it their attention are the only ones missing out.

Five more:

Teairra Mari ft. Mavado - 'Coins'

Trap rhythms, airhorns and a whole lot of swagger: "I be on it like a green card to an immigrant" indeed.

Kourtney Heart ft. Magnolia Shorty - My Boy

This year's "Never Leave You" or "My Boo", this time turning New Orleans bounce into a deeply satisfying summer jam.

Nina Sky - Love Song

Yes, that's right - a freestyle cover of The Cure.

Tanya Valensi - Silence

Gorgeous, carefully paced delicacy from a UK singer we need to hear more from.

Petra
Dec 24, 2010 10:46am

Oh yes you did. Nice going, 'Al' x

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John Calvert
Dec 24, 2010 1:37pm

Brilliant Alex.

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Tim Russell
Dec 26, 2010 4:21pm

Oh please. Covering this garbage devalues an otherwise superb website.

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Natalie Shaw
Dec 28, 2010 11:13am

I'm thrilled to have read this.

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Petra
Dec 28, 2010 12:47pm

Look ma, a rockist! Tim, you're an eejit. You don't get black music: fine. That's ok, we can call that harmlessly irrelevant. Just don't try and pretend that your failings are an aesthetic -or that anyone else, much less this website, should aspire to them.

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Lola
Dec 29, 2010 11:50am

The visuals are enough to make me not want to listen

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Angus
Dec 29, 2010 11:53am

I'm not convinced that my white self laughing at R. Kelly's "...Closet" had racist undertones. I mean it's spectacularly unhinged isn't it? Completely fucking mad as a box of snakes? I guess it is easy to have a chip on one's shoulder over the thinly veiled racism directed at R&B most of the time but I'm not sure it applies there. Nice article otherwise.

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Lola
Dec 29, 2010 11:58am

So I listened through them, the only one I can just about stomach is Fantasia Barrino

I imagine it to be background music for a Bratz Doll movie

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Tim Russell
Dec 30, 2010 8:48am

In reply to Petra:

Petra - I "don't get black music"? You've not seen my music collection. I was the first person to put on northern soul/Motown nights in Vietnam, and have done 70s funk & old-school hip-hop nights here as well. Nothing to do with not getting black music, just an intense dislike of music that is devoid of any originality, integrity or, yes, soul.

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John Doran
Dec 30, 2010 10:08am

In reply to Tim Russell:

Just an observation but I find it kind of weird when white people have this encyclopedic knowledge of black soul, funk, reggae, r&b (and this music makes up the majority of my collection) from the 60s and 70s but then can't connect with any black music from the 80s onwards. Firstly, you're ascribing totally 'rockist' aesthetic criteria to it... the music you like is authentic and soulful, gritty and 'real'. One can't help but presume that if you'd actually been presented by how futuristic and new this music sounded when it first came out that you would have run a mile from it. It's almost as if you've had to let this awesome music go through a quarrantine period that's disassociated it from a lot of its black cultural roots.

I haven't liked a lot of the r&b I've heard over the last four years which I automatically presume means I've been listening to the wrong r&b; something that I know having Alex on board will help counteract.

Expect more hip hop and r&b coverage in 2011 because no-one, no matter how old, should be like Mark Lamaar.

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John Doran
Dec 30, 2010 10:10am

In reply to John Doran:

Or Guy Ritchie.

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KJB
Dec 30, 2010 2:44pm

'Expect more hip hop and r&b coverage in 2011'

Hooray!

I second JD on this statement: 'I haven't liked a lot of the r&b I've heard over the last four years which I automatically presume means I've been listening to the wrong r&b; something that I know having Alex on board will help counteract.'

Loved pretty much everything you recommended here, apart from My Boy, and found the Trey Songz, Tanya Valensi and Nina Sky a bit boring. Thank you so much for the K Michelle recommendation - had to cast about for the mixtape a bit, but her voice is incredible. Blauw has taken up residence in my head, and I don't think it's leaving in a hurry despite my listening to it non-stop!

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Cosmo
Dec 31, 2010 7:06am

'Expect more hip hop and r&b coverage in 2011'

Which means, expect The Quietus to fully embrace their inner PF in 2011. Also, expect even more tedious, wimpy, half-assed recreations of R&B coming from bedroom-type indie doods all over the net. Cause those are the target audiences embracing illuminati kinda discourses such as the above one, sorry. I mean, it is inevitable and happens every year. R&B pushed to become just another passing trend for toothless biters out there w/plenty of signals pointing to this phenomena in 2010, so well done guys. Pretty sure r&b resident champ Lex will get plenty of space to bitch about all the 'wrong' aspirants to the throne next year. Can't wait.

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Tim Russell
Dec 31, 2010 8:39am

In reply to John Doran:

John, where did I say I don't like any black music from the 80s onwards? Another totally incorrect assumption. As for not getting futuristic-sounding music, when my classmates were all listening to the Jam or heavy metal, I was listening to OMD, Soft Cell & Kraftwerk, and right now I'm listening to Emeralds. Why don't you "get" that some people just dislike R&B? Not because of the way it sounds, but because of the selfish materialism much of it promotes.

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John Doran
Dec 31, 2010 10:01am

In reply to Tim Russell:

Ok, you like old school hip hop for exactly the same reasons that you like ska. And which of these R&B acts in Alex's feature are promoting selfish materialism... or are you just judging an entire genre without having listened to it? (This is a rhetorical question by the way.) It's easy to dismiss any genre by reducing it to one or two unhelpful 'traits'. Who would listen to indie with its unforgivable preening narcicism and naval gazing solipsism for example? Or do we accept that there is actually more than this going on in Belle and Sebastian, The Smiths, Arctic Monkeys etc.

And, although Alex would probably see me as part of the problem rather than the solution saying this, a Neptunes or Timbaland production from seven years ago was futuristic in the same way that Dazzle Ships or Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret was in its day.

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mrsct
Dec 31, 2010 5:03pm

'.. the music you like is authentic and soulful, gritty and 'real'.
'
yeah this is a problem and of course it's hardly ever true, people assume just cos a thing is old it immediately gains some kinda badge of authenticity, or spiritual depth (yuk)

'One can't help but presume that if you'd actually been presented by how futuristic and new this music sounded when it first came out that you would have run a mile from it.'

this is also a problem though too isn't it?
i'm not accusing you here but - it's a particular problem with white brit journalists to see black music as a kind of arbiter of futurism, and creators of a series of year zeros when things are always rather more non-linear, and more interesting as a result.

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Tim Russell
Jan 1, 2011 2:43am

In reply to John Doran:

I don't like ska. And I liked old-school hip-hop when it was new-school, when it sounded like the most futuristic, other-worldly thing I'd ever heard (remember what "Nation of Millions" sounded like in 1988?)

I simply do not like R&B, and you can't make me, so there :)

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Rhys Laverty
Jan 2, 2011 11:49pm

It might seem hackneyed and slightly old fashioned or feminist, but this is coming from an 18 year old male who bloody hates feminists - a lot of great RnB songs (I really liked a few of the above, especially the Ciara ones) are just ruined by the horrendous over sexualisation of the videos and the performers. Why is it necessary? As well as being degrading, the artist sells them short as an artist, because it seems like they believe the only way to get deliver the music is when it's dressed up in absurdly sexualised videos and marketing. It's just vulgar and unnecessary, and you get the feeling the artist thinks/is aware of the fact that there isn't much to their music.

There haven't been many successful attempts sadly with females trying to break away from that stereotype - your comments on Janelle Monae were pretty spot on.

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Petra
Jan 3, 2011 12:42pm

In reply to Tim Russell:

R&B devoid of originality? Were guitar music to manage a smidgen of the innovation that R&B and urban pop music manage in any of the past 20 years, I might still bother with it.

As for yr black music collection: as long as it's been through the critical whitewash, right? PLEASE.

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John Doran
Jan 3, 2011 4:11pm

In reply to Rhys Laverty:

"Bloody hates feminists"... are you actually Alan Partridge?

If we're all honest with ourselves we'd have to admit that there isn't a band or singer in existence who wouldn't benefit from a video of them in jewel encrusted underwear doing suggestive dancing in a wheel trim shop.

Apart from Belle and Sebastian who, sadly, would only benefit from a vicious machete attack.

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Tim Russell
Jan 4, 2011 4:39am

Petra - unless by magic you've been able to remotely access my laptop and scour my entire iTunes library, all 100GB+ of it, please stop making wild assumptions about my music collection. You're making yourself look very silly indeed.

John - "there isn't a band or singer in existence who wouldn't benefit from a video of them in jewel encrusted underwear doing suggestive dancing in a wheel trim shop." Are you sure about that? Careful what you wish for...I've seen the Cure a number of times and I doubt I'd have enjoyed the experience so much if Fat Bob had been wearing jewel-encrusted underwear.

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Sheq
Jan 4, 2011 12:34pm

I used to like Rn'B in the '80s, but now I don't think it's generally as inventive as it used to be. In the late '90s, when hip-hop started embracing Rn'B production over traditional funk sampling, I lost touch with it (some time post-Blackstreet).

However, some of the tunes here are pretty good (particularly Kourtney Heart's), and it feels like Rn'B production is rinsing hip-hop (ArchAndroid being produced by BigBoi for example). I think that's pretty exciting, though not as progressive a leap as some twenty years ago.

I am sick of the unnecessary over-sexualisation in Rn'B, though, and I can't see the current obsession with the splintered genre of bass music lasting much further into this decade.

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M. Toledo
Jan 4, 2011 2:35pm

I'm sort of puzzled and wondering how can Tim move from saying "Covering this garbage devalues an otherwise superb website" to a way humbler "I simply do not like R&B, and you can't make me, so there" in a couple of posts. I like it how your criticisms are facts ("R&B IS garbage") but when other people criticize you, then that's entirely subjective and they should accept it as it is. I mean, if you're asking "Why don't you "get" that some people just dislike R&B? ", then why don't you "get" that some people may like it?

And how is it that you want to impose your own personal agenda on the website by telling what they should or shouldn't cover, but then you go and say "you can't make me like R&B"? Oh, so you can tell other people what they should write about and give compliments to, but the other way round does not apply?

Oh and by the way, I haven't read a single argument from you backing the supposed lack of soul of Jazmine Sullivan's album (definitely an achievement btw)

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sian
Jan 5, 2011 10:00pm

Love this but don't agree that the artists using R&B samples see it as a gimmick, more a way to remodel the music they grew up listening to in the same way that people form a band (only without the hassle of finding a drummer) or love now. Or maybe it's just the critics...

The Dream, Ciara and Trey Songz all great this year.

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Chris Webster
May 18, 2013 5:17pm

I am a major R&B fan, who recently moved to South Florida. I thought I had left all the R&B radio stations back in New York, but boy was I wrong. X102.3 is my new favorite station for the hottest and latest R&B tracks. It’s easy to get hooked on this www.thex1023.com

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Sanny
Jan 8, 2014 9:50am

my boy video is the best

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