Digging Deeper Into The Aesthetic: Alex Macpherson's 2010 In R&B
, 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
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.
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.