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Smoke Weed, Listen To Sade - R&B In Review By Alex Macpherson
Alex Macpherson , April 2nd, 2015 09:44

Alex Macpherson sings the praises of Dawn Richard and Jazmine Sullivan, reviews the best new albums and lists his favourite RnBass tracks, in his new round up column

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Traditionally, January has always been a slow month for new releases - and the music industry increasingly cleaving to an unimaginative calendar cycle has only exacerbated this in recent years. Yet 2015 has brought us the finest start to the year for new music that I can recall, and among the sundry delights that it has delivered to us from all directions have been two towering achievements in R&B. Appropriately, the artists responsible for dropping magnum opuses with little warning are both women who have long been overlooked by the industry at large: Dawn Richard, the girl group refugee (twice over, now) who has been carving an ambitious and innovative solo path along the wilder shores of electronic soul since 2012; and Jazmine Sullivan, the phenomenally talented singer and songwriter who, in a more just world, would have Adele's career - but instead had been on a self-imposed four-year hiatus from an industry that had ground her down.

Their returns are a study in contrasts. Blackheart is a deeply personal convulsion of emotion following a tumultuous personal and professional year for Richard; it's also her most abstract, layered and confounding work to date. Three months in and it's still awe-inspiring: from the sheer imagination and audacity of its shape-shifting sonics to the gutpunch emotion that comes with its calm.

Sullivan's Reality Show, on the other hand, finds an artist who was once touted as a soul-baring successor to Mary J Blige taking on the role of narrator to deliver sharply, specifically observed vignettes of modern life as filtered through social media and the titular television genre. Reality Show is, on first blush, low-key even by Sullivan's standards: the genre-hopping and full-throated roar she employed on 2008's Fearless and 2010's ebullient Love Me Back have been largely replaced by arrangements of more muted tones and a subtler, restrained delivery - although no less technically impressive, not least for the amount of complex emotions she's able to pack into her lyrics. Take 'Mascara', for instance, sung from the perspective of a woman using her looks to get on in life. Addressing those who criticise her, Sullivan teeters between sullen defiance and sneering superiority; addressing herself, she's work-weary, paranoid and all too aware of the bargain with the male gaze she's trapped in even as it enables her to escape poverty. Beneath every mocked modern stereotype is a real person, and Sullivan shows us every single thing she feels without judgment.

It might not be as fêted as, say, Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly - but in both concept and execution, Reality Show is just as ambitious and incisive a commentary on our times, and what it means to be a black woman living through them. "I feel like this album would be like a time capsule where we could look back and see how we were affected by society, or how society was at a certain time," Sullivan has said. Throughout, she probes for the emotions underneath the hashtags, archetypes, tropes and slang: the tough-talking ride-or-die chick and her self-destructive passion on '#HoodLove', the woman spurned as soon as her rapper boyfriend makes it big on 'Brand New', the mediated self in 2015 that has to fend off pressures from both without (society, no-good men) and within (those cursed emotions). But if Sullivan is caustic about love and men, she displays a tender, empathetic solidarity towards her female characters. Reality Show culminates in first the radical self-love of 'Mona Lisa (Masterpiece)' - the use of the most famous icon of white Western beauty as a means to elevate black women is no coincidence - and then the victory lap of 'If You Dare'.

Sonically, too, Sullivan is on point: the subtle shades of production in the album's first two-thirds (check the accordion threading through the background 'Mascara' as a nod to The-Dream's 'Fancy') showcase her songwriting first and foremost, and when she brings out the ridiculously catchy post-Winehouse strut of 'Stupid Girl' and the snappy disco, complete with Juan Maclean-esque bassline, of domestic drama 'Stanley' in the closing stretch it feels well-earned.

A third album-length R&B highlight of 2015 also comes courtesy of a singer who's been out of the spotlight for a while. Estelle has had an idiosyncratic career, starting off as a rapper in the UK hip hop scene before alighting on an anomalous global smash in 2008 with the Kanye-featuring house glide of 'American Boy'. Since then, she's almost totally eschewed rapping to settle into her own American life - though she's remained hard to pin down. Estelle has been too tasteful for the UK for a while now, but she's too real to ever be Americanised, and too casually insouciant - too British - to find a real home among the USA's traditional R&B market.

True Romance might be the most fully realised display of those transatlantic qualities yet. Estelle's innate lightness of touch means that when she hops on a '90s house throwback ('Something Good'), it's winningly reminiscent of Alison Limerick but never mere pastiche; when she channels Velvet Rope-era Janet Jackson for the throbbing bass and drums of 'Make Her Say (Beat It Up)', she's sultry without being try-hard; and there's a touch of theatricality to the Sade-esque intercontinental luxe life depicted on 'Time Share (Suite 509)' (and those delicious strings certainly help). But despite its top marks for style in its first half, True Romance ambushes you with unexpected, low-key emotion out of nowhere with 'Fight For It': bedsit melancholy with the kind of pleading melody that gets under your skin like damp seeping into your bones.

It's an unfortunate fact of today's music industry that one of the most promising R&B up-and-coming talents around - Sevyn Streeter, formerly of Rich Harrison's short-lived but much-loved girl group Richgirl - has had to hitch herself to the bandwagon of domestic abuser Chris Brown for her career to gain traction (his, of course, shows no sign of declining). It's even more unfortunate that this necessitates Brown guest spots, as tarnished a gorgeous original song on her breakthrough 2013 single 'It Won't Stop'. But even Brown can't detract from the tactile, blissed-out gorgeousness of 'Don't Kill The Fun': he drifts unobtrusively behind Streeter, who herself swims deftly in betweenaqueous synths, tropical horns and trippy rhythms, at once navigating the song's various textures while toying with becoming part of them. "Let's be undeniable," she urges, and it's irresistible. Streeter's debut album, On The Verge, has finally been announced, and is undoubtedly my most anticipated R&B release of 2015.

Elsewhere, there have been disappointments. Ne-Yo's Non-Fiction was an overlong slog, the kind of album that isn't without its high points - but where they only underline the project's overall bloated lack of direction. Sure, 'Integrity' harks back to his old gentlemanly charms and 'Coming With You' captures some of 'Closer's old magic - but this 21-track album is the sound of an artist unsure of himself, throwing a variety of trends and sounds at the wall but too timidly for much to stick. Dumping a Pitbull-featuring banger right in the middle of it all is unintentionally hilarious - much more so than 'Story Time', a rumination on threesomes which intends to be hilarious but is only excruciating. Meanwhile, there was the usual slew of alt-R&B from artists such as Kelela and Alexandria: thin voices, modish beats, no songcraft or memorable presence.

Luckily, R&B also provided the best music to wash away those disappointments. The sparse, sun-kissed youthfulness of RnBass has been an imperative concern for a while now, and if its growing popularity means more bandwagoners and more dross to sift through these days, the freshest of the subgenre is still the perfect antidote to adults trying to trend-chase or appeal to grown-up sensibilities. A top five for 2015 would be:

'My Jam'

This is a perfect balancing act between giddy excitement and laconic cool courtesy of Oakland's Bobby Brackins (the man behind both Tinashe's '2 On' and Chris Brown's 'Loyal'), who joins up with Zendaya (the teenager who single-handedly killed Fashion Police with her ethering of Giuliana Rancic's snide comments on her dreadlocks) and perennial connoisseur's favourite Jeremih (who sounds a good deal better over handclaps and bumping bass than dreary indie producer Shlohmo's dull hipster beats).

'Classic Man'

'Classic Man' is the ridiculously catchy debut single from Jidenna for dandies everywhere with a very neat trick of having its hook taken up by the backing vocalists in its outro; the Nigerian singer is signed to Janelle Monáe's Wondaland label, and I like to imagine that they bonded over a shared elegant dress sense.

'Sundae

The reinvention of Cambodian-Canadian rapper Honey Cocaine, formerly best known as Nicki Minaj's sidekick in her 'Come On A Cone' video, from the shit-talking purveyor of 'Fuck Yo Feelings' into a coquettish flirt on the SWV-referencing 'Sundae', produced by LA's DJ Carisma - a woman who has been instrumental to the rise of the RnBass scene.

'Somebody'

A slightly less subtle nod to a pop classic from the past is Natalie La Rose's 'Somebody', on which Jeremih - him again! - interpolates Whitney Houston for the purposes of doing shots in the club so enthusiastically that it's impossible to hate. The response of La Rose - hitherto a poised presence whose name stamp verges on snootiness - is to start unexpectedly slurring a middle eight like wuhhhhh. It's thoroughly delightful.

'Figure 8'

The man who has been the most visible figurehead of the RnBass sound to date has been, of course, DJ Mustard - and if his dominance of urban radio over the past year has been a welcome development marred only slightly by the subpar, overwhelmingly male artists with whom he has worked, he's making up for that now. Maliibu & Helene are the kind of duo - one hard-ass rapper, one goody-goody singer, as though Trina and Ariana Grande were to form a girl group - who deserve to be massive, and as calling cards go 'Figure 8' is like an idealised form of pop: the two bounce and weave and duck and dive through the rattling beat like a latter-day L'Trimm or Salt'n'Pepa, revelling in the relationship between the body and the beat.

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Neal
Apr 4, 2015 8:44am

Dang, I was really with you until the comment about Kelela. I think Dawn Richard and Kelela are two of the most interesting artists in the game right now.

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