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1 Thing: January & February’s R&B Reviewed By Tara Joshi
Tara Joshi , February 15th, 2017 13:33

Tara Joshi considers the marginalisation of black artists in awards ceremonies, before delving into the best new releases from the past two months

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Dawn portrait by James W Mataitis Bailey

I was going to use this space in my first ever column on R&B for the Quietus to ask questions about whether we treat artists in this field less seriously than their counterparts in other genres. My initial draft of this first column was going to query whether we are more likely to take a hip hop artist seriously due to their perceived “masculinity”, while R&B - as a genre that is perhaps linked with more “feminised” party tunes and slow jams - is rarely treated as meriting the same in-depth critical discussion.

But then the Grammys happened. Of course, the Grammys and pretty much every other such awards ceremony are meaningless: that David Bowie won more Grammys for music posthumously than he did during his entire career; that the Chainsmokers accepted one of those awards on his behalf; that the Chainsmokers themselves won an award; that Macklemore has won literally anything – these things are telling of how little mind we should pay such ceremonies.

Last year Pigeons & Planes ran a piece about how the Grammys don’t matter and never have, while this week Dazed had an article about how artists of colour should perhaps stop looking to the Grammys for validation. Both of these articles undoubtedly made valid points, but still I have to wonder if there’s more to it.

The thing is, you can’t totally discount the Grammys, yet. Maybe they’re not about artistry, but if this is currently the way people in the music industry purportedly get thanked for their work, and if this is truly meant to be a celebration of music, then fans and artists alike have a right to get excited and, thus, to be disappointed.

In the age of social media more than ever, all eyes are on these shows: we wait for the political statements, for the potentially-problematic moments, the spectacle, the jaw-dropping outfits from people like CeeLo Green. We know some of today’s best artists will be there, performing, and they have been asked to do so because the Grammys know that these artists will get the viewers – so why aren’t they then winning in the main categories like Album of the Year?

Solange pointed out on Twitter, “there have only been two black winners in the last 20 years for album of the year, there have been over 200 black artist[s] who have performed”. That is a ludicrous statistic.

Is dismissing the problem, therefore, dismissing systemic racism – at least to some degree? If there is this much outrage about Lemonade losing out to Adele (even from Adele herself) then surely rather than just shrugging and saying the Grammys don’t matter anyway, we could all shout louder?

Frank Ocean recently (gloriously) called out the Grammys for giving Taylor Swift album of the year over Kendrick Lamar, and for continually failing to recognise the artists who are actually important.

Of course black artists do not need this validation when they can get it elsewhere – Frank Ocean says he’s done caring about TV awards shows, not least given that Blond(e) sold over one million copies. But why should we criticise those artists who want the recognition all the same? Why should black artists consistently only be congratulated in the “urban” categories? Even within the specific categories like “best rap album”, it’s mind-boggling that Macklemore could have possibly won against Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Drake and Jay Z as recently as in 2014.

The Brits took a step forward this year with their nominees, after mass criticism at their repeated failure to recognise grime, meaning that if we make noise, we can hopefully invoke change.

Representation is important, and the Grammys need to recognise that if they don’t cop on soon their awards show will become redundant to all the people who do still tune in for the ride. All those artists of colour, and all these appalled fans, are finally at a point where they’ve had enough. Nobody is buying the narrative the Grammys is still trying to sell.

Syd - Fin
(Columbia)

In an interview with the Fader last year, Syd Bennett of the Internet / Odd Future fame spoke of her then-upcoming solo album in fairly casual, underwhelming terms: “For me, this is like an in-between thing — maybe get a song on the radio, maybe make some money, have some new shit to perform.” The truth is much more than that though. Syd showcases her slouching, wispy, sensual sound that is at once confident and vulnerable. On opener ‘Shake Em Off’ she says, “I’m drowning in doubt and frustration, can't sleep cause I’m anxious, counting sheep and all” before boasting on the same track, “Back and forth now I'm pacing, young star in the making, swear they sleeping on me.” In the case of anxiety vs braggadocio, the latter wins out, and it’s a joy to listen to - she seems to have taken notes from Aaliyah. ‘Body’ is thick with sexual humidity, emphasised with MeLo-X’s almost-sleazy production and Bennett’s serenely breathy vocals.

Jeremih ft. Big Sean and Chris Brown - ‘I Think Of You’
(Def Jam)

It is truly a testament to how good this man is that a song involving Chris Brown has made this list, something that will be an exception rather than a rule. Chicagoan charmer Jeremih continues to channel his classic influences: ‘I Think Of You’ samples Montell Jordan’s ‘Get Down Tonite’, and certainly this is a song for seducing on the dancefloor. It finds Jeremih waking up after a night of fun to find that his girl has already gone – teasingly leaving her “panties on my nightstand”. Sure it’s sleazy and kitschy, but the funky bassline is gorgeous, airy, and propulsive and the whole thing sounds a lot like a Michael Jackson off-cut.

Tom Tripp - ‘Aurelia’
(Little Tokyo)

21-year-old Londoner Tom Tripp is from a council estate on Caledonian Road, and he has but one single and one demo to his name but even these have been enough to elicit a load of Jai Paul comparisons. Listening to ‘Aurelia’, it’s not up there with the hits-you-in-gut strangeness of ‘Jasmine’ or ‘BTSTU”, but there is a similar - if poppier - haunting sound here. With that said, he's doing something more special than mere emulation. The lyrics might not currently suggest much depth, but Tripp has a sweet voice that slinks over the feather-light layers of drums and lush synths. This bedroom-produced track was only intended as a demo, but garnered such a lot of acclaim on Soundcloud that NAO - another London R&B artist - released it on her record label.

Kehlani - SweetSexySavage

(Atlantic / TSNMI)

SweetSexySavage sometimes suffers from the problem of Zayn’s debut last year – namely, lyrics that are borderline empty and immature (“They don’t want to see it happen but we say fuck it” is the refrain on ‘Undercover’). It’s also difficult to say if there’s been any real progress since Kehlani's fantastic 2015 mixtape You Should Be Here – and it's lyrically less impressive. With all that said, however, Kehlani’s first proper album is a lot of fun, and struts with a confidence in the face of adversity – something which is reassuring to hear in the aftermath of her turbulent childhood and, particularly, her highly publicised mental health issues last year, which culminated in the former America's Got Talent singer attempting to take her own life. At its best, SweetSexySavage is a fabulous mish-mash of 90s/00s-style sounds: think glimmering beats, dapples of choral a cappella and warm vocals reminiscent of 3LW and TLC (the latter of whom are given a nod with the album title). After years at the hands of the press and derogatory, belittling comments about her legitimacy, ‘CRZY’ sees the artist defiantly take back control of her own narrative in beautifully catchy form (“All this shit I've been through, and it made me more of an assassin / I kill 'em, I kill 'em, I kill 'em with compassion”). ‘Get Like’ has a sensual swagger, while ‘Gangsta’ (off the Suicide Squad soundtrack), brings an exquisite dissonance to the album’s closing. It's needlessly long at 19 tracks – slower tracks like ‘Hold Me By The Heart’ feel clichéd and unnecessary – but perhaps this can be attributed to Kehlani indulging herself rather than worrying about the criticisms of others.

Thidaniel - ‘Don’t Trip Chill Vibe’

(Goldwax)

Of Puerto Rican and African American descent, Thidaniel first showed interest in music at the tender age of three, apparently stealing the show at his brother's school recital. He was then discovered by a Juilliard professor who taught him how to play piano, aged just five. Now an adult, Thidaniel dropped out of the Berklee School of Music to move to Los Angeles. He had no specific plan or connections, and (so the story goes at least) he would wander into studios to see who he could meet, doing the occasional live gig to make ends meet. Less than two years later he is being mentored by producer Tricky Stewart (whose past work includes ‘Umbrella’ and ‘Single Ladies’, and who also gave Frank Ocean his first record deal).The production on this is undoubtedly divine: Stewart has brought a lush, echoey sound to the song. There are occasional brushes of brass, warm and woozy synths and immersive backing vocals. However, it's Thidaniel himself who seems a little out of place on the track. He has smooth vocals and has clearly been listening to the likes of Frank Ocean and Miguel, but for the immersive nature of the track his delivery can at points feel overly forceful.

Sonder - Into

There are not nearly enough R&B artists these days channelling those simple and sincere Boyz II Men vibes, which is why Sonder’s EP is such a joy. Made up of producers Atu and Dpat and singer Brent Faiyaz, this trio are bringing ballad back; and very much in the 90s style. Tracks like ‘Too Fast’ boast the occasional deployment of soaring strings, and throughout the EP there is a sense of longing amidst the gently compelling production – it’s intimate and romantic. This is not to say it’s corny though: ‘Baldwin Park’ has rich pianos but glitchy drums, while ‘Searchin’ has a hypnotic, dissonant edge to it that puts it on the Timbaland spectrum. The latter features lines like “so don't let me put no pressure on you (if you don't think you’re ready), I'll only put pressure on it if you let me”, which feels a happy balance of chivalry and sexiness in the post-Robin Thicke “you know you want it” world. This is a beautiful EP.

Yiigaa - ‘Eternal’

London artist Yiigaa has a sublime voice that dances around with a fluid ease – kind of a gentler Rihanna. On her dreamy latest track ‘Eternal’ (from her forthcoming EP Mist) the 19 year old showcases her soulful, delicate sound over production that has a very sincere warmth akin to Spandau Ballet’s ‘True’ (I mean this very much as a compliment). In the song she speaks of love and death (“When I’m gone there’ll be nothing left of me”), and it feels like a coming together of old and new: the 90s meets now. The artist - who is also a National Youth Theatre actor - cites a multitude of influences – traditional music from the Ivory Coast (where her musician father is from), as well as neo soul and R&B (though the former isn’t so evident on this track).

SZA - ‘Drew Barrymore’
(Top Dawg)

While we wait on CTRL, the recently announced debut album from SZA (real name Solána Rowe) that is supposedly “coming soon”, this track offers a glimpse of what kind of ground the record might be covering. The music bubbles prettily like something out of a Disney teen movie, while the vocals are powerful. In naming it after Drew Barrymore - the child star who, for a lot of women, became the embodiment of awkward, low self-esteem in Never Been Kissed - SZA seems to be confronting her own insecurities (though she has said it is named thus because she could imagine the song being in one of Drew’s romantic high school films, which is certainly true). In the track she finds herself in a breaking, unhealthy relationship in which they both cling on because they’re scared of being alone – though she’s not sure the other person wants more than sex. She talks about how she needs therapy and lists her supposed faults, saying “sorry” for each one – although she sounds anything but apologetic. It’s an indicator of where CTRL might be going – after previously saying she wanted to quit music, SZA seems far more at ease and quietly confident with her output here.

Dawn Richard - Infrared DELUXE

(Fade To Mind)

With last year’s Redemption Dawn Richard proved herself to be one of the finest R&B artists in the world. Indeed, more recently, her appearance on the characteristically strange and pretty new Dirty Projectors track, was striking. Before any of that came the beautifully futuristic EP Infrared, which has just been put out again with remixes from other artists on the Fade To Mind roster and beyond. While the original tracks swirl with a slow and sweet vibe that is more obviously “R&B”, the remixes by the likes of Kingdom, Helix and Rizzla indulge in Richard’s edge, diving into the dark, club sounds that were hinted at but not quite realised the first time around. While some of these takes are a little weak and unnecessary - 'Baptise' gains nothing from Leonce's slow rework. Dubstep producer Ikonika’s take on ‘Paint It Blue’ is excellent, however, bringing a glitchy, visceral oddness to proceedings.