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1 Thing: August's R&B Reviewed By Tara Joshi
Tara Joshi , August 14th, 2017 08:02

Considering the more futuristic end of R&B that artists like MHYSA are making, Tara Joshi reviews July and August’s releases

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Portrait by Naima Green

I’ve previously written about what an all-encompassing term “R&B” has become, and how that’s no bad thing: but artists like MHYSA are a reminder of just why some of the most interesting music that falls under the genre’s umbrella is on the experimental, futuristic, abstract end.

In contemporary R&B this interest in Afrofuturism/futurism is nothing new: one has only to look to the cosmic all-white outfits of Hype Williams’ best videos or listen to any Missy Elliott release to be reminded that - for a genre that is largely associated with pop music and classic soul - R&B is still one of the only mainstream genres that is unafraid to push the boundaries into areas that are really weird and new.

Take, Fantasii, the debut album from Philadelphia-based MHYSA. For a record that has a brief cover of Beyoncé’s ‘Naughty Girl’ (the 48-second long a capella ‘Tonight’), the immediate comparison points are perhaps not with that particular R&B queen. In fact, that the record ends with a striking disarming take on ‘When Doves Cry’ - sweet vocals over production that sounds like bombs going off - feels more fitting: this is an album that embraces the self-proclaimed queer black diva’s blackness and queerness by being both sensual and strange, not unlike Prince. Indeed, it’s both vulnerable and sharp - “I’ll text you when I’m ready”, she offers on ‘Diamond (Lovely Freestyle)’.

Though a dark edge hovers throughout, one minute the album is full of glitchy abstracted production (such as on ‘Strobe’), the next it echoes slowly and smokily, pondering loneliness and whether an ex still thinks about her (the outstanding ‘Bb’), via juddering abrasive synths and the sounds of smashing glass on ‘You Not About That Lyf’.

Fantasii is an exquisitely put-together album that highlights how, in spite of the music press’ tendency to consider R&B as a relatively basic pop form, it can be one of our most fearless and futuristic genres.

Hare Squead - ‘Flowers’
(Sony)

2017 very much seems to be the breakthrough year for Hare Squead, with their co-sign from D.C. rapper Goldlink pushing them deservedly into the limelight. The Dublin trio make a gorgeous blend of hip hop and R&B that lately leans more towards the latter, while reminding us of just how much the two genres intertwine. Their previous releases have shown a gorgeous understanding of sunny, romantic jams, and latest track ‘Flowers’ is a rich blend of piano and brass, topped with their distinctive brand of loved-up rap-meets-swoony-singing - “I wouldn’t call you if I couldn’t afford you,” Jessy Rose offers, as the group ruminate on the work that love requires. Ahead of their Season 2 EP that’s set to drop soon, Hare Squead are easily the most convincing and enthralling take on a boy band this year has had to offer.

Kwaye - Solar
(Mind of a Genius)

Bit by bit, Kwaye - born in Zimbabwe and raised in London before studying in Los Angeles - is climbing his way up the rungs of the R&B ladder. Back in June I noted the ‘Earth Song’-via-Prince-and-George-Michael sound of his track ‘Little Ones’, and that finds itself re-released along with two other tracks on his latest Solar EP. Opening the EP are the sweet guitars and synths of his breakthrough track, 80s-channelling ‘Cool Kids’ - all shuffling drums and breezy vocals. Then there’s the aforementioned earnest, gospel-infused ‘Little Ones’, followed by new track ‘Sweetest Life’ which is full of delicate, nu-soul falsettos and music that fleets the line between light funk and Scandipop.

Raveena - ‘Spell’
(Raven)

With vocals light as a feather and stripped back production, NY-based singer Raveena is taking things old school with her new single. It’s a testament to the entrancing nature of 'Spell' that, in spite of it being quite a low-key number, the song remains engaging rather than succumbing to the middle of the road. Produced with her “best friend and life partner”, the track meditatively considers hurt and love, and showcases - as per her previous three releases - Raveena’s proclivity for quietly intimate soul.

Taliwhoah - ‘Details’
(Rostrum)

This downbeat dance track from LA-based newcomer Taliwhoah - real name Talitha Cross (daughter of Toyin Adekale of Boney M fame) - certainly shows some potential. At its best the song shows her deft vocals, and the rhythms veer between intricate dancehall and smoky R&B. Lyrically it’s wry but confident, imploring a partner to pay attention and come through after a drunken hook-up - “show me that you have no regrets when you’re back to sober / does it feel the same or are you flushed with shame?” All the same, you don’t come away from this track with a truly realised sense of who this artist is yet: there’s nothing that makes this a standout. But for an early track, ‘Details’ certainly makes Taliwhoah’s refrain “I need you to pay attention” seem worth keeping in mind.

Kelela - ‘LMK’ (Warp)

One of the most interesting artists contemporary R&B has to offer is back, albeit a little poppier than we’ve heard her before. Indeed, D.C. singer Kelela’s latest isn’t quite as abrasive as we might be used to (even if it does boast that astonishing and unique Jam City production). All the same, this lead single for her debut album is as raw and beguiling as ever. With a video that serves up Janet Jackson vibes, the track calls on a partner to “let me know” if they’re down for a hook-up - but “it ain’t that deep”. Sultry and to the point, the bar is high for album number one.

BOSCO - b.
(Fool’s Gold)

Opening with the sounds of a revving motorcycle, BOSCO’s b. (not an album, but longer than an EP) is full of a certain unrelenting kineticism. The Atlanta artist has made a candid listen that bubbles with assured vocals and dreamy production that recalls 90s/00s sounds in the same vein as Brandy or even, to a point, Solange. The standouts come from Anna Wise-collaboration ‘We Cool’: all dream pop guitars and moments of nonchalant moments of sprechgesang over woozy vocal harmonies, and ‘Cruel’, with its immersive synths and spangly keys.

Liv Dawson - ‘Painkiller’
(Method)

The appeal of 19-year-old Liv Dawson largely lands on her vocals: the dance-tinged music of ‘Painkiller’ is a little too bland and squeaky clean, but her voice is undeniably smooth and deeply soulful - kind of a lighter take on Jessie Ware. The track considers the feeling of waking up after a hazy but deep and meaningful night and then pondering what was said. It’s an admirably candid insight into the neuroses of romance and not hearing from someone you’ve poured your heart out to. Indeed, it’s a decent slice of R&B-inflected pop, but production wise it might have been more interesting if it wasn’t so saccharine.

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