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1 Thing: September & October R&B Reviewed By Tara Joshi
Tara Joshi , October 9th, 2017 09:53

Twenty years after it was released, we are living, loving, singing and dancing in the afterglow of Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope. With: Kelela, Ty Dolla $ign, Syd, Ibeyi and plenty more.

It’s been easy to overlook the importance of Janet Jackson – especially for music fans in their mid and early twenties (myself included) who grew up outside of the States and perhaps first became aware of Jackson in the aftermath of the Superbowl incident. That controversy seemed to overshadow her career, and, largely, the narrative (in this country at least) seemed to place her back simply as Michael’s former-pop star sister of little consequence. The kind of R&B artists and fans in the UK who namecheck, say, Aaliyah, have been unlikely to mention Janet Jackson.

But this October marks not only the release of one of the most-anticipated R&B debuts of recent times - Kelela’s Take Me Apart - but also 20 years since Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope. Without an album like The Velvet Rope, there would be no artists like Kelela – and it’s beautiful to hear the products of Jackson’s impact, because while there’s no doubt Take Me Apart is an exquisite album in its own right, it sits in a canon set out by Janet.

Indeed, where all Kelela’s delicate, candid calls for sex and richly avant-garde production seem apt for 2017, Janet set the tone 20 years ago with an album that feels more sonically fitting with now than anything else that was going on in 1997 (bar, of course, the brief sample of the internet dial-up sound). Kelela’s video for 'LMK' seemed an homage to Janet, but lyrically too it’s not that far removed from, say, ‘My Needs’, on which Janet cooed in that deliciously sweet and sensual voice, “I just want you inside, baby / We don't need to talk about no promises”. The album as a whole delved deep into sexual themes – self-pleasure and same-sex relationships found their place on what was an impressively introspective album. This might not seem that big a deal, but given how stringent the policing of black female sexuality remains in present day, you have to appreciate how important Janet embracing her status as a queer sex symbol in 1997 was and is.

For those of us who had unknowingly shoved Janet into the annals, but who are currently luxuriating in Kelela’s debut, it’s a special time to revisit just how immense The Velvet Rope still is - along with the rest of Miss Jackson’s oeuvre. Lithe vocals, production so futuristic that R&B is only really catching up now, all cut with intimate snippets of her conversing and laughing, Janet Jackson’s impact on modern pop music - especially contemporary, female-fronted R&B - cannot be stressed enough.

Ty Dolla $ign - ‘Message In A Bottle’ (Atlantic)

When he hasn’t been lending his vocals to some of the biggest names in pop and hip hop, Californian singer and producer Ty Dolla $ign has been working on his second studio album, Beach House 3 (out later this month). The build-up has seen him dropping a number of tracks, and fleeting slow-jam ‘Message In A Bottle’ is easily the most beguiling. While we’ve heard him serving up bangers aplenty from this record, there’s something intensely seductive about his smooth vocals over dusky harp as he recounts a hazy, too-drunk hook-up. Some of the lyrics are a little clumsy (“She said, ‘I got Uber, do you want a ride?’ / Typed in my address, it led to some sex, now I'm dressed”), there’s something engaging about the candid way he weaves his tale, and in his woozy recollection of texting his ex.

Syd - Always Never Home EP (The Internet)

The Internet and Odd Future’s Syd Bennett dropped her debut solo album, Fin earlier this year, and it was an impressive collection of sensual, slouchy songs. Always Never Home finds her in a similar vein, with those gorgeously wispy vocals especially striking on two-part track ‘Bad Dream / No Looking Back’, not least in the way her voice intertwines with the slow and winding dissonant production courtesy of Gwen Bunn and Ricci Riera (who have worked with the likes of Drake and Travis Scott). Though Syd touted that particular track as a soundtrack to the eclipse, the sexual vulnerability is what makes this particularly powerful: she talks about only kissing her partner when they fuck, for fear of getting too attached and not being able to look back. Meanwhile ‘Moving Mountains’ boasts a lithe squelchy bass topped with her smooth singing, and ‘On The Road’ pulsates with ornate, heated beats. Quietly, Syd is one of R&B’s most interesting artists right now.

Ibeyi - Ash (XL)

Considering French-Cuban twins Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz - aka Ibeyi - under the R&B umbrella is a reminder of just how stretched out the term has become, but with their warm, soulful harmonies and - on this record - the glitchy, experimental production reminiscent of Timbaland, it feels a justified placement. Ash is an accomplished album that finds the sisters singing in their unfaltering signature blend of English and Yoruba, confronting the problems of the world (after having spent their solid eponymous debut introspectively considering themselves). Be it the striking confrontation of sexual harassment on ‘Deathless’ (which features the rich intonations of Kamasi Washington’s sax), or the sombre sampling of Michelle Obama’s powerful speech about women on ‘No Man Is Big Enough For My Arms’, this is a beautiful, potent, and necessary record that finds the sisters stepping up.

Jhené Aiko - Trip (Def Jam)

A concept album dealing with the grief of losing her brother, and the hallucinogens she turned to in order to cope with that, LA-singer Jhené Aiko’s latest is ambitious and cathartic, with chimes and dreamy production - but it can float by forgettably, albeit ruminatively, for much of its 90-minute running time. That’s not to say there aren’t some striking songs: in spite of the subject matter, there are surprisingly upbeat moments – be it the sparkly, TWENTY88-featuring jam ‘OLLA (Only Lovers Left Alive)’, or the low-key club vibes of title-track ‘Trip’. The Brandy-featuring lullaby ‘Ascension’, which finds Aiko contemplating trying to find her way again after having been so lost is perhaps the best summation of the album: running from demons and then choosing to face them openly, in an attempt to heal.

Rina Mushonga - ‘Jungles’ (PIAS)

This Peckham-based artist, who came to London from Zimbabwe via the Netherlands, makes a restless, exuberant sound that, again, can only vaguely be placed under the R&B umbrella – it’s as much an amalgamation of afro-pop, and lush, intricately woven licks of guitar and synth that zap around beneath her sumptuous, husky vocals. Ultimately, Rina Mushonga’s ‘Jungles’ is a propulsive track rich with promise that merits shouting out – so why not here?

Miguel ft. Travis Scott - ‘Sky Walker’ (ByStorm Entertainment)

This track actually dropped in August after my last column, but it merits a place here now because it’s ludicrous and glorious (the video especially falls into the former category). With twinkly production from both Miguel himself and his long-time collaborator Happy Perez, the celebratory track bounces magically, expounding on the merits of ignoring haters and staying up partying and passing round the green. The typically trippy delayed guitar is lush and wavy, while Travis Scott’s bars inject something a little more forceful into the track. The full-length version of the track also features Miguel getting lyrically silly and sleazy, as is his way (“I know she a vegan, but she want the steak tonight”) – but we’ll forgive him, because it’s a gorgeous, fun tune to blast out in denial now summer nights have come to an end.

Tayá - Tayá EP (Atlantic)

Though she hails from inner-city Liverpool, singer Tayá makes music more in the school of Kehlani than of any UK R&B artist. She started out singing in a youth choir, then was scouted aged-13 singing at a MOBO seminar; fast forward five years and she’s signed to Atlantic and just released her eponymous EP. It’s a record that boasts lush, lithe production and strong vocals – a standout is Yxng Bane-featuring ‘When Ur Sober’, calling out a partner for only expressing how they feel when they’re drunk.‘Sweet Waste Of Time’ glimmers like a Christina Milian off-cut, and ‘Got Me Wondering’ blips oddly, topped with breathy singing and it’s not dissimilar to a Kelela track. It’s a promising enough EP - cohesive and consistent, with undeniably great vocals and impressive production - but somehow it doesn’t sound that unique or original. You can hear her influences, but - for now at least (and it’s still early days for the teenager) - you come away from the record without a real sense of who Tayá is.