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1 Thing: Your R&B Roundup For February And March
Tara Joshi , March 26th, 2018 07:50

Is there a glass ceiling on the marketability of South Asian artists in music? Tara Joshi considers what the handful of brown people breaking through in R&B can tell us, and reviews the latest releases

Asal Hazel

Two years ago this month I wrote my first ever review for tQ. In a very on-brand move (for me, rather than the site), it was about Zayn Malik’s debut solo album, which saw him foraying into #serious R&B sex icon territory (or at the very least attempting to). I noted the affectionate nod to R&Bollywood – and in a period of increasing so-called identity politics, it seemed a logical assumption that our first brown popstar would be leading a pack.

But if you talk to South Asians who were upset that the ‘Nothing Beats A Londoner’ advert didn’t represent us, and ask which musicians should have been in the campaign then the answers are unfortunately quite telling. Who is our Skepta, Jorja Smith, Dave, or AJ Tracey? Rising producer Steel Banglez is the only one who felt salient to me in the given context, whereas M.I.A., Bat For Lashes, and Riz MC were the names people were coming up with, none of whom feel especially relevant to 2018 music – and certainly, none of them have ever been gunning for the mainstream. It’s also kind of grim that you can literally count these names on one hand.

Zayn Malik, then, is an exception to a rule about how far a brown popstar can go – and that is something worthy of interrogation. Take Arjun, a British Sri Lankan R&B artist who just released his debut album on Island – a division of a major label, aka there is money behind him. The album marries relatively standard Justin Timberlake-style R&B with opulent Tamil sounds – at points he stops singing English, there’s a lot of folk song sampling, but it’s very much accessible. Closer To Home is schmaltzy and a lot of the production seems clumsy, but it still seems bizarre that Arjun’s existence is so niche.

Various brown artists I’ve spoken to have mentioned being explicitly told by labels that there just isn’t a market for them because brownness hasn’t been commodified as ‘cool’, but this seems even more off when you look at London artist Leo Kalyan or New Yorker Raveena. Raveena’s voice is like a silken cloud gliding over tender piano and harp sounds on her latest track, and her rising internet stardom is proof that being of Indian origin isn’t an obstacle to people connecting with her delicate output. The same is true of RuPaul-endorsed Leo Kalyan, who dreamily croons with South Asian-style melisma to complement his immersively airy pop beats on this mesmerising track.

Possibly as per the stereotypes, South Asians just aren’t as interested in breaking into music – and possibly this is something exacerbated by the idea that the role models aren’t there, that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. But I’d hope artists like Raveena and Leo Kalyan particularly, as well as Zayn, are reassurance to young hopefuls in R&B or pop or whatever, that even if some industry exec is telling you it won’t sell, there is very much space for South Asian-origin artists, and it is waiting to be filled.

Albums and EPs

Chloe X Halle - The Kids Are Alright (Parkwood)

Last year’s Two Of Us by Chloe X Halle was a beguiling mixtape filled with nursery rhyme-style, strange playfulness that dared listeners call them simply ‘good for their age’. Scouted by Beyoncé and signed to her label, the teen pair were always set for big things, but in being more refined and polished than that tape their debut album feels less sonically interesting than that mixtape, because it’s so much more refined and polished. Repeat listens reveal it to be every bit as ambitious, though. Nineteen tracks at 52 minutes feels a bit much, but there’s a lot to explore here. Lilting speeds, bending pitches and choppy bouts of a cappella are cut with rap interludes from Kari Faux, Goldlink and Joey Bada$$. The sweet but commanding refrains of Chloe and Halle have a powerful sense of youthful vigour and love and femininity – ‘Everywhere’ is a glorious imploration to be that rich man your mum wished you would marry ( “I got money everywhere”), while on ‘Baptize’ their vocals careen as they inform us, “I won’t change for you”.

Moss Kena - Found You In ‘06 EP (Cult Club)

It feels wild that 19-year-old Moss Kena isn’t bigger yet. This debut EP is a polished collection of R&B-meets-pop, topped with a delicate, androgynous falsetto. Some tracks might have veered into MOR in the wrong hands, but Kena manages to keep it interesting – there’s a real sense of jaded emotion in the way he delivers lines like, “Maybe there’s no way to have it all, that’s why I’m back at square one”. This comfort in his own emotions over the sheeny production makes for an impressive first release – and there’s a great verse from severely underrated rapper Leikeli47 on ‘Spend Some Time’. It’s not groundbreaking, but whether he leans into the glitchier production and get a bit weird with it, or decides to become Britain’s more soulful answer to Troye Sivan, it’s likely you’ll be hearing a lot more from Moss Kena.

Ravyn Lenae - Crush EP (Atlantic)

Produced by The Internet’s soul-jazz king Steve Lacy, this EP from Chicago’s prodigious 18 year old is her third longer release. It’s drenched in lithe grooves and excellent vocals that toy with experimentalism. With airy smooth electric organs and rich strums of guitar beneath it all there’s a faint sparkle of funky psych, and her sweet falsetto bops around and cuts through the lushness. The almost-bubblegum of lead single ‘Sticky’ is the standout, but the whole EP is engagingly loved-up and dreamy.

Asal Hazel - like water EP

This Persian-American LA native has a voice that’s sometimes as delicate as Solange, but the production - from the likes of Swarvy, MNDSGN and Knxwledge - brings Dilla-style beats into the mix. Her vocals are whispery and romantic (“Know what I need, give it to me,” she implores breathily on sultry ‘make love’), but her enunciation sometimes blends too readily, making it hard to distinguish certain phrases – it adds to a sense of this being an overall sonic work rather than necessarily being that focussed on lyrics. It’s replete with ambient sounds of waterflow and touches of early 2000s downtempo, but when you get to the jittering bonus track ‘lust 0x8d6f6e’ you wish she’d been pushing it down weirder territory the whole time.


1010 Benja SL - ‘Wind Up Space’ (Young Turks)

This enigmatic Midwesterner who no one seems to know all that much about dropped the slept-on ‘Boofiness’ last year, but this track especially feels a stunning indicator of things to come. Soaring with a sparse cinematic quality - orchestral and bold - his vocals atop it all have the purity of Michael Jackson at his best.

Zanillya - ‘C.R.S.H.D.’ (BlackWings)

The first single from this Amsterdam-based artist is an intriguing prospect – “Will this new year bring me anything?” is the hopeful yet jaded line that bookends the song, which is steeped in autotune. Pulsating with a glitchy darkness (her background is in house and dance) and trying to enforce some vulnerability on herself (“I need to let go”, she refrains) you can hear the influence of an artist like Kelela – albeit a more hip-hop version. Self-produced along with Dutch producer Capadose, it’s a shadowy track that is doesn’t give away as much as you’d like, but certainly it leaves you wanting more. Cursory Googling also reveals she’s the daughter of the late, great Bobby Farrell of Boney M, which plays no real bearing on how she sounds but feels important and pleasing enough to share.

serpentwithfeet - ‘bless ur heart’ (Secretly Canadian / Tri Angle)

serpentwithfeet (real name Josiah Wise) first cropped up on my radar last year when Björk put his gorgeous track ‘four ethers’ on her Mixmag mix. Indeed, his musical output shares a lot with the Icelandic icon – not least in that particularly cerebral way of conveying emotion. Raised in Baltimore and now based in New York, serpentwithfeet’s forthcoming debut album is set to be something sublime if ‘bless ur heart’ is anything to go by. This is all dizzyingly tremulous vocals, stark piano and gorgeous, metaphysical conceits about what would happen if others were to read or hear his words about his relationship (“Will my songs seek the company of lonely breaths?/Will they inspire sudden lovers to kiss with mouths they don’t have yet?”). This is something else.

Sonder - ‘One Night Only’ (P-Line Sonder Global)

A favourite discovery of last year, the Brent Faiyaz-featuring trio are very much on the come-up – featuring on the advert for the new series of Atlanta is never a bad thing. This track again finds them in that slow and sensual 90s-style aura, trying to persuade a love interest to be unfaithful for “one night only”. Not morally sound, sure, but it’s a lip-bitingly seductive slow jam.

Daniel Caesar - ‘Best Part’ (Colors Live Show) (Golden Child)

Having pretty much slept on how wonderful Canada’s Daniel Caesar is until the end of last year, it only seems fair to continue to wax effusive on him months after the fact. This performance on Colors is exquisite – I would highly recommend watching as he sings the devastatingly romantic ‘Best Part’ while casually sipping on a goddamn coffee between verses. Dreamy.