1 Thing: April’s R&B Reviewed By Tara Joshi

What exactly do we categorise as R&B in 2017? Tara Joshi considers the expansion of the genre, alongside some of the best releases from the past two months

Some years back FKA Twigs called bullshit on being touted as an “alternative R&B” artist, and while that label is thankfully starting to die out, what we call R&B has certainly broadened to encompass stranger, more experimental sounds like hers.

Genre is an increasingly complex and difficult to define construct, perhaps especially so in R&B. Crossover happens naturally in all forms of music now, of course; porous digital borders are impossible to police, even if the desire to do so is there. The number of R&B artists in this column alone channeling Drake channelling dancehall and Afrobeats tells its own story.

But what contemporary R&B stands for in itself has come to include such a broad spectrum of sounds: Sampha’s soulful piano ballads, Kelela’s glitchy club bangers, John Legend, Banks, Jeremih, Beyoncé, The Weeknd, Frank Ocean, Alicia Keys. These are all artists doing incredibly different things: possibly, the remaining universal of the genre is that its roots are in black music.

The more traditional elements of this genre have of course long intertwined themselves with soul and pop and hip hop, but even beyond that melding of styles R&B has become more and more experimental over the past few years (a process that is in constant ebb and flow): currently electronica, has had a huge part to play in particular, alongside, more contentiously, “indie” (even if we are talking the Alt-J end of the pitch, rather than the Ed Sheeran one). I’d posit that rather than being “whitewashed” by the rise of the latter two influences, the genre – as robust as it is – has innovated by borrowing a little of what it wants with confidence.

It’s why, however, when listening to releases these past couple months it’s become difficult to know for sure what should be included in this column: is there anything about an artist such as Tei Shi that puts her under the same umbrella as someone like Mary J. Blige?

The latter is undoubtedly an R&B artist – one of the best at what she does, in a relatively traditional sense. Though Blige’s new album is out later this month, her new tracks are exquisite: notable is ‘Love Yourself’, featuring Kanye West. It’s an anthem that speaks to the need for self-esteem and self-love (“You gotta love yourself, if you really wanna be with someone else”), and Blige’s voice is a veritable powerhouse, bringing to mind Aretha. It opens with the delicate theatricality of piano, harp and vocals, before the rich boom of brass and hip hop beats explode into existence. Kanye’s verse is on form as well – “I decided not to use my colour as a handicap”, he spits, provocatively. The whole thing sounds at once old school and gloriously fresh.

But how do you contextualise something like Argentine singer-songwriter Tei Shi within the same genre? Her debut album Crawl Space is full of the airy, mesmerising sounds we might associate with the “PBR&B” side of things. ‘Keep Running’ pulses with an exciting litheness, ‘Baby’ cascades with sweetness, while ‘How Far’ is very much an indie pop song, guitars and all. But then, look at Frank Ocean’s surprising use of Alex G on Endless (not to mention James Blake and Jonny Greenwood) – done right, these can still fit into some R&B template. The polished production with as many swirling, intimate slow jams, as there are off-kilter beats, and smatterings of funky organ and brass.

Labels like “alternative R&B”thankfully continue to fall out of use, as musical genre bleed opens up more space for further innovation. Mary J. Blige and Tei Shi are proof of how R&B artists in 2017 can be making sounds that are nothing alike, yet still be evidently influenced by the same things.

Frank Ocean – ‘Chanel’ & ‘Biking’


Increasingly, Frank Ocean has become one of those figures who can do no wrong: more to the point, he’s perhaps one of the few contemporary R&B artists whose oeuvre legitimately merits that kind of status. Surprise release ‘Chanel’ is sonically subdued and spacious, while lyrically he continues on from Blond(e)’s ability to deftly, intimately deal with queer narratives in what remains a predominantly heteronormative genre – indeed, it is perhaps the most bluntly he has put his bisexuality into words before, on the emboldened-by-auto-tune refrain: “I see both sides like Chanel”. In contrast with the quiet, slinking shuffle of the music, his vocals are particularly strong – he opens with the line, “My guy pretty like a girl, and he got fight stories to tell.” Almost mirroring those fight stories, the regimented beat imbues something quasi-military to the song, and it sounds throughout as though he’s in conflict with himself, with his fame, weaving stories one after another but also throwing in lone statements and non-sequiturs. It’s compelling, strange, and quite beautiful.

Then there’s ‘Biking’, Frank’s collaboration with Jay Z and Tyler The Creator which he released on his Beats 1 show. It’s full of swooning guitars that, again, sound like a logical next step from ‘Pink + White’ or ‘Self Control’. Frank talks about giving a toast at the first wedding he’s been to in his 20s, about biking up and down hills and at one point Tyler says “My heart does wheelies when the light hits your pale skin." Suffice to say, it’s excellent.

Chloe x Halle – The Two Of Us


Atlanta sibling duo Chloe x Halle are perhaps names on your radar by virtue of one Beyoncé Knowles. The pair went viral with their cover of ‘Pretty Hurts’, which was enough to get them signed to management company Parkwood, and they appeared in Lemonade (as well as supporting Knowles on the European leg of her tour). Their engrossing debut EP, Sugar Symphony dropped last year, and mixtape The Two Of Us seems to pick up where that left off. Opening track ‘Used To Love’ crescendos with clicks, a capellas, and a hovering falsetto that all recalls French Cuban duo Ibeyi – but just as you’re about to get too lost in the dreamy harmonies, the staccato sass of ‘Too Much Sauce’ begins. “Boys texting me and begging me to see ‘em – you can’t schedule time with a queen like me” is the glorious opening line, done in sing-song spoken word. As the record continues, the exciting feeling of defiance is pervasive. They make fun of the idea that they have to make their music less complicated to have mainstream appeal – “Is this simple enough for you?” they ask, mockingly, on ‘Simple’. There are moments that recall the choppy, haphazard control of ‘Say My Name’-era Destiny’s Child, spliced with some of the more brazen sounds from Pitch Perfect (this is meant in a positive way). The unrelenting sense of confidence, their striking vocal ranges, and the immersive production all make this a fascinating, thrilling pleasure to listen to.

S4U ft. 808ink, Jackum, Nick Bam + Linx – ‘Rocksteady’

(Limited Health)

Londoners S4U have a beguiling presence – last year’s Brazil EP suggested an intriguing new prospect for the UK R&B scene. The duo, Rosita Bonita and Prinz George, seemed to channel 90s and early 00s vibes with real command, albeit with a decidedly grittier British edge. Their latest track ‘Rocksteady’, with features from a host of local rappers, is a little more leftfield than before; glitchier and more fragmented with an enticing percussive loop and bars and vocals that mesmerise with delicate nonchalance. This is kind of like if Twigs was making songs for the club: in other words, it’s very good.

ZAYN ft. PARTYNEXTDOOR – ‘Still Got Time’


In the time since his somewhat overblown debut, it seems ZAYN has taken note of the whole dancehall-meets-Afrobeats-meets-house thing that Drake has been channelling of late. ‘Still Got Time’ is a sun-drenched delight, that lilts with a knowing languidness. The lyrics are predictably vague and flirtatious – “Just stop looking for love, girl, you still got time… this could be something if you let it be something” etc. and PARTYNEXTDOOR’s inclusion doesn’t exactly up the lyrical ante much, with his unconvincing claim to be “boyfriend material”. Overall this a somewhat bland little tune aimed squarely at being a big summer hit but suffice to say ‘Still Got Time’ still manages to really emphasise how weak that Harry Styles debut single is.

Liana Bank$ – ‘Ghost’


With a refrain about banging in the bathroom stall, and lots of panting noises, it’s surprising how pleasantly gentle Liana Bank$’ new song ‘Ghost’ actually sounds: it’s all husky, whispering vocals, restrained elevator muzak-style keys and feathery beats. Indeed, rather than being in your face, the suggestion of sex dances effortlessly through the song – it’s playful, but knowing. The New York singer-songwriter recently mentioned in an interview with Billboard that the track was in fact a drunk freestyle, which goes some way to explaining the sincere, uninhibited sense of intimacy as she sings about getting lost in someone else.

Khalid – American Teen


Possibly because it speaks to an experience of American youth that I have never had, or perhaps because it pulsates with a youthful idealism that I have also missed out on, there’s something about Texas teen singer-songwriter Khalid’s debut that overall doesn’t quite resonate. There’s a hazy naivety and romanticism to it all: the undercurrent of airy, 80s style drums, his sweet and steady vocals, and his very real lyrics about his adolescent experience. And yet it’s often overproduced, over-polished: a song about being “young, dumb, broke high school kids” jars sounding so much like a stadium anthem intended to get everyone waving their phones in unison. But maybe that’s the point – taking sounds that kind of ape a John Hughes movie soundtrack, but turning them into smooth songs for this generation of friends who “passed out in the Uber ride”. American Teen gets a lot better as it progresses, with some striking Frank Ocean-lite production.

Omarion – ‘Distance’


For fans of the late, great B2K, California’s Omarion is a face and a name to be associated with some straight-up bangers. Yet, as a solo artist he hasn’t achieved anything nearly as excellent as ‘Bump, Bump, Bump’, and he’s been inactive since his 2014 Sex Playlist – which just goes to show that maybe Drake wasn’t so innovative with his More Life format after all. Speaking of the Toronto rap star, there’s no doubt that Omarion is channelling those same island-inflected vibes on this new track ‘Distance’ – and given that he even goes so far as to refer to his lady’s “pum-pum”, it’s fair to say some of these island vibes are slacker than others. With his smooth, sweet vocals talking about the “distance between our bodies” and the tropical beats, there’s certainly a humidity here that’ll get you a little hot under the collar.

The Trp ft. Jasmine – ‘u bit’

Though it’s easy to be a little dubious of buzz artists, especially those who shroud their identitites, on the basis of this track there’s certainly something a bit intoxicating about UK/New York trio The Trp. Guest singer Jasmine boasting a strong, defiant voice not dissimilar to Kehlani’s, over whirring, immersive production that at times recalls PC Music. While the tracks that have come before this – ’Before You Know It’ and ’Lavender’ – are both smooth and delicious and more identifiably R&B, this is more of an EDM track, bringing to mind the wonky sounds of someone like Flume. With distorted vocals and lovelorn lyrics befitting of the club (“it’s crazy how this feels right, makes me wanna seal the deal”), standing in stark contrast to the almost-lullaby beats of ‘Lavender’, The Trp remain intriguing at least.

Jorja Smith – ‘Beautiful Little Fools’


Though she’s been a source of some intrinsic intrigue for a while, it was after a co-sign from Drake this year that all eyes turned to West Midlands singer-songwriter Jorja Smith. Not only did she support him at various UK gigs, but she appeared on the eponymous track ‘Jorja Interlude’ and the exquisite ‘Get It Together’ on last month’s More Life. And it’s not hard to see why Drizzy’s so enamoured: Smith has smoky, jaded vocals that have a subtle power to them. The track was released on International Women’s Day, and she sings damningly about expectations surrounding women – the refrain is, “Beautiful little fools, that’s what us girls are destined for”. A slow jam, it’s that lyrical edge which toys with being almost snarling that thankfully saves this track from beige Emeli Sandé territory. Smith’s got better stuff in her back catalogue (last year’s Project 11 is gorgeous), but this still does whet the appetite for a full album.

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