The musical landscape often resembles a toddler’s cot, with hype acts, micro-genres and associated buzzwords strewn across the floor like yesterday’s toys.
For a moment in time- somewhere between, let’s say, Boyz II Men’s regrettable Christmas Interpretations cash-in and J Dilla re-introducing the world to soul music via Erykah Badu’s Didn’t Cha Know– it appeared RnB was ready for a stint in the cupboard, placed carefully alongside brit-pop and drum n’ bass while our attention was diverted by the shiny new genres the information superhighway led us to.
Fast forward to today, and RnB- now almost completely emancipated from the African-American Rhythm and Blues of its roots- continues its transformation, buoyed by electronic experimentation and eccentric personalities that have twisted the genre into its most challenging forms yet.
Firmly entrenched in the underground while maintaining its stronghold on the mainstream charts, for this edition of Single Origin we indulge in the commercial and alternative ends of RnB’s vanguard.
1. Frank Ocean – Nikes
Frank Ocean’s 2012 channel ORANGE was the wake-up call pop music needed: fusing RnB and classic soul with modern, unconventional influences from the entire musical spectrum, 2016’s follow-up Blond once again disrupts the status quo in more ways than one.
2. The Internet – Special Affair/Curse
Extricating themselves from their Odd Future roots shared with Frank Ocean, The Internet meld sublime, zero-gravity instrumentals into the rich soul music tapestry of the past.
3. Beyoncé – Sorry
Of recent times, Beyonce’s shown an artistic depth rare in her contemporaries, but 2016’s visual album Lemonade ascended to another level again. Using samples of indie rock favorites and psych-folk rarities (alongside a diverse cast of musicians including Jack White and Kendrick Lamar), Beyoncé’s mixed-media masterpiece Sorry is a unique (and compelling) tale of deceit and infidelity.
4. Anderson Paak – Am I Wrong? (ft. Schoolboy Q)
Rising to prominence on Dr. Dre’s Compton, .Paak arrived with his critically acclaimed album Malibu. Alongside samples from contemporary jazz (Robert Glasper) and Australian soul (Hiatus Kaiyote), Paak’s commercial breakthrough melded hip hop, funk, blues and indie dance into a cohesive whole, providing a summer festival soundtrack for hipsters across the globe.
5. Alessia Cara – Here
A warped sample from the well-trodden discography of Isaac Hayes is one of few references to urban music’s past; On Here, the Ontario native’s anthem “for people who don’t like parties”, we see the introspective side of RnB move out from the shadows and into the Indie- pop slacker
6. How To Dress Well – Lost Youth / Lost You
How To Dress Well (aka Tom Krell) enclosed RnB in a haggard bedroom production aesthetic, and replaced the well-worn tropes of love & excess with loneliness and detachment. At first taking a dream like, reverb-soaked approach to pop melodies, Lost Youth / Lost You sees the Canadian RnB outcast embrace slick, modern production techniques and widescreen indie pop for iconic UK independent label Domino.
7. FKA Twigs – tw-ach
Two years on from declaring “fuck alternative R&B!” to the Guardian, FKA Twigs may not have amalgamated into the pop charts completely, but her industrial, grime-influenced sound continues draw new listeners and push her dense, idiosyncratic take on RnB into the spotlight.
8. Abra – Crybaby
Variously described as lo-fi, new wave, darkwave, goth, soul, rap and who-knows what else, Abra absorbs everything above, twisting familiar elements from RnB’s yesteryear into menacing, late night tales of heartbreak and obsession written, produced and (often) released by Abra herself. Extending her creative control in the video realm as the star and director of her own clips, Abra flaunts a contemptuous DIY attitude staunchly opposed to the commercial RnB world.
9. Jesse Lanza – Oh No
Released on hype UK electronic label Hyperdub, Lanza’s dexterous pop- realised with house music royalty (and partner) Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys – fused the best of 90’s RnB with a stark, electronic skeleton exhumed from the underground clubs of London, Detroit and Chicago.
10. Sampa The Great – Blue Boss
Referencing golden era hip-hop and contemporary R&B in equal measure, Sampa The Great’s self-titled mixtape found the antipodean soulstress demonstrate a deep understanding and reverence for the soul, jazz and funk of RnB’s roots, with a socially conscious and politically aware voice that drew from a myriad of worldly influences.
11. Jamila Woods – Blk Girl Soldier
While 2016 finds the musical RnB model shattered and the lyrical themes expanding rapidly inwards, there are some motifs never far from the urban music archetype; Jamila Woods’ HEAVN arrives as the spiritual successor to the protest music of Marvin Gaye at an urgent time when #blacklivesmatter draws the spotlight to America’s race relations.
12. KING – We the greatest
Keeping a languid, breathy pace throughout their debut album, KING- one-time protégés of musical icons Prince and Patrice Rushen- deliver a breathy, sensuous and original take on RnB that recalls the mid-90’s radio love affair with Sade & Mariah Carey, served with an infusion of world music and a gentle psychedelic edge.