Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke received R&B’s most high-profile accolades in 2013, but bubbling under their imitative stylings, producers and singers pursued a trend of destabilizing some of the genre’s most enduring clichés. This year, women of color regained their traction as leaders of the new school, while at the same time, demarcations of gender and sexuality were blurred, reaffirming R&B’s central message of love, not identity.
This upending of R&B isn’t a new story. The epic saga about PBR&B and the critical coverage of “alternative” soul artists like Frank Ocean and The Weeknd began in 2011. But while Frank Ocean’s heartfelt admission about his nuanced sexuality pried open the door, Ian Isiah rode through it this year, seductively, on a horse. Another intriguing thread is that while all of the artists on this list reside in the United States and the United Kingdom—the ancestral homes of R&B and soul—a significant number this years’ most innovative artists are of African heritage. R&B caught up to the times in 2013 and then vaulted into the future. These are the voices and studio wizards who made it happen.
I’ve issued praises upon praises to Kelela this year. One of the great talents of the Ethiopian-American singer is the way that she is able to meet squarely with her futuristic production. Her goddess-like vocal confidence softens and embellishes the clinical iciness of beats from her Night Slugs and Fade to Mind cohorts.
Distancing themselves from more tactile, fleshy productions, R&B producers like Kingdom are churning out more controlled clangor. DJ/producer Rizzla made this astute comment about today’s music production when he commented on twitter:
Feels like Grime was/is the last NEW MUSIC, and everything since has just been going back in time with a more advanced toolkit
— Rizzla (@rizzla_dj) November 25, 2013
No one played with (and benefited from) grime’s framework flowing into R&B more than Kelela.
Having supported other UK artists like Jessie Ware and SBTRKT, singer/songwriter/producer Sampha Sisay rose even farther up the rungs with his collaborations with Drake on Nothing Was The Same, “The Motion” and “Too Much.” His acoustic solo version of “Too Much” is a overload of tenderness that’ll melt the most leathery of hearts. His own EP Dual came out on Young Turks over the summer and shows off his introspective soul, combining the depth of older singers like Donny Hathaway with modern composing sensibilities. He’s been vocal about his spectrum of influences, which are as diverse as The Streets and Malian singer Oumou Sangaré.
FKA Twigs has the look and the sound of 2013, but is indebted to the ladylike eroticism of Sade and the psychological darkness of late ’90s trip-hop from Tricky and Morcheeba. She and Arca have a magical singer-producer relationship made of the same fairy dust as those dreams that stay with you throughout the day. His sensual, yet vaguely creepy beats match the thin, otherworldliness of her dexterous vocals.The video for “Papi Pacify” notably tested the boundaries of sexual transgression, as it evoked themes of bondage, submission, pleasure, abuse, and consent. Her petite, dancer’s looks were attenuated like taffy in the video for “Water Me.” The video’s emphasis on the alien artfully emancipates R&B out of its safe heteronormativity. As Mykki Blanco recently posted on Facebook, “I’m over gender. I’m into species.” FKA Twigs has been there, done that.
The story of “queer rap” that broke in 2012 encountered resistance from rappers who wanted to be praised for their talent, not just their sexuality. And while Frank Ocean has become a symbol of progress, he hasn’t quite made music with overtly radical themes. Ian Isiah is refreshingly crystal clear about his queer-bi-trans, but also post-gender, eroticism. He puts the sub(altern) in subversive R&B.
The futuristic video for “M1ndfvck” (which was apparently too much for YouTube) is a utopic/dystopic peek into a world where interchangeable body parts are the norm and we are all gorgeous, brown, jewel-adorned cyborgs. “Freak You Down” is a gorgeous parody (but also maybe celebration of?) every VH1 Soul video ever. Sonically, Isiah combines the sensual thug tropes of groups like Jodeci with UK bass’ disorienting, pitch-shifting space cave sounds. The cover for his mixtape, The Love Champion (amazingly released on rap site Dat Piff) is perfect: It’s his hand holding a pink pistol, wrapped by a vine of pink and cream roses.
Chicago’s The-Drum had a busy year in 2013, releasing their cyperpunk exploration Contact, while working with R&B and rap acts like KIT, JODY, and LE1F. I recently asked The-Drum’s Jeremiah Meece whether he would consider his music “future R&B” and he responded, “I think of what I do with The-Drum and in solo production as psychedelic R&B. I think of JODY as modern or progressive R&B. I feel like when people refer to future R&B, they are talking about R&B that subverts the regular perception of what R&B is ‘supposed to be’ and altered/cut up vocals. I’m really into vocal manipulation and I’m definitely into confounding people’s expectations.”
Like Sampha, Devonté Hynes has come into his own through co-writing and producing for others, breaking through with his collaborations with Solange, Bassment Jaxx, Florence and the Machine and Sky Ferreira, while releasing his own material under the names Lightspeed Champion and Blood Orange. His music is a nod to uplifting studio R&B of the 1980s, cutely spoofed in the Janet Jackson-meets-home-video feel of the MV for “Time Will Tell.” His album Cupid Deluxe is for those who are ready to graduate from Drake’s “Hold On We’re Going Home,” but who aren’t quite ready to embrace avant-garde provocateur Dean Blunt.
Speaking of “Time Will Tell,” backing vocals on that Blood Orange song were provided by British-Ghanaian singer Tawiah. She hasn’t quite garnered as much attention as others on this list, perhaps because her sound is more classically neo-soul; Comparisons to Meshell Ndegeocello or Dionne Ferris are apt. Singles “TEARdrop” and “FACes“ off her FREEdom Drop EP are beautiful and lyrically deep. Hopefully, with continued collaborations with artists like Dev Hynes, she’ll have an even bigger 2014.
Like The-Drum, Iman Omari is a promoter of “psyhedelic R&B.” His output is very wavy, and very Californian. In an article for MTV Iggy earlier this year, Marlon Bishop filed his music under “new positivity,” which he described as “an open-hearted, futuristic hippie vibe that rejects apathetic notions of cool prevalent everywhere from hipster culture to hip-hop. (See: Lil B,Frank Ocean, Low Leaf, just to start).”
Anais Aida and Fatima barely squeaked tracks into the end of 2013, but they make me really excited for 2014. Through the Arca-produced “Watchawannado,” France’s Anais Aida slithers her way into your bones. Fatima’s “Family” is a perfect soulmate to “Watchawannado,” following its shimmering theme, but adding soul-affirming live percussion, joyful hand-claps and a welcoming chorus. B-Side “Black Dough” is perfection, with Fatima contending with even the best of Jill Scott and *gasp* Erykah Badu.