As part of the continued evolution of my musical preferences in 2014, I have come to realise that I quite enjoy the new wave of R&B and soul music that has been gaining popularity over the past few years. Clumsily dubbed “alternative R&B” by some music journalists, the music is typically stylized by a slew of unique production sounds and beats, serving to accentuate a mix of smooth vocals, girlish coos and modern sentiments (as evident by the singers’ understated use of slurs and vulgarities). I would probably just call this new trend modern soul music that owed an equal debt to both trip hop pioneers like Tricky and revered R&B songstresses like the dearly departed Aaliyah.
How so? Let’s revisit Tricky’s 1995 reinterpretation “Black Steel”, which is an experimental take of Public Enemy’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” that took the song in such uncharted territories, it was considered avant garde in 1995.
Tricky’s debut, “Maxinquaye” was a masterpiece quite ahead of its time. Yet its cold and calculated sound proved to be too alienating for mass consumption.
Arguably, R&B and hip hop in the 1990s were somewhat traditional, which is why Aaliyah’s sophomoric effort, “One in A Million”, came as a pleasant surprise when it was released in 1997. Originally R Kelly’s prodigy, Aaliyah was best known for her silky-smooth cover of the Isley Brothers’ “At Your Best, You Are Love”. Aaliyah’s vocals were sweet, but her debut album, while decent, was characterized by R Kelly’s new jack swing, a relatively conventional sound that dominated the charts at the time. Thankfully, for her second album, she took a chance to work with relatively newcomers Timbaland and Missy Elliot, who paired her vocals with a galaxy of new, weird samples to much success. However, success was short-lived as she died in a tragic plane crash in 2001.
So, by the 2000s, in the United States, the nascent adventurous R&B sounds kind of went back to the fringe. However, in the UK, where you see more cross-breeding between pop and the experimental fringe, the seeds of trip-hop, electronica and R&B were nurtured and proliferated into the mass market. M.I.A., a migrant from Sri Lanka to the UK, drew upon various influences such as R&B, hip-hop, electronica and world music, to create a brave new palette upon which she tackled social commentary from the perspective of a migrant. Her song, “Paper Planes”, which sampled The Clash’s “Straight to Hell”, was used to wondrous effect in the soundtrack of Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire”.
Meanwhile, drum and bass lives on (sort of) in the guise of AlunaGeorge, a duo made up of Aluna Francis and George Reid. Aluna Francis’s child-like vocals are somewhat sugarly-sweet and bring to mind Janet Jackson before her wardrobe malfunction phase, while George Reid, believe it or not, was formerly from an indie math-rock band. This unlikely union gave birth to a surprisingly accessible blend of R&B, which incredibly sounds futuristic and retro at the same time. Check out “Your Drums, Your Love”, a video that also features amazing choreography.
Back in the States, things look kind of dire with the domination of Beyonce, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and Jessie J in the pop charts. Occasionally, you find a gem like Jhene Aiko, a Los Angeles native who described her ethnicity as “Japanese, African American and Native American”. Her blend of R&B stands out for its strangely serene vibes when the rules of the day pretty much dictate a mandatory “ass-in-your-faceness” (I hereby copyright this phrase). Having listened to her debut album “Souled Out”, Jhene comes across as the rare breed of well-meaning and well-adjusted singer-songwriters who can elicit a form of inner peace among her audience, which probably mean she is doomed to fail in the American market.
Now for the polar opposite across the Atlantic. For many people, FKA Twigs’ claim to fame will probably be dating mopey Twilight star Robert Pattinson and appearing in Jessie J’s early music videos. However, don’t let whatever preconceptions and prejudices you have dissuade you from checking out “LP1”, a collection of weird-ass R&B tunes that sound like the lovechild of Tricky and Bjork, if said lovechild was raised and trained by the loving hands of Aaliyah. FKA Twigs also has an extremely unique visual style for all her music videos, as evident in “Video Girl”.
To conclude this rather long article about modern soul music, let’s look at something relatively different. James Blake has always been hard to categorized, what with his blend of music being mysteriously labelled as “post-dubstep” (WTF?) in some quarters. “Overgrown” is one of my favourite records of 2013. It’s the type of album you listen to at 3.00 am in the morning after a bout of insomnia while you contemplate about life, that is, if that’s the kind of things you are into.