R&B isn't back; it's just that our original concept of the genre is evolving and broadening. The straightforward, classic style is still seen everywhere on the charts. What's more exciting though, is that there does seem to be a renewed energy towards the way artists appreciate those past and present radio hits, and acknowledge them in a fresh, often definition-bending approach. That progression is what links the five acts below:
Arguably the breakthrough act of 2011, UK composer and blog darling James Blake is taking what many consider profound artistic steps in electronic music. Most notably is his use of fractured sub-bass in pop song structure—as if building, dismantling, and rebuilding the parts that makes our heads nod, all with an innate sense of melody. On multiple EPs last year, he work with sampled vocals, a charm he talked about with XLR8R:
"(Even the) R&B samples, they’re not just any songs—they’re still songs I loved when they came out, probably quite embarrassingly, I would have been afraid to admit it at the time, but nowadays those vocals really sit in your subconscious. And I think using them taps into a massive subconscious in our generation. But people don’t just want to hear them straight; they want to hear echoes of them in their dance music."
Then he went and started using is own soulful voice on the self-titled LP, and it turns out the man can sing, really well. And thus, Sir James Blake became indie royalty.
23 year old Christopher Francis Ocean gained attention at the start of this year, as the industry began its fascination with Odd Future. He is a member of the LA collective, and that tie probably misleads one to an abrasive hip hop assumption—whereas Ocean is actually rounding out the softer end of the spectrum, making heartfelt, smooth experimental R&B, something best introduced by his debut mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra. And nostalgic it is, opening on the line "when we were kids" (delivered over a Coldplay sample, and an alarm clock), and fashioned like a handmade cassette from childhood (tape deck sound effects and all) with interludes named after 90s video games. What separates the sound from so many crooners though, is the surreal atmosphere given to his very real introspection.
When discussing his 2010 hit LP Forget with NY Press, George Lewis Jr. sited his youth, taping songs off the radio (“Boyz II men, Keith Sweat, Toni Braxton. I just loved R&B,”) and later told Pitchfork ("I love, love, love The-Dream,"). The Twin Shadow brand is not directly in that family, though it does seem informed by their mood, especially vocally, while groove-wise he leans more towards 70s art house and disco. Wherever it fits, the music has been hitting a lot of ears and venue floors kindly, making Lewis and his band a sought after live act.
Everything Brooklyn's Tom Krell hinted at over a series of blown-out home recordings last year blossomed into Love Remains. The (polished) lo-fi album is loyal to a distinct aesthetic, one that feels like the echoed, distorted memory of Bobby Brown, TLC, R. Kelly and so many others. Surrounded by soul-crushing beats, Krell soars a pained falsetto past normal thresholds, into a grainy, otherworldly space. It makes for an exercise in isolation. And based on his recent orchestral EP and work with Active Child, he's prepared to shift in unanticipated directions.
A Heavy favorite, The Weeknd must be mentioned here, as Abel Tesfaye is without a doubt, ushering in a new era for R&B. Sourcing indie pop, and mucking them up in dark sex and drugs, House of Balloons pretty much created (or exposed) a want for Hot 97 charisma re-imagined through modern mist. Then came the sudden drop of follow-up mix Thursday, just a few weeks back, proving it wasn't this isn't a flash, but a project to follow seriously.