Why you should care
You may hear your bedroom jams veer in this direction in the future.
Time to put away the summer’s ode to indulgence, “Fancy” — it’ll fade to irrelevance within months. Same for the Disney soundtrack that became a best-selling album this year, for sales don’t always mean compelling music.
For that, prick your ears toward a new wave of feminine — and feminist — R&B.
The sirens of this new wave are FKA Twigs, King avriel and Kelela, and they sound like almost nothing else on the radio. Not much like contemporary R&B, either. Their music is heavy on electronics, for starters, and sometimes heavy on drug references, too.
Neither ‘the damsel nor the victim.’ Shamelessly indulgent, including in drugs.
And though the lyrics still drip with emotion, the sentiment is much less “baby come back to me” than a return to R-E-S-P-E-C-T. These songstresses are staking out new territory in the genre. They’re reflexively feminist — sometimes polemical. The sing against cool, electronic soundscapes — and they’re still really hot.
Here, for instance, is King avriel in “Paranormal Paradigm”:
I would give anything
To see the end of the war against women
(All this damn pink is giving me the fucking blues
I didn’t choose this shit. Did you?)
“I’m more concerned with pushing the narrative — pushing the things that are talked about in the genre,” says King avriel, née Avriel Epps, in an interview on Skype. She hates the patriarchy and, as she wrote on her Tumblr a while back, publicly challenges gender norms. Yeah, but the beats don’t sound anything like grad school.
All three of the artists use electronics to give their work a more radical feel. You’ll hear the term “icy” tossed around a lot when describing the production — that’s the temperature of something uninhabited. FKA Twigs heats that up, though, and good. Her lyrics go beyond sexual autonomy, through to sexual aggression. Here, from her 2014 highlight “Two Weeks”:
My thighs are apart for when you’re ready to breathe in
Suck me up, I’m healing
With all the shit you’re dealing
Motherfucker, get your mouth open, you know you’re mine
Kelela’s electronic R&B is focused on autonomy, too, though far less lustily: She’s kind of a romantic. To “Go All Night” is for her to indulge in simple things, like hanging out and smoking up:
Stayed up talking all night
Take my body, it’s all right
Died but we go all night
Baby, I won’t pass the blues
Contemporary R&B has shifted with the times, of course, from the neon gleam of the ’80s to the hip-hop abrasion and playful seduction of the ’90s. Not that much, though. Though some albums deviated from the blueprint, there was still a blueprint: ear-soothing harmonies, easily memorable hooks, production that triggers a Pavlovian response within seconds. Think Boyz II Men’s heartwrenching “End of the Road” or Jodeci’s slinkily seductive “Freek’N You.” These are soundtracks about sex and relationships, often from a male point of view, that evoke warm, soft-focus images of candelight, rose petals and bedsheets.
Not everyone is keen on the new style. Music journalists have dubbed it ‘PBR&B.’
These ladies have a totally different feel. Neither “the damsel nor the victim,” as Kelela says, nor madonna-whores. Sexy but in control. Vindictive. Shamelessly indulgent, including in drugs.
To be sure, feminist strains in R&B go way back, all the way to Arethra. Janet Jackson explored sexuality to an almost transgressive extent in 1993’s janet. More recently, Timbaland and Aaliyah combined feminism, electronic music and R&B. Meanwhile, the Weeknd’s House of Balloons mixtape featured hypernocturnal vibes and lyrics about copious drug use, emotional pain and impending self-destruction — and became one of the best-reviewed R&B albums in years. And Frank Ocean broke new ground in bedroom jams simply by coming out as bisexual.
Not everyone is keen on new wave R&B. Music journalists have dubbed the style “PBR&B” (a portmanteau that includes “hipster beer” Pabst Blue Ribbon) — a label that translates to “music that white people like,” wrote Jozen Cummings at the Awl. That’s a possible explanation for the genre’s growing mass appeal. “I’ve never seen black females being into [the Weeknd] like that,” wrote Hanna Marin on a Lipstick Alley forum. “Mainly white girls.”
Kelela also credits a rise in white listeners, not necessarily because forward-thinking R&B is easier on their ears, but because they’ve opened up more to R&B in general. “If you hear a gospel run, something is wrong with you if you don’t have a reaction,” she told Billboard. “That’s what some people have gotten real about. It’s like ‘OK, this is actually really, really amazing.’”
Whatever the case, the sound has seeped into the mainstream. When an artist of Beyoncé’s stature adopts an electronic palette, and lyrics that don’t shy away from sexuality and maternity, one can expect others to follow. R&B’s come a long way, baby.