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SOULFUL NOIR


Road trips on any given Route 66 or revisited Highway 61 traditionally result in a music education for teens or tweeners buckled in the back seats, forced for hours to surrender to the music of their parents. On a recent drive down I-95, I steered three generations of my family in one Jeep from New York to Virginia, streaming a playlist of R&B from the ’70s and ’80s. The teenagers (14 and 16) tuned out with their AirPods, unfortunately. But the mix—everything from Ashford & Simpson and Cymande to Lipps Inc. and Anita Baker—led my 70-something mom to remark on the modern state of rhythm & blues.

Her question revolved around why the music doesn’t sound like it used to 40 years ago. Aside from the fact that no music sounds the same over the course of that many decades, I tried to explain why today’s R&B radio sounds so different from when she was behind the wheel on my childhood road trips.

The Reader’s Digest version of that conversation started with hip-hop’s Trojan-horse storming of R&B radio at the turn of the millennium, with the melodic hooks of rappers like Nelly, Ja Rule and 50 Cent (as well as singing MCs like Lauryn Hill and OutKast’s Andre 3000). Their limited vocals slowly moved the genre away from a wider range of tones, and the rise of Autotune arguably made things worse.

Rap music’s penchant for musically stomping straight out the gate also meant that classic R&B’s tendency to build toward crescendos fell out of favor. To compete with rap, R&B tracks needed to bang immediately, killing the gradual build-ups from back in the day. We discussed the disappearance of R&B groups and the variety of vocal tones each singer of a group like Jodeci or Destiny’s Child used to bring to the radio. After a good 20 years of music created in the wake of those shifts, a whole generation of listeners (and rising singers) grew used to what the music has become.

We said all that, and then I probably turned up Sade and kept driving.

Had the boys in the back been listening, they might have brought up the recent Grammy-winning music of Jhené Aiko, Normani, Chlöe Bailey, Teyana Taylor or any number of others. Though a few new favorites, notably Silk Sonic, traffic in the sounds and styles of the past (see their cover of “Love’s Train” by Con Funk Shun), today’s R&B, on the whole, is hardly in thrall to the music that grandmas know and love. The R&B landscape of 2022 scarcely needs defending. A survey of some of its greatest artists proves why.

SZA

The first time the music industry went ballistic for an album called Control (1986, to be exact), Janet Jackson declared her self-emancipation. Releasing her own Ctrl (TDE/RCA) five years ago, New Jersey-raised SZA (born Solána Rowe) fulfilled the promise of two earlier EPs by tackling romantic drama in the age of Tinder, through trap beats and a genre-pushing sound that owed as much to Björk as Aaliyah.

After winning a Best Pop Duo/Group Performance award at the 2022 Grammys (“Kiss Me More,” with labelmate Doja Cat), SZA told Variety, “I just actually finished [the new album] in Hawaii recently. It’s probably my most unisex project yet.” After stunning the Met Gala in a Vivienne Westwood gown weeks later, she told Vogue, “My album’s finally ready to go, more than I’ve ever felt before. This summer will be a SZA summer!” Her most recent single, last year’s “I Hate U,” broke Apple Music’s record for the most-streamed R&B song by a female artist on its way to the Top 10. The acoustic-guitar ballad “Joni” and “Nightbird” also arrived last summer to high praise. SZA’s moment is now.

Her path—from her self-released debut to the covers of national magazines—was a slow burn. When I saw her perform for a smallish outdoor crowd at the 2015 SXSW festival, buzz for the 25-year-old singer-songwriter with the full lips and huge auburn wig felt tangible. Top Dawg Entertainment signed SZA in 2013 on the strength of See.SZA.Run, her seven-song EP full of neo-soul and what was beginning to be described as “alternative R&B.” The Guardian described her then as a female version of Frank Ocean and The Weeknd, meaning her arrival signaled what the 2010s would bring to rhythm & blues’ evolution. Ctrl, her full-length major-label bow, delivered on that promise with Top 40 singles like “Love Galore” and her ode to polyamory, “The Weekend.”

In the time since Ctrl, SZA’s star stayed bright by shining on other artists’ work: Kendrick Lamar’s “All the Stars,” Summer Walker’s “No Love,” Doja Cat’s “Kiss Me More.” But her singular appeal as an artist in her own right hangs on how her high falsetto alternates with a cadence that’s more delicately jazzy. Her lyrics range from urban realism to a freer poetry that still centers on what it means to be a woman, in a 2022 context.

The Weeknd

The defining characteristic of a huge swath of 2010s/2020s R&B boils down to mood, and we have one Canadian superstar to thank for that. Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, was born and raised in Toronto, yes, but he’s not the Canuck in question. His neighbor Drake made his first real splash in 2009 with So Far Gone, a mixtape full of ambient atmospherics and odes to relationships and sexcapades gone awry. That landmark and its immediate follow-up albums—Thank Me Later (2010) and Take Care (2011)—owe a lot to 808s & Heartbreak, the morose “love sucks” album by Kanye West. Ye influenced Drake, who in turn influenced an entire wave of rappers from Future to Juice WRLD.

Take Care contains five contributions from Tesfaye, then an aspiring 21-year-old singer/songwriter.

Even my mom knows “Can’t Feel My Face,” The Weeknd’s 2015 earthquake hit that invoked the energy of Off the Wall Michael Jackson while sneaking the central cocaine metaphor of its chorus under Pop radio’s radar. But before his bid for mainstream dominance, before collaborations with Beyoncé, Daft Punk, Ariana Grande and so many more, The Weeknd dropped a trilogy of sexy mixtapes in 2011: House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence. (Nowadays, they’re repackaged as a single compilation: Trilogy.) They formed the foundation of his style, which invoked the hangovers of druggy party weekends, the aftermath of questionable hookups and a general air of debauchery—all within the frame of a lethargic, pleasing bed of synths and his yearning falsetto.

Stroll through any supermarket and you’re likely to hear “Starboy,” “Blinding Lights,” “Heartless,” “Earned It,” “The Hills,” “I Feel It Coming” (all #1 hits) or other Weeknd smashes blaring through the overhead speakers. The anonymity he once played with in his mixtape phase, when he was never seen and fans weren’t sure if The Weeknd was a man or a band, is a relic of his long-gone past. Since Kiss Land, his 2013 official debut studio album, visuals have been central to his whole oeuvre. Jean-Michel Basquiat-inspired locs, the creepy, blood-soaked bent to his videos from After Hours, the gray-haired, gray-bearded conceit of his latest project, Dawn FM… The Weeknd operates as if MTV World Premiere Videos were still a thing. Considering that he lived his wonder years during the ’90s glory of Missy Elliott, TLC and Janet Jackson, that’s understandable.

After the Grammys snubbed his #1, double-platinum After Hours two years ago, The Weeknd decided to withhold future releases for consideration by the governing Recording Academy (in 2021, Drake followed his lead). Given that he remains a chart monster, dazzled with a halftime Super Bowl extravaganza in 2021 and this year inked a massive, all-in deal with UMG, it hasn’t seemed to slow down The Weeknd’s party.

H.E.R.

Although 24-year-old singer-songwriter H.E.R. signed her first record deal way back in 2011, only in the past few years has she fully shown her hand. Ample evidence abounds for whose mold she’s casting herself in. She’s shredded guitar with Lenny Kravitz performing “Are You Gonna Go My Way” on the Grammys, rocked through “Let’s Go Crazy” at a Prince tribute, covered Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” and leaned heavily into a Janet Jackson sample for her #1 R&B radio hit, “Damage.” The bespectacled artist makes clear whose shoes she’s trying to fill, and releases like last year’s Back of My Mind more than make her case.

But in the beginning, we knew nearly nothing about H.E.R. Taking a page from The Weeknd’s mysterious foundation, she appeared on the cover of 2016’s H.E.R. Vol. 1 EP as a dark silhouette with no other identifiers. She released no videos; RCA revealed no biographical info. “Focus” still topped the R&B chart and she was supported on social media by Alicia Keys and Wyclef Jean as an unknown newcomer. (Slyly, “H.E.R.” stands for “having everything revealed,” though she deliberately revealed very little.) Usher and Rihanna championed her too, as H.E.R. Vol. 2 made its splash a year later.

Turns out she’d been hiding in plain sight all along. At 10 years old, the California-born musical prodigy Gabrielle Wilson appeared on Showtime at the Apollo and The Today Show covering Aretha Franklin and Alicia Keys. She signed with J Records at 14. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, she’d sing with her father’s local R&B band, Urban Bushmen. Her first single as Gabi Wilson, the presciently titled “Something to Prove,” came and sank. Then came the crafty re-emergence as H.E.R.

A 2017 compilation of her two career-defining EPs, simply titled H.E.R., scored her a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year at 20. Two years later, I Used to Know Her was selected for the same honor, as was 2021’s Back of My Mind—technically her debut album after five EPs’ worth of material. She’s earned five Grammys as of this writing, including Song of the Year in 2021 for “I Can’t Breathe,” and 21 nominations.

The overall vibe of H.E.R.’s music often serves ballad-heavy, seductive mood music through bluesy keyboards, while her speak-singing mezzo-soprano vocals spin sentimental tales of romance and occasional heartbreak. The first impression left by her early EPs pointed toward baby-making music before she began appearing on awards shows and Tiny Desk Concerts noodling on the Fender Rhodes, strumming acoustic guitars and taking electric solos as a consummate artist. Latterly, some of her more high-profile works have had an overtly political bent. Clearly H.E.R. aspires to the artistic heights of inspirations like Prince and Lauryn Hill, while demonstrating her range with genre-defying covers like Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” at her very own Lights On Festival.

Silk Sonic

In 2010, Hawaiian multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter Bruno Mars proved himself a master pop stylist with a single stroke on “Just the Way You Are,” then demonstrated he was just as adept at approaching the styles of legacy artists he admired. Like Sting on Mars’s “Locked Out of Heaven,” clown prince of R&B Morris Day on the mega-successful “Uptown Funk” (both #1 pop hits), or ’90s R&B in general on 2016’s Grammy-winning 24K Magic. Concurrently, Californian multi-hyphenate threat Anderson .Paak (drummer-rapper-singer-songwriter-producer) was stretching the boundaries of the genre on albums like Oxnard and his Grammy-awarded Ventura, with a raspy voice and million-watt smile.

Enter Silk Sonic.

Today’s R&B stands on its own, without needing to lean overmuch on musical styles from its past—that is, except for when it’s tongue-in-cheek intentional. (See also Childish Gambino’s “Awaken, My Love.”) Parliament-Funkadelic bassist Bootsy Collins hosts An Evening with Silk Sonic, 2021’s EP-length eight-song album, wherein Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak essentially cosplay as a 1970s R&B duo. The thing is: It works. Silk Sonic resurrects bridges, key changes and pre-choruses on romantic tracks like “Smokin Out the Window” and “After Last Night.” A lyrical reference on “Blast Off” to “danc[ing] all night on Saturn’s ring” brings to mind those velvet astrological posters of sex positions from the ’70s; “Fly as Me” even explicitly mentions a 1977 Monte Carlo gas guzzler. And just when listeners may have wondered how seriously to take the project, Silk Sonic swept all four Grammy categories they were nominated in earlier this year, including Song and Record of the Year for the rapturous hit “Leave the Door Open.”

In a musical era starved for male R&B groups, “an album of lovable carousing uncles” (Pitchfork’s description, not mine) was just what Urban radio needed at the moment. The old-school craft and deft humor of these classic-soul pastiches certainly resonated for nostalgic upper-demo listeners (as well as musically literate youngsters), while the pair’s visual sizzle and mad chemistry instantly forged a vivid artist brand.

Almost 25 years ago, critics praised The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill for blending hip-hop with the ’70s aesthetic of Stevie Wonder. D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and the ’90s neo-soul movement also blatantly mined the past; so did the late Amy Winehouse. Without taking themselves terribly seriously, Silk Sonic resurrects the era when the likes of Kool & the Gang and the Ohio Players ruled R&B radio while still allowing for the straight-up rap verses of Anderson .Paak (“Fly as Me,” “777”). As trip-hop pioneer Tricky once put it, “Brand new, you’re retro.”

Solange

A close friend thinks Beyoncé’s coolest ideas probably come from her younger sister. During those friendly debates, I always beg to differ, but I never doubt that Solange Piaget Knowles has some degree of influence on the art of her megastar sibling. A year before Beyoncé went solo from Destiny’s Child, 16-year-old Solange released Solo Star, a production-heavy album that mostly lost her in the sauce. In 2008, the more eclectic Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams looked backwards (Motown songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland were involved) and toward the future (its electronica beats spawned three #1 dance singles) at the same time.

Then came A Seat at the Table. Released in the final year of President Barack Obama in power and in the middle of a Donald Trump-obsessed election season, it couldn’t have come at a better time. Solange promoted an atmosphere of self-love directed straight at Black folks all over the album. “Cranes in the Sky,” “Don’t Touch My Hair” and “F.U.B.U.” were all standouts; interludes of extra-affirmative self-empowerment came courtesy of Master P. The mood was predominantly smooth and midtempo—cool, calm and collected even on a track entitled “Mad.” Dedicated to the Black condition, A Seat at the Table had all the trappings of a modern R&B classic, proving Solange was as much an artist to keep an eye on as her overachieving big sis.

Most young fans of Black music have seen the social-media meme declaring that a private argument between Solange and brother-in-law Jay-Z (Beyoncé was also present) in an elevator at the 2014 Met Gala eventually ended up producing three musical masterpieces: Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Jay-Z’s 4:44 and Solange’s A Seat at the Table. Well, #facts.

Having initiated three major albums in modern-day African American music, her approach to 2019’s When I Get Home sounded a little more freewheeling. Released with its own visual album, her fourth studio effort blended a psychedelic soul sound she’d been devising all along with hip-hop help from Playboi Carti, Scarface, Gucci Mane, Tyler, The Creator and others.

Solange’s function in what the late, great cultural critic Greg Tate once called the Knowles Industrial Complex seems to be appealing to the slightly more progressive, edgier cool kids who might reject Beyoncé’s pop perfectionism. (Michael Jackson fans of the 1990s weren’t quite as hip as sister Janet’s fanbase from the same period, either.) If the older Knowles skews too mainstream for your tastes, Solange definitely has something for you.

Jazmine Sullivan

True story: Another close friend recently received what I considered a pretty incredible sum (in the low five figures) from a foot fetishist for some toes-in-pantyhose photos. TMI, perhaps. But the guilt she felt over her rather chaste transaction reminded me of the conflict and the freedom on Jazmine Sullivan’s Grammy-winning fourth album, Heaux Tales.

Jewell Caples (who just passed away in May) once sang raunchy ad-libs on The Chronic, Doggystyle and elsewhere as the “First Lady of Death Row Records,” one of the most memorable of which involved vocalizing her joy over fellatio way back in 1992. Outside of the blues nearly 100 years ago, women didn’t sing about such things. R&B surrendering to the overarching influence of hip-hop—where the pioneering Lil’ Kim began rapping about anal sex and swallowing orgasms over 25 years ago—means that a generation of women have been listening to female agency and autonomous freakiness for decades. The daughters of Mary J. Blige, undeniable queen of hip-hop soul, include (among others) Rihanna, SZA, Summer Walker and the 35-year-old Philadelphia-born songstress Jazmine Marie Sullivan.

As a cishet male, hearing Heaux Tales may feel like eavesdropping on intimate conversation between women dishing dirt on the size of men’s bank accounts and their genitals, both of which (face it) sometimes come up short. “The Other Side” details a fantasy about being provided for by a rich rap artist (“I just want to be taken care of/ ’Cause I’ve worked enough”), a song in alignment with Reality Show’s “Mascara,” where she humanizes the type of gold-digger Kanye West eviscerated. Indeed, Heaux Tales often plays like a misogynist’s nightmare: a woman daring to voice her feelings about using love and sex in exchange for material and emotional comfort. But for women raised on the likes of Keyshia Cole and K. Michelle, Heaux Tales sounds like a refreshing, undisputed truth. And her powerful contralto deserves every last fire emoji.

Like Jewell, Jazmine Sullivan also lent her vocals to a Snoop Dogg record (“Different Languages,” on 2009’s Malice n Wonderland). She also penned four songs for Mary J. Blige’s Strength of a Woman five years back. But Sullivan’s career began as a 15-year-old student at Philly’s performing arts high school signed to Jive Records. Missy Elliott produced most of her 2008 Top 10 debut, Fearless, which featured her first signature song, “Bust Your Windows.” Love Me Back (2009) and Reality Show (2014)—along with appearances on Frank Ocean’s Endless visual album—helped along her freshly cemented legacy. But the Heaux Tales concept album (with appearances by H.E.R., Anderson .Paak and Ari Lennox) turned Jazmine Sullivan into an R&B icon in her own right.

Summer Walker

There’s a lot wrapped up in the rise of 26-year-old Summer Walker, above and beyond the Atlanta artist’s velveteen voice and trap R&B sound. Back in the Motown era, founder Berry Gordy intentionally introduced his label’s marquee female act, The Supremes, in chandelier gowns and high-glam, snug-hug dresses as a subliminal statement. Motown’s in-house charm school, The Temptations’ bespoke suits—the message was that Black people possessed as much dignity and elegance as anyone else in the country, maybe more. The ascent of hip-hop largely turned that kind of respectability politics on its head. Rappers crossed the mainstream over to the hood on its own terms, instead of the reverse.

Lyrically, aesthetically, hip-hop created an intracultural space where African Americans could present ourselves to ourselves as ourselves, unapologetically. To understand that is to understand Summer Walker. The R&B disruptor showed up in last year’s “Ex for a Reason” (LVRN/Interscope) video sporting door-knocker nameplate earrings, fluttery false lashes and outrageously long pink press-on nails, rolling in a convertible through the ATL. Twerking girlfriends in G-strings start pole-dancing in the living room of their house party later on (as one does), while the heavily tattooed Walker belts the chorus: “That bitch your ex for a reason though…” Diana Ross might clutch her pearls. But ignoring the white gaze never looked so joyous, or sexy.

Walker’s authenticity helped propel the singer through one of the most meteoric rises in R&B. Her discovery by the Atlanta-based LVRN music company quickly led to the recording of 2018’s Last Days of Summer mixtape. A co-sign from Drake (specifically, his appearance on a remix) shot Walker’s first single, “Girls Need Love,” into the Top 40.

Audiences took to the singer immediately, enticed by the frankness of her lyrics, relationship drama and a ribaldly expressed sexuality that was more reminiscent of female MCs like collaborators Cardi B and JT of City Girls than any old-school R&B thrush. The artist’s 2019 debut album, Over It, sold over a million copies on the strength of the Top 20 hit “Playing Games,” and the sound of producer London on da Track. Last year’s Still Over It—a break-up album of regret and catharsis—launched #1.

Summer Walker sounds like now, like the young Black zeitgeist in a bottle, which is why the music wins. Literally singing about bitches and hoes, sex and drugs, baby mamas and blowjobs, Walker will only sound ratchet to listeners a little too old to be listening. For everyone else, it’s the rebirth of what the late Uptown Records’ founder Andre Harrell once coined as ghetto fabulousness.

 

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