I’ve never been a big fan of contemporary R&B, certainly not much of what’s been made post-2000. Whereas the 90’s had artists such as Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo, Aaliyah and Erykah Badu the new millennium has been dominated by the stale, musically dull pop/R&B of Rihanna, Chris Brown, Drake etc. It seems to me (though I’m far from an expert on the topic and would love to be proven wrong) that for a long time there was very little in the way of any R&B which pushed any boundaries or aimed for anything other than mainstream success.
But recently (since around the time of The Weeknd’s excellent House of Balloons mixtape) I’ve been finding artists that take aspects of R&B to new, exciting places.
One such artist is Jai Paul. This young Brit is yet to release an album but the two songs he’s given us so far are both very promising. In my favourite of the two, Jasmine, his voice dances lightly over a murky, bassy rhythm. I keep waking up with the lyrics looping over in my mind; because they have such a strange, ethereal quality it feels as though the song is haunting me.
How To Dress Well is another artist taking R&B to darker, more experimental places. His two albums are both excellent. The first, Love Remains, is particularly unique – pretty vocal melodies buried in lo-fi bass. But perhaps the best introduction to him is this beautiful, heart-breaking live performance of Suicide Dream 1 on Boiler Room.
Ben Khan is of a similar ilk to the previous two but his production is cleaner and his song structures a tad more conventional. You can hear the influence of British bass music on all of these artists but it’s most prominent in Ben Khan. There’s no way you’d be hearing that bass wobble in Drive (Part 1) if dubstep hadn’t happened beforehand.
And last but not least the person responsible for starting me on this journey: The Weeknd. He’s achieved a lot more mainstream success than the others but his output’s fallen off in quality quite a bit recently. I’m not nearly as impressed with his record label debut but re-listening to his first mixtape House of Balloons (particularly the first half) is still as invigorating and exciting an experience as it was the first time I heard it. It’s a shame his dark, druggy sex stories have since descended into self-parody but at his best The Weeknd was truly brilliant.