Michael Cragg sees nothing wrong with a little bump’n’whine but Alex Macpherson is fed up of sadsacks gentrifying his tunes
There’s an indie R&B Tumblr – of course there is – called, controversially, Indie R&B. Its sub-heading offers a short description of R&B’s most divisive and diverse sub-genre: “Alternative & Experimental R&B and Soul Music“. Indie R&B, or as Spin magazine put it recently, Alt R&B – from Frank Ocean‘s dalliances with psych-rock, to INC‘s minimal, strung-out Prince-isms, via How To Dress Well‘s bedroom approximation of 90s R&B and Solange’s recent collaboration with former Lightspeed Champion, Dev Hynes – has become one of the most talked-about phenomenons of 2012. It’s been hailed as modern R&B’s saviour in the face of its Midas-touch producers slipping (cheers Timbaland and the Neptunes) and a tsunami of “EDM” that’s already swallowed up the likes of Rihanna and Usher.
R&B purists (or bores), however, would have you believe it’s a genre created by and for clusters of hipsters who cry-wank over the Weeknd. While there is some truth to that, indie R&B’s desire to play around with R&B’s already frayed edges should be something to celebrate. There’s a certain spirit surrounding a lot of what falls under this umbrella, be it a willingness to experiment, an indefinable sense of freedom or, in the shape of Solange’s Losing You, a single that betters anything Keyshia Cole or any other pure R&B fetishists have released in the last 10 years. While “real” R&B often deals with life in the moment, indie R&B tends to look back from the foggy haze of the next morning, creating distant, disconnected slow jams. While the former is easier to get lost in, the pull of the latter can last much longer.
Any talk of R&B making a “comeback” in 2012 is useful only as a bullshit detector: anyone with the temerity to claim that it ever went away can be instantly dismissed as someone who only cares for a genre when it cycles back into transient fashion. The idea that it’s taken a wave of sadsack dudes with pensive feelings and washed-out reverb to save a genre with such a rich and varied past and present is sadly inevitable. It’s less revolution than it is gentrification: a narrowing of the focus to a set of values deemed acceptable to a largely male, middle-class audience.
Praise is lavished on dross such as the Weeknd (stiff, funkless beats allied to coked-up deep thoughts, meta self-awareness trumping musical quality) and How To Dress Well (if only he’d put as much effort into his recorded-in-a-drainpipe music as into his excruciating stage name), but what gets ignored is just as telling.
The unfortunate emphasis on vibes over moves has meant that R&B geared towards hyper-kinetic choreography now goes unnoticed, whether Ciara continuing to valiantly plough her gymnastic furrow or the more experimental work of former Diddy Dirty Money singers Dawn Richard and Kalenna. I shed a silent tear on behalf of street-dance classes everywhere. Meanwhile, the blood-and-guts belting of Keyshia Cole and Elle Varner – not to mention the more low-key approach of up-and-comers Nikkiya and Jade Alston continue to show up the pre-packaged, shallow nature of the pale, enervated indie R&B aesthetic.