Last week, R&B heavyweight Janet Jackson returned to the game with the release of new material and the announcement of her first tour in four years, so it’s a good time to reflect on how the genre has changed since Jackson’s heyday. A new school of female artists have helmed a strain of “future-throwback” R&B fuelled by nostalgia for icons like 702 and Lil Mo and forward-thinking production twists that recontextualize the sounds pioneered by people like Jackson.
Kelela is at the forefront of the ‘90s R&B revival. Her work with producers like Arca, Teengirl Fantasy and Night Slugs boss Kingdom introduced avant-garde electronic stylings into the milieu. Ahead of the release of her next EP, Hallucinogen, the second-generation Ethopian and current LA resident leaked a track that adds Skrillex and Clams Casino to her roster of collaborators. Her debut album will supposedly follow in the fall.
The Atlanta-based artist formerly known as Brittany Bosco went dark between 2008 and 2012, and in 2014 a track with Treasure Fingers surfaced, followed by her induction into the Fools Gold team and her rebirth as BOSCO. Her recently released debut EP BOY employs the classic ’90s maneuver of using a voicemail message as an intro to a song.
Nao’s sprightly twist on R&B traditions built a foundation of hype that has won her mainstream attention from the likes of BBC Radio One. To date she’s collaborated with Mura Masa and A. K. Paul, the brother and collaborator of the elusive Jai Paul. Her latest offering is the February 15 EP, and she’s got a guest appearance on a forthcoming Disclosure tune.
Abra has become the jewel in Awful Records’ crown since Father adopted the Atlanta-via-London crooner into the squad. On her 12-tracker Rose (embedded above), she fuses R&B, pop and house with effortless aplomb that marks her as a true dark horse of 2015.
Before you brush aside an heir to the Smith fame and fortune, let me just explain why she’s a valid addition to this list. The 14-year-old has consistently developed her sound since her breakthrough single “Whip My Hair” with a steady stream of new material on her SoundCloud. The results are textured and subdued that takes tips from Eryka Badu. Although nepotism can leave a bad taste, there’s an undeniable depth in her songwriting.
Willow has described Solana Rowe aka SZA (pronounced “Sizza”) as her “big sister.” She’s also the first female artist on Top Dawg Entertainment, the label that also houses Kendrick Lamar. There’s a lot of pressure riding on her to bring out the jams, which she’s done on three releases and a series of collaborations with the likes of Chance the Rapper, Toro Y Moi and K-Dot himself.
Lolawolf is a band, but it’s all about frontwoman Zoë Kravitz. She’s been vocal about her disinterest in commercial success, which is pretty easy when your dad’s Lenny Kravitz and you’re tight with Miley Cyrus, who made a comeo in the video for “Bitch” (embedded above). But the trio might be en route to the big time anyway. Their output includes alt-pop, badass bounce and glitch with wavy ‘90s hip-hop flavors.
Def Jam executive Tab Nkhereanye swooped Alessia Cara into the crew after discovering her on YouTube. Although her SoundCloud is chock full of acoustic covers, she’s taken a revealed some original material with her debut single “Here” (which, admittedly, does use a Portishead sample as a backing track). The 18-year-old Canadian teenager has a natural soulful swing to her delivery and a penchant for Lorde-ish introvert anthems. Her debut album is in the works.
After studying at London’s BRIT School, Raye graduated to a deal with Polydor Records. The 17-year-old has clearly been preparing for her shot at superstardom her whole life. Her Welcome to the Winter EP doesn’t really push any boundaries, but it’s a quality combination of pop, R&B and electronic influences.
Canadian songstress Jessy Lanza first came to attention in 2013 and rose alongside other ethereal electronic artists like Phlo Finister, Jhené Aiko and SZA. Her debut album Pull My Hair Back, released by UK staple Hyperdub, is an exercise in space, grace and understated eroticism. Her next move is the You Never Show Your Love EP out in July. The title track, which she revealed last week, features Teklife footwork futurists DJ Spinn and Taso.