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.
18+, a formerly anonymous futuristic R&B duo that released its debut LP Trust via Rob Booth’s bountiful Houndstooth label last fall, has stirred interest with a series of uncanny videos and steamy tunes.
Ahead of their performance at the CTM Festival last weekend, EB Contributor Russell Dean Stone contacted them online to glean a better understanding of how the pair’s distinctly millennial visual art, music, and creative process reflect the ways virtual communication has transformed contemporary socialization.
An interview with the electronic R&B visual art/music duo 18+ involves a faceless Skype call. Its constituents won’t abide by a webcam, so it’s just their familiar voices travelling through the lonely Information Highway.
The solipsistic experience of chatting with them over the Internet fits for a band that deals in the currency of expressing secrets remotely via freaky cybersexual electronic R&B. 18+ is a platform its members use to navigate the ambiguous grey areas and paradoxes between public and private spheres of technologically-mediated socialization.
“18+ gives us room to express ourselves in an intimate way without the feeling of embarrassment or the immediate social ramifications of our thoughts,” offers Justin Swinburne, who works in conjunction with Samia Mirza under the 18+ moniker.
His remarks indicate the changes digital media have wrought on the relationship between personal identity and social interaction. Everyone who’s created a Twitter account or Facebook page is confronted with the task of representing their “real life” personality online and the possibility to do and say whatever they please if they operate under an anonymous pseudonym, as did Swinburne and Mirza when they launched the 18+ project in 2011. The pair’s early recordings, a trilogy of mixtapes titled M1xtape, Mixta2e, and Mixtap3, appeared under the nondescript and incestuous monikers “Bro” and “Sis.”
“The Internet allows you this moment where you can be by yourself but still communicate private moments,” Swinburne explained.
The paradox that 18+ tells its secrets in public informs the duo’s creative process of making music, videos, live performances, and artist personas. It also plagues the lonely hour when you’re sitting in front of the cold halation of a computer screen, sharing your secret thoughts, feelings, fantasies, and nude photos. It’s a public—or at least semi-private—disclosure that still feels like a personal moment, and that can cause some cognitive dissonance between the feeling of isolation and the reality that your laptop is connected to billions of others.
Likewise, listening to an 18+ song feels like intruding on a clandestine moment even though they’re widely distributed via labels like Houndstooth, which recently released the duo’s debut LP, Trust. The tracks feel illicit because they’re steamy bedroom jams function as explicit confessions. On “Midnight Lucy,” an XXX cut from Trust, Mirza murmurs the lines “Licking on her clit saying, ‘Come here, kitty kitty cat.’”
Aside from the racy lyrics and textural production, 18+ tunes are also quite literally bedroom jams. After all, they were recorded in the solitary confines of Swinburne and Mirza’s bedrooms, which were located on opposite sides of the country while they were recording much of the material for Trust. The long distance collaboration began after the pair graduated from the School of Art Institute of Chicago; Swinburne moved to New York while Mirza ended up in Los Angeles. Although both of them now live in LA, they still prefer to work on music in secluded environments and pass their projects back and forth.
“Even when we’ve stayed together for a period of time, we couldn’t do it if the other person was around,” Mirza explains. “Our parts in 18+ happen very privately.”
Their creative collaborations are thus intimate artistic conjugations mediated by fiber optic cables, remote romps during which they expose denuded fantasies and unload into each other’s inboxes. Their method of collaborating on sultry songs from separate rooms mirrors the transformation of physical intimacy with the rise of cybersexual technologies like remote-controlled vibrators and teledildos, which allow long-distance couples to get each other off from afar using futuristic, gender-adapted sex toys that match one user’s strokes on a silicone dick with pumps on a partner’s faraway fleshlight in real time.
18+ music videos represent another mixed ground between private and public life. The video for “All The Time” splices images of gyrating, big-titted computer-generated avatars into home footage, which has the uncanny effect of alienating the familiar as it familiarizes the strange. The duo’s aesthetic often mixes CGI humanoids with images of real-live people and recalls the unsettling visuals that the revered “post-Internet” artist Jon Rafman made for Oneohtrix Point Never’s track “Still Life.” The creepy clip depicted the secluded millennial settings from which we privately participate in public discourses, like a bedroom broadcasted via webcam or a keyboard and desktop computer covered in crumbs and detritus.
“That scene [of visual artists] is very much like the people we went to school with, that sort of stuff has always been around us in the atmosphere,” Justin says.
Avatar artists like 18+’s Bro and Sis have become staple figures in the fabric of contemporary pop culture, from the Gorillaz to the 3D hologram pop star Hatsune Miku and Arca’s uncannily sexual representations of the online alter-ego Xen. Perhaps we’re headed for a future in which we feel the need to adopt virtual disguises in order to feel safe when we bare our souls. The merging of bodily organic humanity with synthetics and rapidly accelerating technological cerebral experiences seems like an inevitable future, and one that 18+ are prepared for. When Mirza tells me that “We don’t speak that much, unless it’s necessary,” I can’t help thinking they know what’s coming.
Just before we disconnect, Justin drops me one more quote for the piece. It’s been clear all along that they are both slightly uncomfortable going through the motions of doing press, and they sound like they’re a second away from sighing at any given moment. Maybe they think interviews are an unnecessary distraction, or maybe it’s part of the persona.
“I feel like we’ve said too much,” he laughs. It’s a flippant comment, but I think he means it.
This article was written by Russell Dean Stone.
Rather than operate as a music news source, Electronic Beats operates as a music information source. We want to share with you; we want you to know what we’re hearing, what’s reverberating our cochleas and sending broader vibrations throughout our bodies, and by extension our audio-addled souls. Down with that? Welcome to Editors’ Choice.
Lisa Blanning (Online Editor)
Jeremih – “F You All The Time” (Akito’s F U On the Clap Trap Ice Rink – Bootleg)
This track is months old (sorry), but I only heard it last week when Kingdom dropped it during a DJ set. A mash-up of Jeremih’s ubiquitous but irresistable “Fuck U All the Time” and Wiley’s “Ice Rink Riddim”, the idea sounds obvious and naff, but it works. I know this feeling won’t last long, but I’ll enjoy it while it does.
Louise Brailey (Deputy Online Editor)
Diagonal Records – Far Out, Man: A Heatwave Mix
A psychedelic mix awash with sun-bleached colour courtesy of Jaime Williams who runs the Diagonal label with Powell. It’s quite a departure from the dense, charred textures of the label’s output but it does contain Creedence Clearwater Revival who are known to pop up in the odd Powell set so it’s not that out of character.
Jensen Sportag – “Bellz”
Nashville duo Jensen Sportag have a fetish for the kind of sumptuous, frictionless electronic pop that feels so detached it borders on chilling. This is entirely a good thing, by the way. Their debut drops this autumn.
Moritz Gayard (Online Duty Editor)
dBridge & Skeptical – “Move Way”
A drum’n’bass banger by dBridge and Skeptical. The track will be one of two on the B-side of the upcoming R&S EP Move Way.
Factory Floor – “Turn It Up”
Turn It Up! Here’s a new track from synth dance trio Factory Floor from their debut LP Factory Floor, out September via DFA. I can’t wait for this release.
Daniel Jones (Contributing Editor)
Cassie – “Take Care of Me Baby” (feat. Pusha T.)
Cassie’s Rock-a-Bye Baby is one of the great mixtapes of the summer, and this track has more or less burned its way into my cortex. Time for a power electronic remix, perhaps…
Jannik Schäfer (Social Media Editor)
Jon Wayne – “Ode to Mortality”
Who is Jon Wayne? Stones Throw introduced him about a year ago as an MC and producer without any further details and has since released two tapes (exclusively cassette tapes that is), which I never saw anywhere. Now, Jon Wayne’s 3rd Cassette, the Marion Morisson Mixtape, was released together with a free download, And boy what a tape it is.
Read previous editions of Editor’s Choice here.
In this essay based around themes he’ll touch on in his upcoming book Ghosts of My Life, Mark Fisher—the noted blogger known as K-Punk and the author of Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?—finds the veiled melancholy of 21st century pop through James Blake, Kanye West, Drake, and Darkstar.
A certain trajectory seems to have come to an end with James Blake’s new album, Overgrown. Blake has gone from digitally manipulating his own voice to becoming a singer; from constructing tracks to writing songs. The initial motivation for Blake’s early work no doubt came from Burial, whose combination of jittery two-step beats and R&B vocal samples pointed the way to a 21st century pop. It was as if Burial had produced the dub versions; now the task was to construct the originals, and that entailed replacing the samples with an actual vocalist.
Listening back to Blake’s records in chronological sequence is like hearing a ghost gradually assume material form; or it’s like hearing the song form (re)coalescing out of digital ether. A track such as “I Only Know (What I Know Now)” from the Klavierwerke EP is gorgeously insubstantial—it’s the merest ache, Blake’s voice a series of sighs and unintelligible pitch-shifted hooks, the production mottled and waterlogged, the arrangement intricate and fragile, conspicuously inorganic in the way that it makes no attempt to smooth out the elements of the montage. The voice is a smattering of traces and tics, a spectral special effect scattered across the mix. But with Blake’s self-titled debut album, something like traditional sonic priorities were restored. The reinvention of pop that his early releases promised was now seemingly given up, as Blake’s de-fragmented voice moved to the front of the mix, and implied or partially disassembled songs became ‘proper’ songs, complete with un-deconstructed piano and organ. Electronics and some vocal manipulation remained, but they were now assigned a decorative function. Blake’s blue-eyed soul vocals, and the way that his tracks combined organ (or organ-like sounds) with electronica, made him reminiscent of a half-speed Steve Winwood.
Many who were enthusiastic about the early EPs were disappointed or mildly dismayed by James Blake. Veiling and implying an object is the surest route to producing the impression of sublimity. Removing the veils and bringing that object to the fore risks de-sublimation, and some found Blake’s actual songs unequal to the virtual ones his early records had induced them into hallucinating. Blake’s voice was as cloyingly overpowering as it was non-specific in its feeling. The result was a quavering, tremulous vagueness, which was by no means clarified by lyrics that were similarly allusive/elusive. The album came over as if it were earnestly entreating us to feel, without really telling us what is was we were supposed to be feeling. Perhaps it’s this emotional obliqueness that contributes to what Angus Finlayson, in his review of Overgrown for FACT, characterizes as the strangeness of the songs on James Blake. They seemed, Finlayson says, like “half-songs, skeletal place-markers for some fuller arrangement yet to come.” The journey into ‘proper’ songs was not as complete as it first appeared. It was like Blake had tried to reconstruct the song form with only dub versions or dance mixes as his guide. The result was something scrambled, garbled, solipsistic, a bleary version of the song form that was as frustrating as it was fascinating. The delicate insubstantiality of the early EPs had given way to something that felt overfull. It was like drowning in a warm bath (perhaps with your wrists cut).
On Overgrown, the post-rave tricks and tics have been further toned down, and the album is at its weakest when it limply flirts with the dancefloor. Piano is still the lead instrument, but the chords hang over a backing that is almost studiedly anonymous—a luxuriantly warm pool of electronics where the rhythm is propelled more by the gently eddying bass rather than the beats. Like James Blake, though, Overgrown repays repeated listening. As with the first album, there is a simultaneous feeling that the tracks are both congested and unfinished, and that incompleteness—the sketchy melodies, the half-hooks, the repeated lines that play like clues to some emotional event never disclosed in the songs themselves—may be why it eventually gets under your skin. Blake has said that, by contrast with his debut, Overgrown sounds like the work of a man who has experienced love. For me, it is as emotionally enigmatic as its predecessor. The oddly indeterminate—irresolute and unresolved—character of Blake’s music gives it the quality of gospel music for those who have lost their faith so completely that they have forgotten they ever had it. What survives is only a quavering longing, without object or context, Blake coming off like an amnesiac holding on to images from a life and a narrative that he cannot recover. This “negative capability” means that Overgrown is like an inversion of the oversaturated high-gloss emotional stridency of chart and reality TV pop, which is always perfectly certain of what it is feeling.
But what is the faith that Overgrown has lost? Blake’s development has paralleled that of Darkstar, who similarly moved from the tricksy , tic-y vocal science of “Aidy’s Girl is a Computer” to the chilly melancholia of their first album, North. Their new record News From Nowhere has a brighter, dreamier feel, but, as with Overgrown, it is notable for its lack of designs on the dancefloor. In a discussion that Simon Reynolds and I had about UK dance music, Reynolds argued that the “emotional turn” represented by Blake and Darkstar was an implicit acknowledgement that “dance music no longer provides the kind of emotional release that it once did, through collective catharsis.” The music doesn’t have to be explicitly sad for this to be the case—there is a melancholia intrinsic to the very turn inward. As Reynolds points out, the idea that ’90s dance music was unemotional is a fallacy. This was a music saturated with affect, but the affect involved wasn’t associated with romance or introspection. The twinning of romance and introspection, love and its disappointments, runs through 20th century pop. By contrast, dance music since disco offered up another kind of emotional palette, based in a different model of escape from the miseries of individual selfhood.
In the 21st century, there’s an increasingly sad and desperate quality to pop culture hedonism. Oddly, this is perhaps most evident in the way that R&B has given way to club music. When former R&B producers and performers embraced dance music, you might have expected an increase in euphoria, an influx of ecstasy. Yet the digitally-enhanced uplift in the records by producers such as Flo-Rida, Pitbull and will.i.am has a strangely unconvincing quality, like a poorly photoshopped image or a drug that we’ve hammered so much we’ve become immune to its effects. It’s hard not to hear these records’ demands that we enjoy ourselves as thin attempts to distract from a depression that they can only mask, never dissipate.
A secret sadness lurks behind the 21st century’s forced smile. This sadness concerns hedonism itself, and it’s perhaps in hip-hop—the genre that has been most oriented to pleasure over the past 20-odd years—where this melancholy has registered most deeply. Drake and Kanye West are both morbidly fixated on exploring the miserable hollowness at the core of super-affluent hedonism. No longer motivated by hip-hop’s drive to conspicuously consume—they long ago acquired anything they could have wanted—Drake and West instead dissolutely cycle through easily available pleasures, feeling a combination of frustration, anger, and self-disgust, aware that something is missing, but unsure exactly what it is. This hedonist’s sadness—a sadness as widespread as it is disavowed—was nowhere better captured than in the doleful way that Drake sings, “we threw a party/yeah, we threw a party,” on Take Care’s “Marvin’s Room”.
It’s no surprise to learn that Kanye West is an admirer of James Blake’s. Meanwhile, this mix that was doing the rounds a couple of years ago made parallels between Blake and Drake. There’s an affective as well as sonic affinity between parts of Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Blake’s two albums. You might say that Blake’s whole schtick is a partial re-naturalization of the digitally manipulated melancholy Kanye auditioned on 808s: soul music after the Auto-Tune cyborg. But liberated from the penthouse-prison of West’s ego, the disaffection languishes listlessly, incapable of even recognizing itself as sadness. Unsure of itself, caught up in all kinds of impasses, yet intermittently fascinating, Overgrown is one more symptom of the 21st century’s identity crisis.~
James Blake’s Overgrown is out now via ATLAS/Polydor and he plays live at Electronic Beats Festival in Cologne on May 16th.
The art of seduction is not easy to teach. You can intuitively understand or gain understanding through initiation, but there’s a huge swathe of people that, no matter how hard they try, cannot achieve or receive it. Sex remains a mystery. Capturing that mystery in music is valuable currency, indeed; it’s spent recklessly in libidinal rock ‘n’ roll but savored, withheld, and controlled in soul and R&B.
In recent times, we’ve enjoyed the rise of ‘alt R&B’—prefixed as such due to an aesthetic shift achieved when the rhythms and atmospheres of soul and R&B became, like many other genres, inhabited by lone bedroom laptop producers instead of dominated by a team in a studio. Some of it—such as The Weeknd‘s “What You Need” or Jeremih‘s “Fuck U All The Time”—has arrived dripping in sultry, seductive sex. Other artists—How To Dress Well, for example—skip the mystery; it’s less an impression of R&B and more the flavor of somewhat syncopated indie.
Brothers Andrew and Daniel Aged came up as part of a team in a studio, working as session musicians with the likes of Pharrell, 50 Cent, and Raphael Saadiq. As inc., Andrew sings and plays guitar; Daniel does almost everything else, including bass, programming, and keys. As you’d expect, the playing and arrangements are accomplished, but in the setting of R&B that’s the norm. The ‘altness’ of it—read, the programming—provides some of no world‘s most arresting sonic surprises: a crystalline digital skitter, akin to a more melodic use of Oval‘s processed CD skipping techniques, graces more than a few tracks. It’s a recurring fiber-optic thread providing an alien loveliness.
But inc.’s true achievement is in their ability to weave this modernity with the ancient mystery of seduction. If tracks like “5 days” and “the place” are intimate caresses whetting the appetite, “lifetime” and “angel” surrender to new jack soul and our initiation is complete. no world isn’t a perfect album (few are). To these ears, the admittedly light touch of the all-too-familiar guitar actually detracts from the striking digital oddness; the swooning songwriting occasionally falls into a frankly unbecoming drama. But tapping into the ineffable is irresistible, and as one seduced, we ignore the faults and come back for more.~
inc.’s no world is out now on 4AD. You can listen to an album stream below.