Chantelle Fiddy takes a look at the new generation of cross-pollinating songwriters and producers who are pulling R&B into fresh shapes.
As the door closed on another great year for British music, trusty tipsters promised us that 2014 would be the year of alt-R&B – and so far, they haven’t been wrong. Blurring the lines of pop, electro and soul, a glut of artists are proving it’s an exciting time for anyone fusing the old swing of the last decade with a futuristic promise.
The influential BBC Sound of 2014 poll, nominated and voted for by 170 industry pundits, featured Sam Smith, Ella Eyre, Banks, Sampha, FKA Twigs, MNEK and Kelela – all of whom are creating out of the box R&B of sorts. In a double whammy, the BBC’s poll winner, Sam Smith, also nabbed the coveted BRITs Critics’ Choice Award. Across the blogosphere, other tips that mattered included Joel Compass, Javeon (pictured above), Lulu James, Kwabs, Sasha Keable and Rainy Milo.
So where did this new, all-conquering sound bubble up from? ‘I think it’s been building for a while,’ says Hattie Collins, music editor at i-D Magazine.
‘[Canadian rapper] Drake kickstarted the rap-R&B wave [back in 2009] and then [other North American artists] Frank Ocean and The Weeknd came through. Now acts like Miguel and Future are delivering their own take on R&B.
‘It took a little time, but the UK is certainly playing catch-up; there are some amazing British acts offering an alternate to the R&B convo; Joel Compass, Kyan, Raleigh Ritchie…
'Girls too, notably Tanika and Sinead Harnett. Whether it’s the year remains to be seen, but there does seem to be a massive deluge of soul/ R&B/alt-R&B acts coming through.’
This twist in sound isn’t an overnight turn-of-taste: it’s a generational movement
We’re all pretty aware by now that the trend for all things urban creeping into the mainstream is nothing new. But, with the rap-led Brit signings now seemingly on the back burner (fresh PMR signing Meridian Dan aside), this twist in sound isn’t an overnight turn-of-taste we’re witnessing: it’s a generational movement. It’s Aaliyah over Madonna; Sade rings a bell while Maxine Nightingale probably doesn’t; Alexander O’Neale is a very, very distant memory compared to Amy Winehouse or Mr Ocean.
Let’s take upcoming Londoner MNEK by way of example. Where his inspirations are concerned, he cites Janet Jackson, Jam & Lewis (who he’s recently worked with), Bobby Brown and Calvin Harris. Looking at the refixes posted regularly to his SoundCloud page, it’s Atomic Kitten, George Michael, J-Lo and Kylie who are getting his soulful onceover.
'I guess a lot of these artists grew up with parents who were in their 20s and 30s in the nineties so they were submerged in the sound of their parent’s playlists; Usher, Mary J, Total, Aaliyah, Jodeci et al would have played a big part in their formative years.’
But MNEK, despite his youth (he’s only 19 but has been published since he was 14), has been whetting people’s appetites for a hot minute.
He’s collaborated with Rudimental (with whom he shares a studio in east London) and fellow-R&B soulstress Syron on their early online release Spoons. Rudimental’s album track Baby is also among his writing credits along with his now Grammy-nominated Need U (100%) by Duke Dumont.
As well as notching up another top five recently with Gorgon City’s Ready For Your Love, on which he features, there’s also a chart-topping single penned for The Saturdays (All Fired Up) and production work for PMR’s sweet-souled boy, Javeon (Lovesong) in the bag.
Alt-R&B is new, fresh,electronic and, most importantly, it feels like ours
‘I’d describe the scene as alternative R&B as it’s not the straightforward R&B I grew up on,’ says Javeon. ‘It’s new, fresh, electronic and most importantly it feels like ours, as opposed to a rip off of what you might hear in the States… My main influences are Usher, Jodeci, Craig David and the whole UKG [UK garage] movement.’
Sonically speaking, the use of vocals in grime and dubstep compositions a few years back unwittingly sowed the seeds for this new angle.
Picking up the baton, it was the respective success of acts like Jamie Woon, Katy B and even the less obvious Joy Orbison, which have led to the achievements of Disclosure, Rudimental, Naughty Boy, James Blake and co. And while all the above undeniably drew on wide-spanning dance back catalogues, the R&B influence doesn’t go amiss.
But there’s another pattern – and reality - to recognise here too; current state of play within the music industry suggests most acts (who aren’t releasing directly off the back of a TV show) are in desperate need of an entry point. Sometimes this will come off the back of an undeniably amazing single, perhaps after releasing countless warm-up tracks, maybe as a result of relentless touring, a very well received mixtape or as the rare result of a major label blowing the budget on your behalf.
With producers in the UK leading the charge, it’s never been a better time for new vocalists to breakthrough and create that all important tipping point for their careers
More commonly, this entry point is now achieved through collaboration. With producers in the UK leading the current chart charge, it’s never been a better time for new vocalists to breakthrough and create that all important tipping point, allowing them, in turn, to launch successful solo careers. I
t was an initially unknown Sam Smith who was heard on two of last year’s best singles - Naughty Boy’s La La La and Disclosure’s Latch. If you really need convincing just look at Rudimental’s album features; Sinead Harnett, John Newman, Foxes, Angel Haze, MNEK, Syron, Becky Hill, Emeli Sande, Alex Clare and Ella Eyre – now all of whom are (thankfully) on their way to becoming household names.
Further proof that collaboration is key is producer-songwriter-vocalist du jour Sampha. He shot to attention following credits on Drake’s third studio album, Nothing Was the Same, and a show-stealing performance of Too Much on Late Night With Fallon. But this is no newfound friendship.
A quick YouTube search later and you’ll find footage of SBTRKT, Sampha and Drake getting electronically inspired at a Young Turks club night in Toronto back in 2011.
Another of Sampha’s collaborators, Jessie Ware, showcased her own Sade-esque R&B edge oh so well on her debut album Devotion. If Jessie’s Instagram is anything to go by, sessions with Miguel, Dev Hynes and Tourist along with previous contributors Jimmy Napes and Julio Bashmore promise a striking follow up that delves deeper into new wave R&B.
Jessie can also currently be heard on label homie Julio Bashmore’s vintage Chicago house inspired release, Peppermint. Knowing, that at the other end of the sonic spectrum he produced Devotion’s Big Pun sampling album cut, 110%, also shows the diversity producers are looking achieve today.
‘Working with the likes of Cyril Hahn hasn’t changed my sound…’ says Javeon of their recent collaborative outing Breaking. ‘But it’s nice to come together on a collaboration, creating something new for the both of us, and our fans. It’s exciting that we can do that without having any pressure of continuing the sound individually.’
This teamwork can also be found on the live circuit. You’ll be able to catch Javeon on a number of tours over the new few months – slots are lined up with Ella Eyre, Clean Bandit and his PMR label crew, where he’ll join mates Cyril Hahn and T Williams for a UK tour.
Grammy nominated British producer Duke Dumont and co-producer Jax Jones’ latest chart assault cleverly re-imagines a Whitney Houston sample, and notably, was personally cleared by My Love Is Your Love writers Wyclef Jean and Jerry Duplessis – the first time a Whitney sample been used since her tragic passing two years ago.
‘I don’t think dance will calm down,’ concludes Hattie. ‘Even if it’s less prominent in a commercial sense, which I doubt it will be, it’ll continue to have a cultural stranglehold. Kids just want to rave to house right now it seems; or at least have house within the music policy of the night they’re at.’
But even if you don’t want your R&B over house or forward-thinking beats, there’s candy for your ears also. For R&B purists who miss the swing of the late nineties and early noughties, be prepared. If Cassie, Lil Mo, Brandy, Jade and co were on your CD player then you need to hear Katy B’s Crying For No Reason (Morri$ Remix), some younger listeners could mistake this for a new sound - but it’s as throwback as British R&B’s got. And there are no complaints here.