So what’s caused this recent spike in R&B inventiveness? A general softening of commercial hip-hop music has certainly played a part. On his album 808s & Heartbreak, fashionable rap mogul Kanye West sang instead of rhyming to help convey the emotional anguish he was experiencing in his personal life. Utilising Auto-Tune technology to hide his voice’s limitations, Kanye built a cold, chilly, detached sound around his digitalised voice to maximise its impact.
808s & Heartbreak has proved central to recent interest in updating the R&B genre, but Kanye was not alone. Since 2007, The-Dream has gone about shedding R&B of its hip-hop elements. Before turning his attention to a solo career, The-Dream, aka Terius Nash, along with writer and production partner Christopher Stewart, was at the frontlines of the R&B/hip-hop/pop highbred. The duo became, as a result, much sought after for their ability to adapt the sound and create extravagant smash hits for the radio. Their first collaboration was Britney Spears’ duet with Madonna “Me Against the Music”, a balls-out, sped-up pop song built around a furiously strummed acoustic guitar. An original in Spears’ diminishing back catalogue, it was somewhat forgotten amongst the furious adoration her next single “Toxic” received. But with Rhianna’s “Umbrella”, the pair created a critical and cultural smash. Coupled with Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”, Stewart and Nash together have shown a propensity for creating outrageous tracks with R&B rhythms and huge pop hooks—“ella-ella-ella-eh-eh-eh” in the case of the former, “oh-oh oh-oh-oh-oh-oh” for the latter.
But while the duo has become the go-to-guys for hit-making, Nash has made a significant run for unaccompanied success as The-Dream. His debut single “Shawty is a 10” actually opened with a verse from rapper Fabolous, but this proved to be something of a red herring as he has rarely incorporated hip-hop into his music. For the most part as The-Dream, Nash embraces a far softer sound than the bombastic beats he’s paid to create as a producer. Instead, he utilises gentle key taps and finger snaps to build his precise arrangements. A naturally gentle speaker as well as vocalist, The-Dream hasn’t been afraid to show his sensitive side. His three albums to date are titled Love Hate, Love vs. Money, and Love King, and the subject matter on each have very much followed suit. In “Nikki” and “Nikki Part 2”, he’s recorded two heartfelt odes to his ex-wife Nivea. Despite his somewhat chaotic love life (that has included a second failed marriage to singer Christina Milian), for the most part, The-Dream has removed much of the misogyny that urban music has been criticised for underlining.
While The-Dream injected some soul back into R&B, his sound has not simply a rehash of the soulful sounds of bygone eras. This is in part to his soft voice, which doesn’t carry the same warmth or glow as, say, an Al Green. But Nash knows how to utilise his style. His minimalist arrangements emphasise the vast sonic landscapes that he has purposefully left barren. It’s no coincidence then that one of his heroes appears to be Prince. “Fast Car”, from his first album, was reminiscent of the Purple One’s ‘80s output in sound and subject matter. If anything, he revisited the same themes and leaned even more on Prince on “Yamaha”.
Similarly, Frank Ocean has surrounded his voice with a frosty emptiness to heighten the emotional impact of his lyrics. A member of hip-hop collective Odd Future, who themselves have achieved significant notoriety by draining their distinctive rap style of any pop features, Ocean has been doing the same with his style of R&B. His album Nostalgia/Ultra is a delicate collection. Early on the record, he addresses his dismay at the state of the genre and what he perceives as an overuse of AutoTune, comparing the soullessness of the technique to the emotional numbness that is sometimes associated with using Viagra: “Even when I’m fuckin’ Viagra poppin’ / Every single record AutoTunin’ / Zero emotion, muted emotion, pitch corrected, computed emotion.”
On the album’s highpoint “We All Try”, Ocean unveils his thoughts on, among other things, love, war, the moon landing, and abortion. “I believe a woman’s temple / Gives her the right to choose, but baby don’t abort,” he gently sings over a simply constructed track that helps ensure his voice takes centre stage. Given his already acknowledged dismay with the “zero emotion” exhibited by some of his peers, trying to pack in so much subject matter he’s passionate about could be read as a one-track protest to the state of contemporary R&B.
Perhaps even more enigmatic than Ocean, the spell-check unfriendly the Weeknd mysteriously dropped the free album House of Balloons earlier this year, then another offering Thursday more recently. Without a face or name to put to the music, journalists and bloggers began to suspect Young Money rap-crooner Drake was involved. These rumours turned out to be false, but the Weeknd—or Abel Tesfaye as he is known to his mother—does display a similar sound to his fellow Canadian, who thus far has achieved success with a more emotive hip-hop/R&B hybrid.
Like Ocean, the Weeknd focuses more on a cold, isolated style, as though Tesfaye laid down his vocals in an empty warehouse. This sound is becoming increasingly popular outside of mainstream hip-hop and R&B rotation. It may be a polar opposite effect than the warm, embracing horns of classic Motown, but it’s no less effective in injecting composition with real sentiment. House of Balloons expertly samples two tracks by indie heroes Beach House, who themselves have also owed a certain debt to classic ‘60s soul. Like Beach House, the Weeknd’s music is dreamy, and the marriage between the artists proves to be R&B perfection. Whatever his guise, Tesfate is a pure and exciting talent.
In the 21st century, artists like The-Dream, Frank Ocean and The Weeknd sound fresh and exciting, even if they are just picking up where their musical forefathers left off 20 years ago. When producers first decided to experiment with digital production methods, it wasn’t their intention to extract the feeling from R&B music. Consider Barry White, one of R&B’s most romantic figures, who incorporated disco—perhaps the poster genre of overly-produced dance music—into his sound and sealed his legacy.
The future success of these guys is far from certain and might depend on a paradigm shift in the makeup of the modern pop star. Hip-hop is still a commercial heavyweight in the world of modern pop music. Without R&B it would be lose the softness required to appeal to the masses. Let’s hope for a compromise. We all need a little soul.
Life needs rhythm and blues.