Electronic R&B has existed since the ‘80s (if not earlier), but it has been increasingly in vogue lately. The recent rise is partially because of the popularity of various kinds of electronic dance music, which pulls from other genres and also oozes and pumps its way into their bloodstreams. It’s been helped along by the success of singers like Drake and the Weeknd, who prefer to sing about disaffection and sexual encounters over dark synthesizer washes. And singers like Rhye (who recently got a big write-up in the Sunday New York Times) have been having success playing around with falsetto and R&B tropes – on small labels often associated with “indie”.
It’s enough of a trend to generate some backlash. Some of this derives from the sudden interest of the “indie” world, which has embraced this type of R&B in the last few years, despite the fact that “indie” traditionally hasn’t wanted much to do with R&B as a genre—perhaps because of strange ideas about it being too slick and unafraid of commercial success or even interest. In this vein, Beyonce’s sister Solange, fresh off a short album of her own slinky, ‘80s-inflected R&B, took to Twitter recently to defend Brandy’s new album and to warn people she deems bandwagon fans, “you can stop acting like it just popped off last year for R&B. Like it just got interesting and experimental.” Chris Chafin, writing for the Village Voice, went in a different direction with his criticism, writing that Frank Ocean – whose music nods in the direction of both the electronic camp and a more old-school crowd, without really committing to either—“drained the sexiness and excitement out of R&B, to widespread critical acclaim.”
Though it’s unlikely be high profile enough to fan any flames, inc.’s no world, an electronic-leaning album with indie credentials (it’s being released by 4AD, home of St. Vincent, the National, Iron & Wine, and Camera Obscura) fits somewhere in this field. inc. is the work of two brothers, Andrew and Daniel Aged. Their only previous release was an EP 3, which honored its title by containing three tunes, all of which leant heavily on the ‘80s—all tinny guitar, flat, programmed beats, and blurting synthesizer. The vocals were low in the mix and sang in sort of a falsetto whisper. The boys also worked on the most recent album by Nite Jewel, and they’ve worked with R&B luminaries like Raphael Saadiq.
no world expands the EP’s sound into a slow-burning stew of low bass, nervously ricocheting ticks, and rim shots. The synths circle woozily, usually providing more of the atmosphere than the lead melody. The vocals aren’t hiding, but they’re not out in front either. Most of the singing stays low and even, with few changes in range or style. There are a lot of wordless sighs, breaths, syllables held until they fade into nothingness, “ooh"s, and “ah”s. Guitars tend to arrive as little pin pricks, or clear and dark, like something that might appear in a Chromatics song. (For “Angel”, the guitar is gnarled and squealing somewhere behind the song, in honor of the big guitars that ruled many genres of ‘80s pop.) The tempo creeps and crawls and stutters, only approaching the speed of a lope a few times, like on “Trust (Hell Below)”, where brief strutting passages poke out from behind the wall of even keel.
“The Place” stands out. A keyboard plays only solitary notes, sometimes a little faster, mostly slower. A thin-sounding electronic bleeping runs back and forth in the background, providing a nagging high melody. Supple bass playing glides through the back of the hooks. There’s a brief burst of needle-pointed guitar. Then it all drifts to a slow halt. Regardless of how you classify the song, it can carve out its own space.