Music

The 411 on R&B

Erykah Badu

A new decade promises to bring fresh sounds and renewed vigor to R&B. Let's hope it keeps its promise.

With so much discussion surrounding hip-hop's purported demise, I had completely overlooked my waning interest in another genre: R&B. Don't get me wrong. I'll always love the swoon of a luxurious baritone or a sweet soprano, the energy rush of a happy dance jam, and the croon of a sultry ballad. Further, and on a more general level, I have a tendency to rebel against the notion of categories and genres.

No doubt, the discussion I'm generating here about R&B should necessarily raise the question, "What exactly is the R&B genre anyway?" Is it for Beyonce, or is she "pop"? Is it for someone like Me'shell Ndegeocello, or does she defy categorization altogether? I suppose the bottom line is we all know it's possible to find "good music" -- we just have to dig a little harder for it sometimes. It's out there. Or, as many a music lover will tell you, "Good music is good music, it doesn't matter what you call it."

I know all of this. And so do you. But, nevertheless, I can't shake the feeling that my excitement for R&B has been on the decline.

The Cause of the Decline

I've at least located a few reasons why this might be happening. For one thing, I grew weary of certain artistic and stylistic transformations within the genre. Of course artists should, if they are so inclined, be risk takers, willing to expand, make changes, and expound upon their visions. And I don't have anything against artists who adapt, to an extent, to whatever the current climate might be. There is, after all, an inherent tension between self-expression and aspirations of mass consumption. You fancy yourself doing whatever you like, in as unique as way as you'd like, but you also want people to enjoy it and relate to it.

That artistic tension is tenuous, and there were several artists that, to my ears, strayed too far away from their strengths. I wish I knew why, for example, Mariah Carey became "Mimi", a whispering pinup doll version of her robust singer-songwriting origins, but the transformation hasn't worked for me. "Mimi" Carey seems popular when it comes to album sales, which is at least one measure of effectiveness, but I don't look forward to her releases the way I did in her pre-Glitter days.

Such a transformation may have more to do with the current aesthetic than with an artist's lack of imagination or proficiency. Since the '90s, R&B in the United States has gradually been split from its "soul" components.That's not to say that artists don't perform with "soul", because there's definitely an argument (if not a fact) that they do, but this split has occurred in the way R&B is promoted, formatted for radio, and critiqued.

In the late '90s, R&B of the "old school" variety was sometimes termed "classic R&B" or "vintage soul", while the "new school" music became "neo-soul" and "hip-hop soul". The result has been a merger of sorts between rap and R&B, which is far more of an amalgam than simply having an R&B song with a guest emcee or a rap song with an R&B singer performing the hooks.This is more along the lines of Mary J. Blige's 1992 debut What's the 411? in which the star we now call The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul sang some pretty convincing love songs over "hip-hop beats".

The rap-R&B hybrid affects songwriting, with songs being based on loops and samples. This would, arguably, lend a sense of redundancy to the music, although a plausible counterpoint would be that, with the consistency of loops and samples, other aspects of a song (such as vocal arrangement and lyrical content) will stand out. Still, sample-based songs sometimes lack the tempo and chord changes, bridges, and instrumental solos that once adorned the standard R&B selection.

Where R&B has incorporated hip-hop's production values, particularly at the so-called mainstream level, we're faced with a more homogenized sound. The days of the R&B songwriting titans are long gone. Babyface and L.A. Reid. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Even Teddy Riley. Basically gone. And, no doubt, the argument can be made that these songwriters and producers, at the height of their powers, had a little homogenization going on as well.

Along these lines, though, another source of disinterest stems from the disappearances of several key R&B players. By "disappearances", I mean either a lack of output from such artists or a decrease in prominence. It's understood that a singer's fame and success will likely ebb and flow, if not wane as the years pass. You hear about this all the time, as some artists are considered to have gone past their prime, or said to have released records that are "no longer relevant". In a way, you might call it a natural changing of the guard, wherein outdated artists, so to speak, are replaced in the spotlight by fresher ones.

However, it feels as if some artists get removed from the scene a bit too soon. Artists like Anita Baker, Rachelle Ferell, and Faith Evans made big waves in the music scene already, and some of these artists are out there performing, but they've also, for a variety of reasons, been somewhat missing in action on record. Anita Baker did well with her 2004 work My Everything, but I just feel like there should be more. There's no telling how different things could be with more input from artists like this, but their recording absences certainly haven't helped. Speaking of which, where the heck is D'Angelo? On the upside, Toni Braxton's Pulse is scheduled for 2010 release, so maybe she'll be the one to put all of my comeback wishes to rest (but I doubt it).

Groups and bands have also experienced a decline. There hasn't been a Jodeci album in a long, long time, and Destiny's Child is no more. The Pussycat Dolls, bands made by Diddy, and the possibility of a comeback by Boys II Men -- this might be all that's really left of the group experience. Like hip-hop, R&B has shifted the majority of its attention to solo acts.

On top of this, the untimely passing of artists like Aaliyah and Gerald Levert created definite vacuums, voids that could be worked around but hardly filled I frequently listen to Aaliyah's self-titled 2001 LP, her final release, and I'm still of the opinion that it holds up quite well against similarly situated albums by artists like Beyonce, Alicia Keys, Amerie, and Rihanna.

It's not all gloom and doom, though. I can't say there haven't been solid albums in the 21st century's first decade. Some are even masterful. Amel Larrieux's Bravebird and Morning are incredibly strong, as are albums by Foreign Exchange and Rahsaan Patterson, among others. I dig Raheem DeVaughn a lot, too. I felt like I was getting back into the groove with R&B in 2009, so I'm really looking forward to what 2010 has to offer.

Erykah Badu

If anybody is capable of thrilling us in 2010, it's Erykah Badu. She's brash, bold, a little bit spacey, and a whole lot funky. In 2008, she gave us New Amerykah, Part One: 4th World War, which is one heck of a soulful, introspective trip. Unfortunately, Part Two has been delayed but, on the positive side, we had the very prolific Georgia Anne Muldrow to tide us over, particularly with her dynamic Umsindo. With New Amerykah, it's possible that Badu perfected the fusion of hip-hop and R&B, and maybe also elevated it into a separate category of art altogether. That's why I'm so psyched about hearing the second installment of this series. The buzz is already brewing about the tracks to be included. Wouldn't this be a great year for new Badu?

Maxwell

Like Erykah Badu, Maxwell has promised a feast of albums to be released in installments. And like Badu, Maxwell dropped his first installment in the series after a hiatus from the music scene. Maxwell's absence was longer, though, and I was curious to hear the sound of his comeback. Well, he came back stronger than ever with BLACKsummers'night, a robust outing that allayed all fears. Truthfully, I didn't care much for Maxwell when he first entered the scene. I never truly got into his super popular Maxwell's Urban Hangout Suite or Embrya, and I really disliked Now, but I've always respected his craft. On the other hand, BLACKsummers'night grabbed me immediately, live instrumentation and all. Who knows if we'll see the second installment in 2010, but I'm betting it'll be interesting.

Sade

Sade

I nearly passed out when I heard Sade's single "Soldier of Love" on the commercial for the final season of Lost. I still can't believe it's real. With a new album slated for February 2010, Sade is back, and while I know it's perilous to pin all of my hopes on the return of a single artist, I can't help but count the days. Sade releases an album like, what? Every decade or so? Why does she stay away so long? Apparently, she's discovered the Fountain of Youth, and if her last record, 2000's Lovers Rock, is any indication, she'll be bringing her timeless elegance to the fore. Plus, that "Soldier of Love" single is kind of awesome.

EPs & Mixtapes

There are a few free EPs (or "FreEP"s) and mixtapes on the internet that are also worth checking out.

Partnering up with Vaughn Garcia, the talented Carlitta Durand, a frequent vocalist for Little Brother and Nicolay, follows her Carlitta's Way mixtape with a collection called The Doug & Patty EP. Like Wale's Seinfeld-themed The Mixtape About Nothing, Carlitta Durand's Doug & Patty culls its themes of love and longing from Doug, a cartoon. Cleverly, the mixtape centers around, and takes comedic liberties with, the potential attraction between the cartoon's main character Doug and cutie pie Patti Mayonnaise. In one of the EP's skits, Mayonnaise enlists the crew of the relationship-wrecking show Cheaters to help catch Doug with another woman, Suzie Mustard. "She's not even cute," scoffs Mayonnaise. "I wanted mustard and mayonnaise," cries Doug. Cold busted.

Likewise, J*DaVeY's Boudoir Synema: The Great Mistapes promises a bright future for the duo of Miss Jack Davey and Brook D'Leau. This free five song Christmas Day 2009 release doesn't bring as much of the layering and hefty distortion as the duo's previous work, which hints at a slightly different direction for their overall sound.

There's also new work from Res (pronounced "Reese", like the peanut butter cups). She enchanted us so thoroughly with the indie and R&B style of her 2001 debut, How I Do, that her 2009 Black.Girls.Rock album comes -- for free, no less -- as a welcome addition. Aside from guest spots for hip-hop artists like Talib Kweli and Evidence, Res joined Talib Kweli and Graph Nobel to form the group Idle Warship. The group distributed their eclectic mixtape Party Robot via the internet in 2009. I'm just happy to have Res back in action.

Nneka's J. Period-helmed mixtape, "The Madness (Onye-Ala)", showcases the Nigerian-German singer's raw and earnest vocals. Her previous releases are dynamic and earthy, with a classy optimism that will hopefully carry over onto her debut United States release, Concrete Jungle.

Finally, there's one freebie that takes a fresh look at the past while whetting our appetites for the future. Men Love Mary: A Tribute to "My Life" is a mixtape, hosted by Chucky Thompson, in which male soul singers rework songs from Mary J. Blige's second album titled -- you guessed it -- My Life. Chucky Thompson's presence on the mix is informative, given his producer credits on the original album. My Life takes a more personal tone when compared to Blige's debut, so it's intriguing to hear singers like Eric Roberson, Jesse Boykins III, and Nino Moschella render these tracks from their own points of view. Maybe women are from Venus, and Men are from Mars, but we can all agree that we love Mary J., right?

No, seriously. Who doesn't love Mary J. Blige?

Wish List

Now, if I can just get new albums from Bilal, the multitalented Jill Scott, and the notoriously absent D'Angelo, we'll know for sure that everything has fallen into place.

Maxwell

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.


In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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