Around this time last year, The Paris Review’s Dan Piepenbring asked a simple but significant question: “Whatever happened to R&B groups?” This was the critic’s route into a thoughtful and productive review of D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, wherein Piepenbring tangled with that record’s rich, textured harmonies and wondered where those one-time staples of mainstream American pop music had gone.
He argued that the solo artist now struts in the spotlight once shared by the collective (think Beyoncé vs. Destiny’s Child) and this, as cultural studies would have it, says something consequential about all of us. “Who knew,” Piepenbring wondered, “that the thesis of Bowling Alone applied even to this, our most collaborative art form?”
At the time of that writing, the formidable R&B trio King had released exactly three songs. The Story EP dropped in 2011 to instant acclaim from critics, and from top-tier musicians whose mention in a story about King now seems to be contractually bound: Prince, Erykah Badu and ?uestlove all trumpeted the band’s bonafides with measurable enthusiasm. This potent cocktail of celebrity power and anticipation made an enormously hospitable press environment for the band’s debut album, We Are King, which finally dropped this month. With this new record in place, the L.A.-by-Minneapolis trio just might be within striking distance of mainstream success and the ability to call Piepenbring’s requiem for the successful R&B group premature.
King is a band with a memory, and We Are King shows what a sonically potent thing that can be. The record draws from a distinct lineage of modern black music performance, which it reveres more than it remixes.The band’s willingness to wander connects them to the improvisational jazz tradition, their warm regard for the analog synthesizer swipes the red curtain from Donna Summers’ Bad Girls, and Paris Strothers’ stunning instrumental command anchors the record as distinctly Minneapolis funk, à la Morris Day and the Time.
Elsewhere, the fingerprints of Sade, Janet Jackson and Erykah Badu smudge the lens through which King refracts the light of the world that came before them. In this way, We Are King is a sort of collage, or better yet, given its afro-futuristic scaffolding, a constellation. The stars, it seems to argue, ought to be revisited, not remapped.
The 8-bit asskicker “The Greatest” sticks out as the LP’s obvious single, with its in-and-out visceral impact and laser-focused hooks, but We Are King is an album designed to work on the listener as a whole. The LP’s slow-burning atmospherics, vamping introductions and sophisticated song structures unfold elegantly and purposefully over the course of its 60-minute runtime. While immediate pleasures are part of the fabric holding together songs like “In the Meantime” and the extended mix of EP standout “Hey”, it’s clear that the band is making a strong case for the long player in the age of the streaming single.
Maybe all this doesn’t amount to a very satisfying answer to Piepenbring’s question. King likely doesn’t herald the triumphant return of group dynamics to the gooey center of mainstream American pop music. The trio is more likely to remain, as The New Yorker’s Ben Ratliff has suggested, a musician’s band. (I would tag “a critic’s band” to that charge, since their work is so ripe with sonic references that cry out for overwrought thinkpieces on the state of R&B.) If the trio’s album strategy and time between public offerings offer any clues to their ambition as artists, it’s safe to say that they’re interested in the long game.
Even if King isn’t destined to become the next Destiny’s Child, they still offer a response worth considering. “Whatever happened to R&B groups?” This record reminds us that they were always with us.