Alternative R&B: Much more than bump’n’grind

The girls and guns formula of traditional R&B has grown tired. Now a new wave of talent has arrived to reinvent the form and challenge listeners

With its lyrics focused on popping bottles of expensive champagne and partying with beautiful models (see R Kelly’s recent album, Black Panties), R&B has become somewhat unrelatable. Step forward, alternative R&B.

2014 is shaping up to be the year of alt-R&B or “PBR&B” (a play on Pabst Blue Ribbon, the US hipster beer of choice), a sound that breaks with traditional R&B by including influences from electronic, ambient and alternative indie music, as well as dubstep and some hip-hop. Key attributes are a lo-fi yet richly textured sound, ample use of atmospheric synths, occasional samples from indie music and thoughtful, often dark, philosophical lyrics.

This new development music is spurred both by fans’ demand for change, and by the artists themselves. After the commercial success of David Guetta pulled a large portion of R&B artists towards a new, club-oriented sound, fans are bored, and artists and producers are becoming more experimental and keen to break with tradition. “R&B had been pigeonholed by a lot of music fans as this bland, fairly tiresome music form, which wasn’t particularly innovating and was dominated by a few artists that frankly had little left to say,” explains George Ergatoudis, Head of Music at BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra.

The year 2011 was a turning point, when music makers began to break with convention, leading to the emergence of some of the key artists that have defined the alt-R&B sound. Frank Ocean’s February 2011 mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra, was the first to hit, featuring samples of MGMT and Radiohead. A month later, The Weeknd, aka the Canadian vocalist Abel Tesfaye, released the first of three mixtapes, now known collectively as Trilogy, also heavily relying on samples.

Then, in 2012, Ocean’s critically acclaimed debut album, Channel Orange, a showcase of poetic, deeply personal lyrics sung in soulful melodies, over genre-blending production, pioneered a new sound. Heralding a more futuristic era of R&B, its authenticity appealed to listeners.

These artists inspired a new wave of talent to dabble and experiment around R&B music. “More and more producers and artists are willing to bring new influences, sounds and styles to R&B, leading to a reinvention of the genre,” states Ergatoudis. “And in terms of the exponential growth and influence of it, 2014 is the turning point year in which a number of alt-R&B artists are going to have a shot at crossing over into the mainstream.”

Miguel

Miguel described his 2012 album, Kaleidoscope Dream, as “avant soul” and is widely considered  a leading example of alt-R&B.  He summed up the musical shift  to the LA Times: “I hope more artists who are R&B at the core and pushing the boundaries will join me in embracing the fact that [the genre] did become a stereotype.”

This year sees his return and, according to George Ergatoudis, Head of Music at BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra, it’s going to be noteworthy.

He says: “Based on what I’ve heard, by the end of the year Miguel is going to be a household name.”

Kwabs

A former jazz student at the  Royal Academy of Music, Kwabs’ soul-stirring baritone vocals, teamed with the gritty electronic sound of Vienna-via-London  producer Sohn, have led to must-hear tracks “Last Stand” and his latest single, “Wrong or Right”.

The Ghanaian-born Kwabs (short for Kwabena) has a live set already more accomplished than many old timers. According to Ergatoudis, “Kwabs is a key artist to watch.” His fans include India Arie, Jessie Ware, Laura Mvula  and Plan B, whom he supported  on tour in 2012.

Banks

LA singer-songwriter Banks starts 2014 on a high after a triumphant 2013. Her well-received London EP – also featuring the production of Sohn – led to a support slot on The Weeknd’s tour, with many describing her as his female  counterpart. She came third in  the BBC Sound of 2014 list, and Ergatoudis has her tipped for mainstream success: “There’s  a real commerciality there, despite the music coming from an alternative perspective.” Look out for brooding melodies and sultry  vocals on her debut album, due this year, and a tour next month.

Kelela

The DC-born, LA-based singer-songwriter Kelela was a huge  hit on the blogosphere after  releasing her Cut 4 Me mixtape last autumn. A pure R&B vocalist singing raw lyrics centred on heartbreak over glitchy, experimental productions, she has said that her music “is not just weird, it’s deliberately off-putting”.

She has toured with Solange [Knowles], whose big sister Beyoncé is also a fan: the R&B  superstar featured Kelela on  her Beyhive blog.

Sampha

South London’s Sampha Sisay  will be taking centre stage in  2014, after playing second fiddle  to his A-list collaborators. Having worked extensively with SBTRKT and Jessie Ware, he was handpicked by Drake to appear on “The Motion” and “Too Much”, from his Nothing Was the Same album.

His pared-back electronica beats, coupled with rich and  emotional vocals, were showcased on his EP, Dual, released on the influential indie label Young Turks last year. As skilful a producer as musician, Sampha is also  rumoured to be working in the studio with Solange Knowles.

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk
    Nepal earthquake: One man's desperate escape from Everest base camp after the disaster

    Escape from Everest base camp

    Nick Talbot was sitting in his tent when the tsunami of snow and rock hit. He was lucky to live, unlike his climbing partner just feet away...
    Adopting high fibre diet could dramatically cut risk of bowel cancer, says study

    What happened when 20 Americans swapped diets with 20 Africans?

    Innovative study in the US produces remarkable results
    Blake Lively and 'The Age of Adaline': Gossip Girl comes
of age

    Gossip girl comes of age

    Blake Lively is best known for playing an affluent teenager. Her role as a woman who is trapped forever at 29 is a greater challenge
    Goat cuisine: Kid meat is coming to Ocado

    Goat cuisine

    It's loved by chefs, ethical, low in fat and delicious. So, will kid meat give lamb a run for its money?
    14 best coat hooks

    Hang on: 14 best coat hooks

    Set the tone for the rest of your house with a stylish and functional coat rack in the hallway
    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?