Ever have a conversation with an old person about R&B? Did they seem flustered regarding what passes for R&B “nowadays“? Were they pining for a time when R&B was simply a racial categorization rather than a genre? When the music industry decreed that if black people made it and it wasn’t blues or jazz or Jimi Hendrix, then it was R&B? Here’s a handy Billboard chart for black popular music! Genres like soul and funk emerged and remained lumped into R&B as far as the industry was concerned, what a world. It’s kind of incredible that a legitimate genre emerged out of this, beginning in the ‘80s but really taking a definitive, lasting form in the ‘90s. Nowadays it’s almost come full circle in that the term can refer to a very broad range of styles and is difficult to define, except as having roots in the black popular music of the ‘90s. When you hear it, you know it, because it was defined, at least for you.
The cool thing is there’s not a wave of retro-R&B, ever, because R&B seems to be current by definition; whatever R&B artists are doing today is what the genre sounds like (I feel like I may have subconsciously stolen this argument from someone else; if so, whoops). All past forms of it are inherently outdated, unlike rock and roll and most other genres which only recycle themselves endlessly. Nobody’s trying to evolve rock music, whereas songwriters and producers are constantly pushing boundaries in R&B and reinventing the sound. We’re probably due for another resurgence of ska-punk or rockabilly/swing revival, but can you imagine a new jack swing revival? There’s just no way.
One of the genre’s primary innovators is Solange. Her 2016 album A Seat At The Table was a total revelation for me; it was an explicit celebration of blackness and yet so out-there that I think it served as an unintentional invitation for white people to join the party. I don’t know what the end result was, but this year’s When I Get Home is even more out-there; progressive, cosmic, playful, ethereal. My favorite thing on here is the 22-second interlude “Can I Hold The Mic”, in which Solange lays out her chameleonic nature in blunt but artful fashion. “My Skin My Logo” is another highlight, in which Gucci Mane just kinda hangs out; it stands out as one of the few (crucial I might add) disruptions in the exceedingly smooth flow of this record. You could say that Home is the result of Table’s success giving Solange the freedom to do whatever she feels like, but I suspect the Knowles sisters pretty much always do whatever the hell they want.
I’m not going to start putting live albums on my year-end lists but it occurs to me that I never wrote about Beyoncé’s Coachella performance because, well, I wasn’t there, but the overwhelming hype at the time compelled me to find a way to watch it, which I did, the day after. Upon completion I knew without a doubt that the greatest concert film of all time would be made from these shows. Was it the thrill of the execution in real time? Surely this experience was even better than being there; the camerawork was so well-orchestrated that you’d scarcely need to edit the thing at all. Purely as a grand musical statement, it was an astounding accomplishment, but I also have to say that listening to Homecoming: The Live Album only made me think back to watching the full spectacle and that was really the extent of it. That’s to say, a powerful emotional ride, based in large part on a sadness that this thing occurred in the past and you can’t get it back, it’s history. There’s also the thrill of anticipation for whatever she might do next, but still…
Then we had a rare new release from one of the original innovators of R&B, Raphael Saadiq. It’s hard to top the album opener; “Sinners Prayer” is incredibly urgent but feels timeless, more like it’s setting up Jimmy Lee as a full-on musical than just a concept album. “This World Is Drunk” also has a touch of musical theater to it, almost lilting although its subject matter is not happy. Then with “Something Keeps Calling” the album kicks into its groove; this incredible loping bassline is like an anti-hook, irresistible but deceptive. Your first couple listens you’ll be drawn in by Saadiq’s most impassioned outpourings (“Kings Fall”, “My Walk”) but he balances these expertly with smooth, D’Angelo-esque bits, and over time these are what pull the album into such a satisfying narrative. Segues are often abrupt; I take this as Saadiq’s reminders to us that our reveries, as well as our pain, can always be snatched from us without warning. It’s a record about being mindful in every moment, above all.
I have to give a shout-out to fellow writer Evan Rytlewski for mentioning the new Tinashe album, Songs For You, and for completely nailing what makes it so compelling: “So many R&B records right now either try to be Serious Artistic Statements or long-shot crossover hits, so it’s so refreshing hearing one that gives itself the freedom to just exist and enjoy itself…” It needs to be said, because people like me tend to champion pushing boundaries and grand gestures, and having basically abandoned R&B for years, it’s easy for me to forget about the particular delight of the regular stuff. R&B is like black metal: You can define it using various objective musical criteria but I throw any or all of them out the window in favor of seeking the feeling that only that type of music gives me. And I mean good or bad. This Tinashe album gives me oceans of that feeling and it is soooo good. For all I know there are a dozen similarly great albums out there from this year but at least I found this one. End of record review! P.S. “Link Up” is such a badass song, why does Vince Staples not jump on this track at some point.
So that leads very naturally into Erika de Casier’s Essentials. I’d never heard of her or Tinashe before, uh, last month, and the vibe of de Casier’s album is so classic you might actually term it retro at times, but you never hear this type of Sade worship these days and I’m way digging it. I’m only referring to the music; de Casier’s voice is nothing like Sade’s, very modern in tone and substance. I feel like “Intimate” ought to be a worldwide hit; forgive me if you think this is a horrible reference point but it has a Natalie-Imbruglia-“Torn” quality to it (I fucking love that song, come at me brah).
Lastly, I have to mention Akua’s Them Spirits EP. I get sent a lot of promos from PR people every year and this year I suuuucked at listening to them. I feel terrible about it but in my defense it doesn’t matter at all. This is one of the 3% I listened to and the only one that really became a part of me. It’s almost on the trip-hop side, somewhat akin to serpentwithfeet in its minimalism and focus on voice and its broad spectrum of emotions. In the span of the first song, honestly. It’s a sweet and sassy and ghostly half hour of music that I keep coming back to. There’s not a weak track, but I’ll single out “My Body” and “If” as ones that might haunt you long term. It makes me lament the many great discoveries I missed out on this year and I promise to do better next year, PR people.