Frank Ocean and The Weeknd: Hipster R&B?
I’d love to hear what you guys think. This term is new to me…
Are Rihanna’s Euro-disco leanings leaving you cold? Does Chris Brown’s appropriation of polished EDM beats make you feel dirty? Do Will.i.am’s grating auto-tuned vocals make you want to perforate your own eardrums with a blunt implement?
You’re not the only one. Despite shifting millions of units between them, their take on R&B has left many followers of the genre cold. But in recent months, a new wave of R&B stars have emerged from the underground and entered the national consciousness.
Referred to variously as “hipster R&B,” “alternative R&B” or, amusingly, “PBR&B” (Pabst Blue Ribbon R&B), it’s a subgenre that takes a major cue from the classic ’90s sound of Maxwell and D’Angelo but splices it with a darker feel and more introspective lyrical slant.
Frank Ocean’s “Channel Orange” is one of the year’s most critically acclaimed albums. He challenged the macho culture of R&B.
It’s what R. Kelly might have sounded like if he had been a downer-dropping Radiohead fan instead of an oversexed lothario who thinks he can fly.
“Looking at the current state of mainstream R&B is rather depressing,” laments Kornelia Kamila, editor-in-chief of mthrfnkr.com, an influential London-based blog that specializes in covering the most cutting-edge rap and R&B. “I don’t think you can even call it R&B anymore.
“Nowadays, it’s just David Guetta beats over really dumb and cheesy lyrics,” she adds. “Alternative R&B, on the other hand, is an antithesis to that. It’s musically ambitious, lyrically complex, intelligently constructed and overall, creative in its approach.”
Those tropes have certainly helped Kendrick Lamar’s rise to stardom. After several years self-releasing mix tapes and albums on the Internet, the 25-year-old from Compton, Calif., made his major-label debut this month with “good kid, m.A.A.d. city.” Thanks to his long-standing fan base (which includes Lady Gaga), it hit No. 2 on the Billboard album chart, second only to Taylor Swift.
Although many peg Lamar as a rapper, he has a sensibility that also fits the new wave of R&B, thanks to an impressively smooth array of beats and sounds, and the laid-back style of his delivery.
“I definitely worked hard on having that kind of balance between genres in the studio,” he tells The Post. “I grew up on West Coast gangsta rap in the ’90s, which has that laid-back vibe. No matter what, I can’t run from that influence.”
Boastfulness and braggadocio, however, is something that Lamar hasn’t carried over from his early musical exposures. In fact, much of the album is made up of thoughtful biographical narratives that document his struggle to keep out of the thug life that surrounded him as a child. It’s a life choice that Lamar believes he can help others make.
“When you come from the ghetto, the minute you’re up there doing shows, on TV, in magazines, you become a role model to kids who don’t have that,” he says. “That applies to me, to Rick Ross, 2 Chainz, whoever.”
Lamar isn’t the only one making a mainstream splash. Last week, Canadian crooner the Weeknd, born Abel Tesfaye, hit No. 4 on the Billboard 200 with “Trilogy,” a three-disc compilation of his self-released mix tapes. In October, he played to 10,000 people over three nights at the Paradise Theatre in The Bronx and Terminal 5 in Manhattan.
Still, most people wouldn’t know him if they fell over him. The Weeknd’s introverted and vulnerable persona isn’t an act. He almost never gives interviews, choosing instead to let his melancholic, yet sexually charged slow jams do the talking.
Arguably the star of the new wave is Frank Ocean, whose “Channel Orange” album is guaranteed to feature highly in every year’s-best album poll this year. Its kaleidoscopic sounds, emotional sensitivity and Ocean’s spine-tingling falsetto voice has not only set a high bar for modern R&B, but inspired reams of praise from the indie-rock world.
Not only that, but Ocean has challenged the macho culture that is still dominant in the R&B genre by outing himself in a long and touching open letter about his first (male) love, that was written and circulated online this past summer.
With such a broad spectrum of fans, the new wave of acts now provide a solid alternative for people who like their R&B to be more tempered.
“I don’t think that this sound is going to die out, it’s going to evolve and might even find a dominant place in the Top 40,” concludes mthrfnkr’s Kamila.
The Euro-disco hits are certainly not without their euphoric pleasures, but it can’t be Saturday night every day of the week, and the new wave is here to ensure that the dance floor is not the only place for R&B fans to get into a groove.