Posts tagged R&B
Curving the "Repetitive & Bleak"

What happened to R&B? It’s a pretty loaded question but the most noticeable transformation is its style. R&B has undergone constant revisions throughout the years, for the better. Trailblazers like Chuck Berry and Fats Domino were ahead of their time, incorporating elements of big band jazz and rock-n-roll into a bluesy, rhythmic fashion. As the style evolved in the succeeding decades, more prominent distinctions began to bloom under this growing umbrella of a genre. The genius of Holland-Dozier-Holland with mastermind Barry Gordy spawned the Motown era. Transcendent acts like the late, great Aretha Franklin used her background in Gospel to echo louder than any typecast, yet stuck to her roots as a pure singer. Divas such as Diana Ross and Donna Summer welcomed the disco era of the '70s and used the sound to vibrantly add a new twist to R&B. The innovative composition of Quincy Jones propelled the solo career of Michael Jackson, whose voice was incapable of dimming. Prince was Prince, in all his brilliant artistry, showmanship, and technical skill. Whitney, Marvin, Stevie, Luther, Sade; bold acts associated with greatness because of the prolific quality of their work. These larger-than-life pioneers laid the groundwork for Black music - and its effect on pop culture and the world at large - to reach the astronomical heights of influence today.

It could be argued that the last truly memorable era of R&B was the mid-80s to late 1990s, thanks in part to the style of New Jack Swing. Influenced by the burgeoning hip-hop/rap sound, R&B took on a whole new personality. Groups like Jodeci, Blackstreet, En Vogue, and SWV, in addition to being able to carry a note for several seconds, had a confident attitude that was present on a record. If the production was upbeat and demanding of attention, the artist matched the energy and fit into the groove with a lively performance. Songs like “This is How We Do It” can still rock a set in 2018; the mentality of the track strongly emotes the vibe of a house party. It's so infectious, it can evoke any dormant rhythm and lead you to the dance floor.

On the flip side, if the BMPs were at a slower pace, the strength of powerful vocals and relatable tales about heartbreak can make their pain feel palpable. The duality of a strong woman who can curve a trifling dub one minute and vulnerably penning a love song the next. So long are also the days of grown ass men having to beg on bended knee for forgiveness...or angling just to get some that night. The game is the game and the '90s soundtrack was full of life and real emotions. Not to say the previous is completely devoid today, but in comparison '90s R&B had true charisma. Even for one-hit wonders, there was a personality for the entire era that was distinguished, iconic, and worthy of praise all these years later.

Neo-soul powerhouses such as Erykah Badu and D'Angelo kept the pulse for R&B alive after the New Jack Swing style was slowly being phased out (not forgotten), but hip-hop went from fledgling to flying from the mid-90s to early 2000s. In the process, rap music bullied its way to the forefront while the role of a traditional R&B singer on the main stage - aside from the Beyonce’s and Rihanna’s of the world - was somewhat relegated to hooks and took the backseat for a minute. The 2010s have seen a resurgence of popularity for genres in the urban market. Incorporating major elements of electronic music like autotune and synthesizers, as popular music did in the '80s, helped to revitalize (to some) and evolve hip-hop and R&B as a whole. It also helped to globalize their popularity by reaching out to certain groups that wouldn't normally listen.

The past few years of R&B have seen great developments - so much so, that it was on a perceived trajectory to become level with its rap counterparts. "Trap-soul" or "Trap-N-B" had the strongest wave lap upon the shores of recent music by creating a rap-sung hybrid, detailing heartbreaks over 808s and trap hi-hats. If the hook artist isn't completely dead, they have transformed and rebranded themselves as singers that can rap. Ja Rule borrowed harmonies from vocalists at the top of the millennium; current "singers" like 6LACK are boldly attacking the inverse with great success. There are some talented artists but, there's an ever growing sense of malaise hanging over the genre as it becomes to get more popular than ever from a statistical standpoint. There's this dreary trend of singers that create a dark and gloomy aspect and wear it as an aesthetic. Blues have always been a part of R&B; it's a third of the acronym. But 2018 has shone the light on a certain brand of artist that relies on everything but talent. The problem is, singers don't really need to be great vocalists to be considered "great," which is confusing. Autotune and a skilled audio engineer can cover up many impurities. Breathy whispers on a light and airy beat, with lyrics from a Tumblr account of motivational quotes, is passable today. Add a great social media team, some sex appeal, a "minimalist" label, and boom, you have yourselves a microwaved star in the making. The highest of highs from this era can hold a torch to the legends of years past, but the influx of mid is also bringing down the overall integrity of the present.

Despite the collective plateau of creativity, R&B has serious potential to curve past the section of repetitive & bleak group-think for 2019 and beyond. Two recent releases are a sampling of the best that 2018 has to offer. Saturn by NAO, and MihTy both have individual personalities with rich vocals over a lively composition that does not make you want to fall asleep, even when the tempo is relaxed. The performers themselves were not solely dependent on surrounding factors or a perceived image. Production ties everything together, but the artists led the charge and carried the projects with their voice, confident delivery, and precise timing of notes. No matter how regular a lyric that was sung, these collections of songs felt like music with a purpose: a purpose to make the listener actually feel something.

Supergroups were a staple in '90s R&B. The combination of exceptional talent has the potential for a dynamic record to pop off, but there’s also the possibility of egos colliding, creating friction in the process only to yield results where the parts aren't flush with the intended design. Two of the most in-demand singers of this generation, paired with a reinvented musician from last decade, connected to make a statement that'll ring beyond 2018. LA's Ty Dolla $ign and Chicago's Jeremih linked up for a collab tape worthy of high praise. Their joint name - MihTy - even synchronizes well and is indicative of how well they mesh together. The heavy, raspy timbre of $ complements the sharp, distinctive high notes of Jeremih in a way that's chilling and provocative. As Teddy Riley and Guy once did for New Jack Swing, Hitmaka (fka Yung Berg) took a current hip-hop production style and sculpted it to fit instead of the ever-evolving umbrella of R&B. Lyrically and sonically, the tone of the project was set on the album's opener, The Light. Ty makes a triumphant introduction by literally getting down to business, right before Jeremih's chorus pierces through like a beacon of light on a cloudy day, leading into his verses that carry a bounce of a hybrid between a rapper and pure singer. What really adds to each of the tracks is the layering of ad-libs from both artists. Bursts of harmonies and carried out notes of spoken word accentuate the already robust production. Using their voices like elements of inserted kits on FL Studios steadily weave throughout the 30-minute project in a pitch that won't make you cringe.

A description like this may make MihTy seem chaotic, but it's far from that. The three major players are Ty$, Jeremih, and the production; the vibrant sounds of the trio blend together to make a beautiful piece of art out of a blank canvas. Varying styles between the two singers shake up any potential monotony whenever it may approach. New Level (with a quick nod to “In My Bed” by Dru Hill before the beat drops) sees the pairing hit their vocal crescendos on an upbeat banger that'll be sure to liven a kickback. Opposite of that are the slower, more traditional R&B tracks in These Days and Imitate, which firmly establishes their versatility. Instead of letting the down tempo beat carry them, MihTy's range with vocal inflections shines when they could have just mailed it in. They enlisted a couple rappers - French Montana on FYT, an ode to the Bad Boy classic; and Wiz Khalifa (along with Chris Brown) on the energetic Surrounded - in a way shows independence by inviting them into their space. By not having a tracklist laden with rap features, MihTy proves that an R&B group can stand on its own in a hip-hop environment. Hitmaka deserves his roses for a successful rebrand and for the way he held it down behind the boards; his attention-grabbing production should not be understated. With their tales of dirty mackin’ the pairing of Ty Dolla $ign and Jeremih smoothly held notes expertly sang their way to a memorable and enjoyable project.

Powerful is one of the first adjectives that pops to mind when NAO comes to mind. The texture of her voice when she bellows "I guess I'll wait another lifetime" before coolly crooning to the next progression of the chorus can send chills up one's spine. Her debut album Saturn deserves the recognition of high profile singers across all types of music. There's a unique twang in her voice that does not sound awkward. Rather, it fits comfortably in the rest of the captivating production that blends many different sounds without sounding sloppy. Somehow, NAO 1-ups the robust landscape by matching then propelling herself higher than the instrumental with a beautiful voice. The best kind of music attempts to incorporate several styles and package it together cohesively.

If You Ever has a rhythmic bop as an undertone but right before the bridge of wavy vocal notes hit, there's a serene string section that leads into the refrain without a dull moment.  The 31-year-old singer-songwriting hailing from the UK had a fitting theme with the name Saturn. Compared to your average releases from this year, there was a colorful balance of dance/pop tracks with substance (Love Supreme, Yellow of the Sun), new-age big band jazz (Saturn ft. Kwabs), and electronic-influenced neo-soul (Gabriel, Orbit) that could function just as an acapella. That last part is extremely important - her voice alone could function on its own. There are some vocoder adjustments but the purpose is to add a twist, not to carry the singer. NAO has the voice of a pure gospel singer whose recorded sound must not deviate too far from her live performance. One of the most interesting debuts in modern R&B may not be as promoted as some of her contemporaries, but in time, she will be a force to be reckoned with.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a huge mess of a debate sparked on Twitter about who the "King of R&B" truly is. Informed takes filtered in, in support of Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and others. Some memes circulated. Talks eventually devolved into a '90s-centric discussion: where a legendary, yet extremely problematic nominee came up several times; a separate Queen of R&B debate - featuring Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, and Mary J. Blige, among others; and group comparisons like Jodeci vs. Boyz II Men and TLC vs. Xscape popped up as well. A lot of healthy back and forth turned into a nostalgic remembrance of how dominant that decade really was. But of course, there were some asinine comments like "Trap Soul is DEFINITELY better than anything Usher ever made," as if Confessions and 8701 were never made, because, Twitter.

Plenty of really good, standout artists have been successful over the last decade, but none have had a prolonged excellence like the soloists of years past., and the ones that did achieved their status by transcending the genre (e.g. Drake, Chris Brown, The Weeknd). Will there ever again be a person or group to reach the same magnitude of star power without crossing over into the Pop world? Are there viable options - like generational talent - for Kings and Queens in modern R&B? Only time will tell how lasting their impressions will be. H.E.R., Daniel Caesar, and Brent Faiyaz are examples of great young talent, but it's way too early to consider them royalty. The 2018 nominees from the Twitter debate was mostly artists that people are vibing to at the moment.

Looking at some of the names from the discourse, it's concerning that the greatness of earlier eras won't be replicated today. That's okay though; they will have their own memorable footnote in the history of music - unless this trend of gloomy, half-assed attempts at singing continues. A true crooner should be able to hit and hold several different notes over the course of a song. The production should complement the vocalist, not carry them. Technique and timing shouldn't fully be replaced by electronic alterations. Charisma, words with real emotions, being able to sing acapella in the right pitch: that'll always be royalty.

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Random Acts of Podcast EP 198: You using way too many napkins
Best projects of April 2018

Maaan, the last full week of April proved to be one of the craziest weeks in recent memory.  We saw a Dream separate itself from a Nightmare, a Spaceship on a troubling descent, and the MCU's spin on the chorus of XO Tour Llif3. Amid all the madness, what shouldn't be forgotten is the number of quality music releases that came out this past month. The start of the 2nd Quarter of music has a high level of importance because of it unofficially sets the bar for the soundtrack of the Spring and Summer seasons.

Songs that are melodically dreary are quickly getting replaced by uptempo anthems for those wanting to live their best life on their worst behavior all Summer '18 (*raises hand*). Substance and lyrical depth are important, but so too are the cadences and flows on "beat-driven" tracks.

Respect the fact that some people aren't trying to hear an academic dissertation at a poolside party. On the flipside, some people aren't trying always trying to turn up and would like some introspective music for their downtime. Life's about duality. Better yet, like what Thanos said, "perfectly all things should be." The music drops of April 2018 did just that.

Eyeless and Just JT of The Barber's Chair are here to give you their favorite projects of the month and some other notables that should be on your radar.

Flatbush ZOMBiES - Vacation in Hell

EYELESS: The trippy triumvirate "representin' BK to the fullest" has returned with their most complete project to-date, Vacation in Hell. Flatbush Zombies are comprised of 3 uniquely talented individuals: Meechy Darko, Zombie Juice, and Erick the Architect.  As explained by Erickin their GQ interview, "I feel like Vacation in Hell is about making the best out of a situation that may not be the best." A darker, less optimistic, but a no less true version of "when life gives you lemons."

During the hour+ journey through their warped sense of reality, each member brings their own bold efforts to the table on ViH. In addition to his role as the primary beat maker (self-produced all but2 tracks), Erick is a dual threat with the pen, both of which are clearly exhibited on the haunting track "Proxies." His approach to creating a boom-bap sound is meticulously imaginative and forward-thinking. Arc's production credits have helped shape the sound ofNew New York, aka Beast Coast.

Juice is a high-octane, colorfully eccentric, and flat-out hilarious artist that is far from a joke in the clownin' sense. The growth of Juice as not only a rapper and harmonizer is evident with every new drop from Flatbush ZOMBiES. Watching his progression from "Thug Waffle" to the dope and frenetically calm"Leather Symphony" (featuring a focused, yet unhinged ASAP Twelvy) has been a great thing to watch.

But wow, like LeBron James' performance down 3-1 in a series against the 73-win Golden State Warriors, Meechy Darko stepped up from an already ridiculously high level set from his past work. Being the purest MC in the group, and quite possibly New York at the moment, Meech undoubtedly puts any challengers on notice that he ain't here to play games with y'all in 2018. Clever metaphors, gravely voice with an equally gritty delivery, emphasis on being lyrical; just bars.

This has always been in his arsenal, but on Vacation in Hell, he turned the proverbial corner. A raw and confident energy surrounded his presence on "Facts," featuring Jadakiss "I'm a walkin', talkin' silhouette, the darkest rhymer //Since DMX dropped that album with blood all over his body". It'd be best to steer clear of him in battle unless you're fully prepared for the challenge.

Rapping about drugs at a high pace over bruising instrumentals isn't the only thing that appears on ViH, and that narrative is hardly the focus. This album has an interesting blend of different sounds, like "Crown" featuring an unlikely collab from the alternative rock group Portugal. the Man. The lead single "Headstone" sounds like typical New York sonics, but the lyrics are filled with odes to legendary rappers that paved the way for them.

Other tracks, such as "YouAreMySunshine" (No lie, I stopped getting high once we lost Yams // I was there the night he died, he was blue cold in my hands) or the track turning the mirror towards our country, "Best American," shows the range and honesty this group is capable of. The political state of this country, the untimely loss of loved ones (RIP to Juice's mother), falling in love, and the ills and horrors of being Black in America among other things are topics on Vacation in Hell. It's a soundtrack to and reminder to try and have some fun in the face of adversity.

J. Cole - KOD

JUST JT: Every time when J Cole wants to speak to the people, he makes sure that we stop and listen. He made it clear one day on Twitter when changing his Avi and announcing his album listening session for his 5th album KOD, which stems from 3 names; Kids on Drugs, King OverDose, or Kill Our Demons. During his live listening sessions he confirmed that this album was completed in two weeks. The overall theme behind the message of the album was overcoming the many different addictions of life, whether it’s using self medication as a means to cope, chasing and stacking money. social media obsession, etc. In the beginning of the intro, we hear the narrator say, “Life can bring much pain There are many ways to deal with this pain./ Choose wisely” which echoes throughout the album on numerous occasions to consciously  serve the listeners as a reminder in life. Coming off from his last album, 4 Your Eyez Only, I was happy to hear Cole becoming passionate again about rapping. He recalled in his interview with Vulture saying that he wasn’t in the proper headspace around the time that album needed more promotion when it came out. Although i'm a huge fan of his song Deja Vu, 4 Your Eyez Only really just came off for me as part 2 of 2014 Forest Hill Drive.

This time around on KOD with the message being preached on the album, he sounded rejuvenated and ready to rap about some real shit that needed to be said. What’s even better about this album is knowing that he’s already got another project coming soon called The Fall Out. Cole not only has been one of my favorite rappers since the 2010s time period but has also become a polarizing figure with all of the love & hate he gets from people. You just have to sit back and wonder how in the world is a little nigga that’s from Fayetteville, North Carolina making this much noise but doesn’t show nor act as if he’s famous. He does the total opposite. My favorite records off the song include Photograph, ATM, Brackets, Window’s Pain, & 1985 Outro. Brackets was truly amazing for me when he was rapping on his 2nd verse questioning the american tax system. And the curriculum be tricking them, them dollars I spend/ Got us/ learning about the heroes with the whitest of skin/ One thing about the men that's controlling the pen/ That write history, they always seem to white-out they sins. Only time will tell with what’s going to happen with The Fall Out but between that and Revenge of the Dreamers 3, Im looking forward to hearing more of Cole’s energetic raps among his Dreamville peers.

Kali Uchis - Isolation

EYELESS: For how strong it is as a whole, it feels like Isolation has been criminally under-discussed in on social media. With high-profile features such as the creative enigma Tyler, The Creator, and the legendary funk musician Bootsy Collins, one would think more buzz would surround her project, especially after it dropped. Doesn't matter. I firmly believe that the debut studio album from Kali Uchis will inevitably stand the test of time. Numbers aren't totally indicative of the quality of a project (quick aside: please cut that shit out of your music arguments on Twitter; nobody cares). If it's dope like Kali's style, it's dope and people will eventually hear it. Her voice matches her aesthetic: smokey, stunningly beautiful, with an unconventional flair. The strength of Isolation lies with the extensive production team that created a multi-faceted universe for the Colombian-American singer to get some deep feelings off her chest.

To name a few: Thundercat, Tame Impala's Kevin Parker, and hip-hop/jazz quartet BADBADNOTGOOD all had contributing roles in creating this genre-blending tape that does not like a forced soundclash. RnB, hip-hop, and soul are natural elements that mix well. But for a pop artist to include a heavy (yet authentic) Latin American influence with a sprinkle of reggaeton and bossa nova is refreshing to hear. Tracks like the dangerous sounding, slow yet beach friendly "Miami" featuring BIA and the untranslated "Nuestra Planeta" shows Kali's dedication to holding onto her native culture.

In short, the entire record is groovy as fuck. Prime example being "Just a Stranger," the Steve Lacy (and BROCKHAMPTON producer Romil) assisted, lighthearted track. She makes quick work of her 2 short verses by coolly rolling her sultry voice over the live instrumentation. Definitely some shit you'd hear at a roller rink on a Friday night...but not in a corny way. Having a team of talented writers and producers is only half of the equation. Showing up and executing what's been laid in front of you is the difficult part. Kali did not miss the mark.

With Isolation being her debut after several years in the industry, it'd be hard to imagine her not having a hands-on approach pre, during, and post-production. Even with the large crew of people in the album credits, her own musical influences can be heard loud and clear. And, the lyrics are as personal as it gets. On the Gorillaz produced "In My Dreams" - with Damon Albarn on additional vocals; let's just call it a Gorillaz feature - we hear the ideal utopia that she created in her head, cut with an undercurrent of pain (I'm never stressing my bills, nobody ever gets killed, it's the dream world...My mama's never on coke, this isn't my way to cope // Washing my mind out with soap). This, and the rest of the CD all ties into the theme of Isolation. It may seem poppy on the outside, but if you read between the lines, there's a person struggling alone with real problems. Kali Uchis put her heart on display with this excellent debut; she'll be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.

Cardi B - Invasion of Privacy

JT: America’s new favorite sweetheart Cardi B made her major label debut Invasion of Privacy on April 6th. With the way her life has been going, the debut album title is the best fit description towards Cardi’s life. Everywhere she goes, there’s always someone saying something that’s pertaining to her life, whether its about her past, her relationship with Offset, her pregnancy, etc. But even with all of the bullshit, she’s still pushes forward promoting her music and living her best life while making guest appearances on tours and shows like Saturday Night Live. First starting off back in 2017 with the smash single Bodak Yellow, Cardi began truly gaining traction from both the hip-hop audience and the mainstream world.

Outside of creating the ratchet anthems for the ladies to enjoy, she steps out of her comfort zone with different records such as Be Careful, I Like It, & Ring. Not to mention her album is only 13 tracks long which make it a perfect segway. I’m looking forward to hearing these records during the summer days. I can already hear Bickenhead, Drip, & She Bad being played all throughout Day Party Season this summer. The ladies are going to hold it down for Bartier Cardi while shes away getting ready for motherhood. When you look at Cardi’s trajectory from when she first started on Social media towards getting into Love & Hip-Hop New York and finally setting herself up with a music career, you can’t help but think about how great this current era is with building the proper fanbase.

Young Thug - Hear No Evil

JT: Jeffrey aka the artist formerly known as Young Thug voiced that initially he wasn’t going to release any music in 2018, which was then met with mixed reactions. Then one Thursday night in April, rumors started surfacing on Twitter speculating that Thugger was going to drop a surprise EP and low and behold, his 3 song EP Hear No Evil was released to the world. My favorite song from that EP was Up with Lil Uzi Vert. Overall, despite not really feeling attached to Anybody with Nicki Minaj for personal reasons, I still thoroughly enjoyed this EP from Thugger. With all of the talk with his music, he really should be way bigger than where he’s currently at but thats a different subject for a new day. In a perfect world for me, Thugger would drop maybe 2 or 3 more EPs later on in the year hinting us of a bigger project that is coming ahead. But for now we will sit back and wait to see what Thugger comes up with next. You never know what’s in stored with him and the music.


EYELESS: No matter what new trend, steez, or wave that crashes into the shores of music, honest transparency delivered in through the conduit of storytelling will always be appreciated, especially narration that is at a high level. It's only April, but I'll be shocked if CARE FOR ME isn't mentioned amongst Album of the Year contenders come December. The self-released and extremely personal project from Saba is that damn good. The 23-year-old,SAVEMONEY-adjacent, Chicago native sounds incredibly mature for his young age. An "introspective journey haunted by trauma and deflated with social anxiety," that is somber to the point of numbness, yet engaging enough to keep your emotions stimulated.

Chances are, you've heard Saba's raps on 2 of Chance the Rapper's standout tracks from Acid Rap and Coloring Book, respectively. With all due respect to Chano, 2018 may be one of the last years that his name gets brought up in convos that begin with "have you heard of Saba?" CARE FOR ME has been getting so much attention in the world of music that he'll be a widely recognized name sooner rather than later. Like some of his Midwest collaborators such as Mick Jenkins, Noname, and Smino, there's an enthusiastic gusto in his flow. Just as rapidly as he can spit, he could easily "Pivot" on a dime to switch up his cadence to avoid any semblance of monotony.

On one of the standout tracks, "SMILE," Saba's melodic versatility is beautifully showcased here. He starts off with a smooth flow that resembles waves slowly hitting the beach during low-tide. "Smile, smile, smile, smile..." is chanted like a mantra for meditation, then BOOM. An unexpected bouncy flow where syllables are stretched then replaced in quick succession by the next line...for a period of 8 bars. Once that stanza is complete, he goes back to spazzing on the calm instrumental. Throughout this all, there is substance and depth behind these lyrics. Vivid imagery by Saba, as the rest of the album does so well to paint, puts the listener in the portrait created by his words. CARE FOR ME, a project dedicated to his late cousin Walter (referenced throughout but most prominently on "PROM / KING"), is a touching and heartfelt project full of raw emotion that's short on time but not short on fulfilling content.

Eyeless' Honorable Mentions:
Janelle Monae - Dirty Computer
J. Cole - KOD
Cardi B - Invasion of Privacy
Smoke DZA - Not For Sale
The Alchemist - Lunch Meat EP
Young Thug - Hear No Evil EP (Thugga, this was fire, but what is the plan?!?)
Robert Glasper Experiment x KAYTRANADA - The ArtScience Remixes

JT’s Honorable Mentions:
NBA Youngboy - Until Death Call My Name
Jacquees - This Time I’m Serious

Check out Eyeless and JT's best projects for January, February, and March 2018

Random Acts of Podcast Ep.172: 90's R&B Groups Episode

On this weeks episode of @RAOPodcast the guys go over our bracket for top male/female R&B groups from the 90s, we give our honest opinions on the Black Panther movie, man caves being garbage, Nipsey Hussle's new album and a ton more other topics. If you're sensitive to Black Panther spoilers please skip 30 minutes into the podcast