Yes, there’s more to R&B in early 2016 than Anderson .Paak. The Los Angeles dynamo has been rightly lionized for blending hip-hop, pimpish soul, and skate-park pop on his second album Malibu, following his breakthrough contributions (among far bigger names) on Dr. Dre’s swan song, Compton. But there are other currents to explore this season: hypnagogic funk, introspective acoustic soul, and Casanova urban pop. Not to mention the repurposed Ozzy cover of the year. These impressive Q1 picks highlight how R&B is a sound as diverse as any other.
Tweet, Charlene (eOne)
Back in 2003, Tweet briefly shined as part of the Missy Elliott and Timbaland universe with delights such as the shameless auto-erotica of “Oops (Oh My),” and the Bhangra-sampling seduction of “Call Me.” Her, ahem, hummingbird-light voice drew frequent comparisons to Aaliyah, whose tragic 2001 death in a plane crash was still fresh in our devastated minds. Like so many R&B performers from that era, she seemed to disappear as quickly as she emerged, and her 2005 album It’s Me Again was followed by a near-decade of silence as she recovered from personal addictions and recommitted herself to God. (In 2013, she put out an EP, Simply Tweet.)
One of the pleasures of Charlene is how we can now enjoy Tweet — years removed from the burden of carrying Aaliyah’s legacy — as a startlingly unique voice in her own right, a fact that we sometimes forgot during her brief reign on Top 40. The way she weaves her fluttering vocals around songs like “Magic” and “Addicted” is rapturous. The acoustic guitar arrangements and fluttering yet smooth soul are simple and sturdy enough to focus attention on her spiritual-minded delivery, and how she can turn a nearly wordless “Dadada…Struggle” into a thing of beauty. Another highlight: Tweet and Missy Elliott reunite over the throwback vibes of “Somebody Else Will,” as these newly revitalized queens emerge older, wiser, and as engaging as ever.
K. Michelle, More Issues than Vogue (Atlantic)
It’s unfortunate that much of the press and pop radio continues to dismiss K. Michelle as an “adult R&B” singer – a stereotype that she pushed back against recently in a revelatory Huffington Post interview. In reality, she’s one of the most fascinating and unpredictable musicians in R&B right now, and someone who has far outgrown her initial fame as a luminary of VH1’s CelebReality programming block.
Her latest musical effort, More Issues Than Vogue is proudly campy (that cover art) and deeply poignant (the way she coos “Not a Little Bit” as she reluctantly lets go of a lover). She dips into mono-pop with Jason Derulo on “Make the Bed” and goes countrypolitan on “If It Ain’t Love.” But she also sashays with Miami sexpot Trina, who delivers a burner verse on “I’m Rich,” and pops game over an interpolation of OutKast’s epochal “SpottieOttieDopalicious” on “Got ‘Em Like.” “I need stacks / Otherwise, motherf**ker, you can get back,” she says, mockingly. She doesn’t take any mess, but she’s still got a heart of gold.
Charles Bradley, Changes (Daptone / Dunham)
This is the third album by the “Screaming Eagle of Soul” since he first fascinated us five years ago with No Time for Dreaming and his heart-rending story of ascent from a peripatetic life as a James Brown impersonator and cook, to a career in his sixties as a purveyor of Daptone deep funk. Changes continues to find him doing what he does best — performing chicken-scratch rave-ups in a raw and unkempt emotional squall, and finding unexpected meaning in authoritative cover songs. For the latter, there’s the title track, a Black Sabbath tune that Bradley transforms into a bluesy lament and tribute to his late mother.
A Race of Angels, Before the First Goodbye EP (Fresh Selects)
Some may remember A Race of Angels from their furtive appearances on mid-2000s nu-funk comps like the Jazzanova-endorsed Secret Love 4 and From L.A. With Love. The nom de plume for singer/multi-instrumentalist/producer Yeofi Andoh fit into that era’s blossoming of artists melding folk, sunshine pop, and post-modern ambient electronics. (Think Daedelus’ The Long Lost, Carlos Niño’s sundry projects, or Flying Lotus’ 1983 debut.)
Those sounds were eventually overshadowed by the dominance of L.A.’s beat scene, but it seems that back-to-nature types are making a comeback, if Matthewdavid’s recent Trust the Guide and Glide is any indication. At any rate, A Race of Angels is still here, although Andoh tends to take his time between projects — Before the First Goodbye is his first in 11 years. He sings in a sedated, leisurely tone, and his arrangements sound like stoned soul dirges, culminating in a highlight like “Hiding in the Light,” which seems to pack a lifetime’s worth of yearning and contemplation into four minutes.
Starchild & The New Romantic, Crucial EP (Ghostly International)
Alt-R&B, Tumblr R&B, whatever you want to call it… no one likes the buzzwords for this seemingly intractable wing of Internet 3.0 pop. And yet, it continues to thrive as a catchall for weird, unusual and, uh… “alternative” soul; critics that championed New Kingdom in the mid-’90s likely faced a similar problem.
Bryndon “Starchild” Cook is clearly a graduate of the Weeknd’s school of haunted rapture — he toured with Solange as a backing musician, and collaborated with Blood Orange on a terrific cover of Lemonade’s “Neptune.” This new EP with his New Romantic band finds even more ways to surprise: “All My Lovers” has one of the dizziest codeine tempos in recent memory, like Prince performing “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” without the compass of a drum machine.
Jacquees, Mood (Self-Released)
R&B mixtapes usually consist of classic covers and amorphous improvisations, designed to buttress maybe a single or two. At best, they subvert our notions of the genre as a precise form structured around carefully refined verses and choruses. At worst, they just sound aimless.
Decatur, Georgia’s Cash Money prospect Jacquees teems with heartthrob charm like the second coming of Lloyd, and his boyish enthusiasm carries him through the sex-drenched Mood. He’s still an unrefined voice — DeJ Loaf’s deadly clear chirp outshines him on “Set It Off” — but he knows how to massage the beat just like he does with fictional and real lovers. He alternately bounces and croons all over “Hot Girl,” lilts about lovemaking euphoria on “New Wave,” and croons seductively while Kevin Gates and Young Scooter chain-swing on “9.” It’ll be interesting to hear what he can do on his forthcoming proper debut album.