Two new projects are sparking a lot of discussion right now about the current state of R&B. The first is by The Weeknd, a mysterious singer (or group?) who has enjoyed a quick rise to critical-darling status since releasing the free debut album House of Balloons last week. The second is by Frank Ocean, the lone singer in Rap Group of the Moment, Odd Future. Ocean's album, nostalgia,Ultra, also excellent, also free, came out mere weeks before The Weeknd's project, so the two acts are getting joined together as poster children for what's being called a new wave of R&B. The terms being thrown around to describe this new wave are "hipster R&B" and—half-jokingly, half-seriously—"PBR&B." Some have also pointed to So Far Gone, the emotional rap mixtape (featuring a lot of singing!) by Drake, released in 2009, as a major influencer, an initiator of sorts, to this new sound.
I've listened to both albums, and both are excellent. I enjoy the irony behind The Weeknd's high-pitched crooning of hard lyrics on "Wicked Games" ("Let me see that aaaaasssss!/Look at all this cash!") à la Nate Dogg. Ocean's nostalgia.Ultra offers a lesson in keeping it real as, on a song like "Novacane," he sings about falling for a college girl with a "stripper booty" who makes extra money "for tuition doin' porn in the Valley." But through my countless listens to both albums, there's one thing I'm not hearing—R&B. Not even the hipster variety.
It's not so much that the term "hipster R&B" is inaccurate. I'm no hipster, but if The Weeknd and Frank Ocean are getting mad love from people who consider themselves hipsters, then I suppose hipsters can call it whatever makes them feel comfortable. But as non-hipsters like to say, let's keep it all the way real. Calling it "hipster R&B" is a nice way of saying it's R&B that white people like (black hipsters notwithstanding), and here's my problem with that: It's myopic, lazy, and it sounds to me like a form of musical segregation that's not entirely based on genre.
Here's a proposal—how about we call it "nappy-headed pop"? If that sounds even slightly politically incorrect or lazy, then you understand my frustrations with the term "hipster R&B." It's not with the term "hipster"; it's with any hipster or white critic labeling a black artist "an R&B artist" just because he or she sings a little.
On nostalgia,Ultra Ocean does his own version of The Eagles' "Hotel California" ("American Wedding") and MGMT's "Electric Feel" ("Nature Feels"). House of Balloons lifts a huge sampling of "Happy House" by Siousxie and The Banshees and samples indie rock group Beach House not once, but twice ("Loft Music" and "The Party & The After Party")! Call me close-minded, but samplings like this don't sound like R&B. They don't pass the hearing test. They sound like black artists who are playing with rock and pop, just as white artists like Esthero and Francis and The Lights (a collaborator on Drake's Thank Me Later album) do, and you don't see anyone calling those two artists R&B in any form.
Of course, R&B should be allowed to evolve. Not everything needs to sound like an extension of the Motown and Stax tree or like it belongs on Quiet Storm radio formats. I'd even go so far as to say The Weeknd's album has shades of early Timbaland and Prince, two artists who changed the way R&B sounded forever. Go back and listen to So Far Gone and listen to Drake's ode to Timbaland entitled, "Bria's Interlude," a reworking of "Friendly Skies," an R&B duet Timbaland produced for Missy Elliott and Ginuwine from Elliott's debut album, Supa Dupa Fly. R&B as a genre has evolved over the years, no question, but the artists we associate with R&B evolved as well, sometimes moving beyond the genre with which they were first associated.
Chris Brown's new album F.A.M.E. is a prime example of this evolution. Listen closely: Are we really listening to R&B or are we listening to pop? Different ears, different opinions, I'm sure; but if we can't all agree on it being R&B, then why would we categorize it as R&B or compare it to other R&B albums in the first place? My guess, probably because he's black. But I'll be damned if CB's "Beautiful People" is an R&B song (it's dance music) or "Look At Me Now" is R&B (it's a rap song with moments of melody). Are we really going to debate who has the better R&B album between Chris Brown's F.A.M.E. and Adele's 21? I don't think we should, simply because one album is not R&B (F.A.M.E.) and one album is (21).
All this automatic categorization of black artists who sing harkens back to the social roots of the R&B genre. Before R&B was even called R&B, the record industry and magazines like Billboard categorized it as "race music," shorthand for any black artists who sang with a backbeat behind them. For years, white artists who made similar music never had to worry about being designated as "race music" until 1958, when Billboard began using "R&B" instead. The switch made it possible for acts like the late, great Teena Marie and current artists like Robin Thicke to chart in the R&B category. Unfortunately, many critics still referred (and refer) to those artists with the term "blue-eyed soul," which is a nice way of saying they're white singers that black people like. Equally hackneyed is calling black singers who white people like "hipster R&B"—or, for that matter, "nappy-headed pop".
None of this is to say critics quick to describe Chris Brown or The Weeknd as R&B (or hipster R&B) artists are racists; hardly the case. (Disclosure: I used to work at VIBE alongside Sean Fennessey who authored the Village Voice piece about Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, and where I first read the term "hipster R&B," and who I consider a straight-up great guy.) But what I am urging is that we not be so quick to categorize all black singers as R&B—because what starts to happen then is we cut off the opportunity to have a real discussion about R&B as a genre.
The Weeknd, Frank Ocean, Chris Brown and Drake are not the only things cooking in R&B and the way they are being used as some sort of encapsulation of the whole genre is sad. On April 5, the timeless R&B band Mint Condition will release their new album 7…. I've listened to it and it's great. Meanwhile, the singer Lloyd, who has a respectable track record of releasing good material, will be coming out with his fourth album King of Hearts on April 19. Raphael Saadiq, he of the once-popular-but-no-longer-together R&B group Tony, Toni, Tone, is releasing his new solo album Stone Rollin' on May 10. And yes, Adele's 21 is arguably the best R&B album released in 2011 thus far.
If we want to have a real discussion about R&B—where it's at, where it's going, who is doing it right, who is doing it weird, and who is really not doing it at all no matter what the critics say—let's talk about all of these artists. There are some really good white artists making R&B (Adele) and there are some really good black artists who are not making R&B. Even The Weeknd himself tweeted, "The Weeknd is not a group, a band, or an R&B duo act…" Sure, he was tweeting about his personnel, but I also get the feeling he wanted to make it clear his music is not R&B. Let's listen to the music carefully, place the albums in their proper categories (if you're even into that sort of thing), and then discuss based on what we hear, not what we see.
Jozen Cummings is a writer living in Harlem whose work has appeared in Vibe, The New York Times Magazine, Paper and various other places. You can check out his blog Until I Get Married or follow him on Twitter.