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Sunday Musings: ALT R'n'B; Did the Blues Need to Get Any Sweeter?



After a casual scroll through the preset playlists on Spotify, something that gives me a good chuckle with the way their labels are both visibly calculated and ironic at the same time. On this stroll I stopped at the Alternative R'n'B playlists. I thought, I love a smooth R'n'B jam and I like experimentation of many art forms, I'll try it. What I was expecting wasn't exactly what I got, however I wasn't soured too much in the progress.

I just recently finished listening to Clarence Clarity's premiere LP No Now and under some circumstances it can be accused of being 'Alternative R'n'B'. Since it was fresh in my mind it was one of the first two artists that came to mind. The other was FKA Twigs whom is also, to me at the least, a great example of an Alternative R'n'B artist. Where Clarence Clarity trades in emotional weight for feeble derivative exclamations (still give the album a listen, feeble can be fun), FKA Twigs emotes in
spades, and believably so (who can say 'Now hold the purse for me' and still get the guy at the end of the night). The emoting FKA Twigs practices is one of the important components of the Blues, as established by the amazing Bessie Smith. Of course there are other reasons why she came to mind: Vocally she harkens back to 90's smooth pop R'n'B singers, like Aaliyah, when she hangs in her mid register. Her songs also has instrumentations that are very ethereal and new age with a slight R'n'B tinge to it, the same way late 90's R'n'b tried to predict the future. I guess what I was hoping for was an interesting take on smooth 90's R'n'B, again it's not what I got.

I start to scroll down the playlist, there are some of the usual suspects: James Blake, SZA, and The Weeknd. Then there would be one song by Beyonce or Estelle that caught me as being as un-ALT, however they didn't stand out as much as Tinashe being on there. For the sake of the article I sat
through a enough of the songs to reach a conclusion: Alternative R'n'B was as popular and not as alternative as I thought it would be. A large majority of the tracks from Blood Orange's Chamakay, A modern moody take on mid-80's, Lionel Richie, R'n'B pop stylings, to Tinashe's Aquarius, a cipher of a song not only on the playlist but on her first LP titled the same; sported minimalist instrumentals, light as feather airy vocals, and a melody you can both sway and brood to. When I listened to the Beyonce song (for comparison sake) Superpower, I realized that 'Alternative R'n'B' is a sub-genre that is being aggressively tapped by many high profile artist yet ambiguously falling in line with the rest of the songs. In Superpower Beyonce's singing is higher than normal along with an apathetic Frank Ocean, a clean minimalist beat and few live instruments played as softly as possible.

I am a big fan of R'n'B. It is an interesting intersection where pop music compositions and dramatic emotive singing meets in nice quantities. When I see a chance to twist R'n'B and produce an odd but sensual song I get excited. There were a few surprises for example, Hiatus Kaiyote's, Nakamarra that features a singer, Naomi Saalfield, who actually sings out and contorts with the melody of a jazzy
R'n'B number that isn't earth shatteringly unique but, in the synth-lite landscape that is the playlist it's refreshing. And there is Jamie Woon's Lady Luck and Ella Eyre's Deeper both with unique pop sensibilities but seem, pleasantly, out of place on the playlist. The former has a competent singer providing an interesting moody atmosphere with his vocal performance, the latter song has a nice indie pop sound with an exceptional singer keeping control of the various elements. These exceptions weren't what I was expecting and it made the experience both great and terrible at the same time. It was great because in any 'Alternative' playlist I should have my expectations both matched and completely shattered at the same time, but bad for the general playlist because it made me realize that the playlist was a big, bland, airless, and (at times) un-emotive slog. R'n'B already contained heavy pop influences; Did it need to take a turn for the weightless, toothachingly, saccharine sweet?

At that moment I asked myself; Why dilute the major part of the Blues, and R'n'B in general? Of course this doesn't go for every song toting the 'Alternative R'n'B' label, and also 'different strokes for different folks', however why allow the drama and emotions of R'n'B go to waste? I can chalk it up to it being a new age and changing preferences but with many pop culture entertainment formats upping the ante; Why didn't the smooth pop R'n'B of the 90's/00's follow the times and increase the drama in the innately dramatic genre?

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