Alternative R&B: Rising From The Ashes of Contemporary R&B

By: Alvindra |

There was a time where R&B was the world’s most prominent music genre. Boasting the likes of Erykah Badu, Maxwell, and Mary J. Blige, the genre was thriving and with newcomers like Usher, Alicia Keys, and John Legend flooding the scene, it seemed like the future of R&B was once bright. However, the said newcomers were perhaps the only contemporary R&B artists carrying the torch. With emergence of Chris Brown, Ciara, and Robin Thicke, the genre has somehow become repetitive, uninspiring, and not relatable for listeners. What was once thought to be the golden generation of R&B ironically caused the death of R&B.

Enter nostalgia,ULTRA. Previously known for being in Odd Future, Frank Ocean released his free R&B mixtape on February 16, 2011. nostalgia,ULTRA is everything Contemporary R&B has been missing – emotional honesty. For so long R&B has been filled with celebrity boasting about their perfect sex life, drug parties, and artificial love on repetitive beats. The raw love letters in nostlagia,ULTRA are very relatable to listeners and it made people realize that they still like R&B, just not contemporary R&B. One night was all it takes for Frank Ocean to be the father of Alternative R&B. The Weeknd’s House of Balloons followed on March 21, 2011. House of Balloons is everything nostalgia,ULTRA is not. It is a mixtape about sex and drugs. However, unlike many Contemporary R&B records, The Weeknd’s approach represents a more nihilistic view. His record is all about people running from their daily problems and trying to convince themselves and other people that they are enjoying the parties, sex, and drugs when they are all just facades. It seems like the foundation of Alternative R&B is done. People started listening to R&B again. However, both Frank and Weeknd are relatively new artists, and their coverage is not that big yet. This is where Miguel played his role. Previously known for his debut album, All I Want Is You, he was considered experimental, but inconsistent. The songs in All I Want Is You didn’t show Miguel’s identity and vision. However, on February 27, 2012, Miguel released mini EP Art Dealer Chic Vol.1, only consisting of three songs. On March 27 and April 27, he released Art Dealer Chic Vol.2 and Art Dealer Chic Vol.3 respectively, completing the nine-track Art Dealer Chic EP. The self produced EP showed us Miguel identity. The sex-centered mixtape is different from Weeknd’s nihilistic takes. Miguel discussed sex as a serious matter, full of love and lust, yet filled with insecure thoughts, combined with his refreshingly fun beats. Miguel took Alternative R&B to mainstream attentions, and the rest is history. Frank Ocean proceeds to release his debut album channel ORANGE on July 10, 2012, followed by Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dream and The Weeknd’s Trilogy on September 25 and November 13 respectively. Artists like Sampha, Dev Hynes, SZA, and Janelle Monae entered the scene and provided us with their freshest interpretation of R&B.

So what is Alternative R&B exactly? To answer this question, we have to take a look back to the history of R&B itself. R&B as a music genre originated in the 1940s when African American musicians like Louis Jordan and Big Joe Turner combined Blues and Jazz to create a new urban music genre. However, it wasn’t until 1949 when Billboard reporter Jerry Wexler coined the term “Rhythm and Blues” to replace “race music” which was considered offensive. Through the years, artists such as Little Richard & Chuck Berry in the 50s, Sam Cooke in the 60s, and Al Green in the 70s and early 80s, R&B have slowly appealed to the mainstream. On the 80s, artists like Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder incorporated Soul, Funk, Pop, and Electronic Music into R&B and Contemporary R&B was born. Many artists also incorporated Hip Hop elements to R&B. Contemporary R&B dominated the R&B scene from the 80s to late 00s with the likes of Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, Erykah Badu, Maxwell, Mary J. Blige, Usher, and Alicia Keys on the top of the charts. The lack of innovation inevitably led R&B to death and the likes of Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, and Miguel help popularized Alternative R&B.

What differs Alternative R&B from Contemporary R&B is that it combines Contemporary R&B with Neo Soul. That is the number one similarity between Alternative R&B artists. Using that formula, they improved the “template” by adding elements from other genres. Frank Ocean, for example, is influenced by Alternative Hip Hop, Folk, Folk Rock, Indie Rock, and Jazz, The Weeknd leaning more to Electronic and Grunge. Miguel, on the other hand, is influenced by Hip Hop and Classic Rock. Alternative R&B as a genre is very wide, with many different sounds lumped into one genre. Many people dislike the notion of Alternative R&B since it boxed African American experimental artists into a genre. Some artists even reject the idea of Alternative R&B, like FKA Twigs who prefer to be associated with Funk. However, some artists like Miguel endorsed the term. Controversy aside, Alternative R&B as a genre has provided African American experimental musicians with a vessel to jump into the mainstream, and since the genre is still very young, perhaps in the future, Alternative R&B will split into subgenres such as Indie R&B, Electronic R&B, and Folk R&B. All we know is R&B and music in general is in good hands with many young, promising Alternative R&B stars coming to the scene.

If you are still new to the genre and want to dive deeper, we’d like to provide you with our curated Alternative R&B playlist.

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