Music has always been a sign of the times. Its evolution demonstrates collective cultural shifts of importance, but its fundamental purpose to inspire, entertain and challenge is ever present. Take R&B, for instance. The shiny veneer of the perfectly chiseled contemporary R&B stars who sang about love in the 90s and 2000s has worn off — and it makes sense.
Identity politics, social media and globalization at large are challenging our interpretations of relationships and individuality. With R&B, you could always find comfort when you’re caught up in your feelings, and its contemporaries keep that tradition going. The new generation of R&B talent uniquely explores themselves through narrative-driven music that combines influences from other genres. We all have the power to find ourselves, but just like each of these trailblazers, we have to examine the world and the people around us first.
Identity dominates Solange Knowles’ work —but of course it does. She grew up in the public eye as the talented kid sister of Beyoncé. It didn’t take long for her to not only establish herself as a talented musician in her own right, but as an artist who could speak to today’s black experience in America.
In 2016, she released her third album A Seat at the Table, describing it as “a project on identity, empowerment, independence, grief and healing.” It was a compelling album that combined influences of neo-soul and funk with R&B. For her follow up, 2019’s When I Get Home, she looked inward to her Houston roots and combined jazz with new-age trap.
Key Tracks: “Cranes in the Sky,” “Stay Flo,” “Don’t Touch My Hair”
The drama that can devour a passionate love affair has long been a foundational element of R&B music. Like, can’t someone unbreak my heart and say you’ll love me again? Baltimore-born Josiah Wise a.k.a. serpentwithfeet takes that carnal element and amps up the drama tenfold.
Growing up in a religious family, Wise sang in the church choir while his parents played classical and gospel music. For his own music, he combines his classical and gospel roots with the neo-soul and electronic music he explored after being rejected from graduate-level classical conservatories.
The result is an R&B sound all his own — deep, emotional, but with an all-consuming, melodramatic intensity. It’s the kind of music that makes you want to fall in love so you can understand the emotional power that he so brilliantly expresses in his music.
Key Tracks: “bless ur heart,” “four ethers,” “messy”
Sheldon Young a.k.a. Channel Tres is keeping R&B on the dance floor with a musical equation made for the new generation. He mixes his SoCal sensuality with Barry-White-on-Xanax vocals to a blend of R&B and Chicago/Detroit house.
But Channel Tres doesn’t croon about how he “Can’t get enough of your love, babe.” His rugged catcalls are declarations of unavailability and confidence, an age old twist in the playbook of love. He keeps himself at arm’s length, claiming to be the controller, the swami or the sexy black Timberlake. It’s a playful move that addresses stereotypes about sex and behavior frequently attributed to black people.
As he continues to combine all the cultural trends of today’s music, he may earn his own honorific title as the “Controller.”
Key Tracks: “Controller,” “Sexy Black Timberlake,” “Topdown”
Toro y Moi
In the last decade, Toro y Moi a.k.a. Chaz Bundick has gone through countless musical evolutions. In the beginning, he was one of the defining artists of Chillwave, a hybrid of Internet culture, retro nostalgia and soft synthesizers. Then he helped define the short lived “Basement R&B,” which took those soft melodies and production tools to make glitchy-sounding classic R&B jams on your basement computer.
But as Toro y Moi continued to experiment with his sound, he evolved into a dominant force defining the next wave of R&B music. Combining R&B with disco and electronica, he has blossomed into a more modern sound that still appeals with indie music fans.
In 2019 alone, he has released two albums that are each totally different but completely refreshing on their own. January’s Outer Peace blended R&B with a danceable, future-pop sound, while November’s Soul Trash mixtape was a blend of R&B with hip-hop and chillwave. Soul Trash also came with its own short film and guest rapper collaborations, which is another sign that the multi-talented musician is looking to take his music to the next level.
Key Tracks: “Minors,” “Mirage,” “Baby Drive It Down”
When FKA twigs released “Water Me” in 2013, music fans weren’t sure where to place her. FKA Twigs a.k.a. Tahliah Barnett puts an avant-garde, electronic twist on R&B music. As she pushes the boundaries musically, she releases music videos that incorporate baroque aesthetics with modern dance, resulting in a modern yet timeless experience.
Pushing boundaries through honest storytelling has been the main constant throughout her music, but everything else seems to surprise her fans. When she revealed her temporary absence from performing was due to having fibroid tumors removed from her uterus, fans thought she would never return, but she came back with a vengeance.
In April 2019, Twigs released “Cellophane” off her latest album Magdalene. Her breathy, fragile falsetto combined with a video that focused on her new pole dancing prowess created a triumphant return for the avant-pop R&B angel. She may have seemed broken from her medical challenges and public breakup of her three-year relationship, but she rose from the ashes, stronger and more powerful than ever before.
Key Tracks: “Two Weeks,” “Pendulum,” “Cellophane”
Sharing your personal narrative was, quite frankly, the total opposite of Janelle Monáe’s early work. She hid behind “Cindi Mayweather,” an android persona from a hip, Metropolis-inspired future. Her sound had funk and electronic elements from early Contemporary R&B artists like Prince and Janet Jackson.
She also only sang about the love that exists between androids, or “the others” as she put it. Fortunately, artists (and culture) evolve. In 2017, after years of public inquiry about her personal life, Monae released Dirty Computer, her biggest commercial success. She had always made enjoyable music about self-expression, only now she was following her own instructions.
Some argue she used her sexuality as a marketing tool to promote Dirty Computer, announcing she was pansexual in promotional interviews. Others celebrated her courageousness for unplugging her robotic persona and embracing her inner-self. With an ever-growing fanbase, she has the power to encourage R&B fans around the world to celebrate a new generation of “others.”
Key Tracks: “Tightrope,” “Make Me Feel,” “Electric Lady”