By Max Weinstein
Was R&B interesting before 2013? Sure it was. But it’s impossible to ignore the fact that in 2013 the genre was booming with new talent and unique visions. In the past couple of years, artists like Frank Ocean and The Weekend have brought a fresh new life into R&B, and the artists that have followed have taken things even further. From electronically charged retro styles to minimal soul, and everything in between, here are 20 artists who made R&B interesting in 2013.
Note: We are trying out a new one page format for our lists. Let us know what you think in the comments.
Many listeners got their first taste of Sampha when Drake released a few cuts on his Soundcloud before Nothing Was The Same, the best of which was “The Motion,” a song fans surely thought would be included on the album. Instead it was left off in favor of another Sampha-helmed beauty, “Too Much,” becoming one of the album’s highlights and forever cementing Sampha’s voice in the minds of rap fans.
A couple months after NWTS dropped, however, Sampha decided to step up and release his own version of “Too Much” along with a b-side called “Happens”. The latter piano balled is damn near tear wrenching, and it wisely pushes the throaty UK singer’s vocal chops to the forefront. Sampha has been around since 2010, when he released a 3-track EP with SBTRKT, and he had continued to work with him and other artists like Lil’ Silva and Jessie Ware, before getting his big break alongside Drake this year.
Before “Too Much / Happens” Sampha released his Dual EP on Young Turks, with songs like “Can’t Get Close” showcasing his emotive power. Sampha’s ability to pen songs that drive a crucible through your heart is what sticks with the listener, and while “Too Much” was great, he’ll probably do better if he stays away from any and all rappers, letting the focus be on his stunning, angelic voice. 2013 will go down as the year that Sampha blew up, but hopefully 2014 will be the year that he releases a stunning debut album.
It’s rare that an R&B artist has the right balance of songwriting ability and vocal talent. With many mainstream acts, it’s usually a trade-off for one or the other, but not with Banks. “I wish I was in love but I don’t wanna cause any pain”, she sings on “Waiting Game,” the first track of her stunning EP, London.
You can feel Banks beckoning a partner to bed with a single tantalizing finger on the lusty “Bedroom Wall”, while “This Is What It Feels Like” sounds like pop music updated for a rocky space age. The EP ends with “Change”, a longing song that could soundtrack the trees rolling slowly by the car window on a lengthy roadtrip. She speaks of a toxic relationship, but she can’t escape its grips, leaving the listener hoping she can find what she’s asking for in the song’s title. By the end of the short project, you’re rooting for her to triumph, but London only leaves you wanting more. With production from SOHN, Lil Silva, Jamie Woon and Tim Anderson, London is one of the standout EPs of the year in any genre.
It doesn’t get much weirder than FKA twigs. Last year, she quietly released a four-track EP with feather-light vocals on songs like “Ache” and “Breathe.” It foreshadowed the direction that she was going, but no one could have predicted how out there EP2 would be, released on the well-respected Young Turks imprint.
She teamed up with Arca, the Venezuelan producer who helped Yeezus sound as demented as it does, to make R&B music that defies rhythm, blues, or any another common genre description. The result is songs like “Papi Pacify,” which seems to both resist traditional readings of patriarchy and comply with them at the same time, and “Water Me”, which employs metaphorical imagery in allusion to growth and dependence. FKA twigs is an artist who avoids categorization in order to let the unnerving obscurity of her music speak for itself, and that focus has helped her make waves across the indie landscape.
EP2 is a fascinating listen that winds back onto itself and burrows into your memory long after it’s over.
Solana Rowe is going to own 2014. The until recently mysterious 23 year-old singer known as SZA signed with TDE after releasing two impressive mixtapes, See.SZA.Run and S, this past year, and she’s kept her strong run alive with new songs like “Teen Spirit”, “Julia”, and her newest collaboration with fellow TDE newcomer Isaiah Rashad, “Ronnie Drake”.
Emerging from snowed-in mountains, SZA’s chilly vocal style offers a woozy snapshot into her inner mind while blustering, icy winds swirl around her in the form of Felix Snow’s production. S as a whole sounds like it was inspired by the insane battle of Hoth scene from Star Wars, complete with intergalactic strife and tense romantic underpinnings. Once you start listening to SZA, it’s hard to put her music down, and she looks to be one of the most addictive new artists of recent memory.
Now we just need to hear what she’s cooking up with Kendrick.
Take some of the best producers in underground dance music right now, like Nguzunguzu, Bok Bok, and Kingdom, and put them in the studio with Kelela, a female vocalist who recalls ‘90’s stars like Mary J. Blige or Lauryn Hill. You’ve got the recipe for something original and refreshing.
Trenchant post-dubstep production seeps into the crevices that Kelela leaves bare, and the combination breeds a sometimes uncanny, always beautiful new product in the form of Cut 4 Me, Kelela’s breakout 2013 (free) mixtape. She straddles time periods with ease and stretches her voice to higher registers like Mariah did before her. “Floor Show” skids above the ocean floor with a submerged funk groove and catchy chorus, while the clear standout is “Bank Head,” blissfully produced by the Fade To Mind bossman Kingdom. Grime, R&B, crunk, house—it’s all thrown into the pot under Kelela’s alluring voice, and it makes for some of the year’s most engrossing music.
Songwriting credits for Solange, Florence + the Machine, and Theophilus London. Collaborations with Sky Ferreira and Britney Spears. That alone is an impressive resume, but Blood Orange is much more than a glorious songwriter for otehrs, and it shows with his new album, Cupid Deluxe. Dev Hynes has gotten a lot of attention after releasing that album and lecturing at NYU on synesthesia (Pharrell knows about that) and musical composition, but it’s his distinct musical flavor that’s attracted so many fans.
His music spans the topics of love, loneliness, bisexuality, and a host of other subjects that reveal his worldliness—he was born in Texas, raised in England, and now lives in New York. He also reels in influences from different genres, too (with Prince being the most obvious progenitor)—rappers Despot and Skepta make guest appearances, while Clams Casino and David Longstreth of Dirty Projectors show up on “No Right Thing”. He pulls the sound of the ‘80’s through a jazzy, indie filter and comes up with one of the best albums of the year. You can dance to it or cry to it, but at the end it feels like you’ve travelled the world. That’s an invaluable experience.
JMSN (pronounced “Jameson”) made a splash last year with his debut EP, Priscilla, and the cinematic video for “Alone”. This year, he dropped an exclusive song that was only available on his tour called “Fool,” a lingering, self-deprecating track that traverses the territory of love that many of us may unfortunately be familiar with. He tacked that song onto his brand new EP Pilaje, a soothing yet sad project that finds JMSN at his most effective.
He croons with his head in the clouds as surging electronic production pulses beneath him, but after a couple of listens you start to feel as if you’re living inside his heart, not his head. It’s an emotional project with heavy overtones, but it never gets old. The more JMSN, the better, right?
Kwabs is perhaps the most singular artist on this entire list. He’s been selling out shows throughout the UK with only two songs on his Soundcloud. Scavenge Youtube and you’ll find that he’s recorded a cover of the James Blake song “The Wilhelm Scream” and a slow, ultra-jazzy song called “Lay Back,” as well as a couple of other jewels.
His voice is a unique baritone which comes from Gospel roots but is laid over buzzing electronic production on songs like “Spirit Fade” and “Last Stand.” He’s garnered critical acclaim from Zane Lowe and has gotten love from India Arie and Jessie Ware, and while you may not have heard of Kwabs (unless, of course, you frequent the pages of P&P) Atlantic Records liked him enough to offer him a deal, so you’ll be hearing his debut proper in 2014. For now, get on the Kwabs train before it leaves you in the dust. This is soul-crushing but cathartically uplifting music unlike anything else.
Wherever Robin Hannibal goes, you want to follow. Way back in 2006 he recorded the groundbreaking album Living With Owusu & Hannibal, which made international pop music a sensation on the indie scene. This year he dropped the devastating Quadron album Avalanche with bandmate Coco O and then teamed up with Canadian singer Milosh for what started as an anonymous project.
What followed was pure ecstasy. They posted videos on Yotube for “Open” and “The Fall”, which remain two of the most moving tracks of the year. Those songs were released under the pseudonym Rhye in an effort to downplay image in exchange for music, plain and simple (the industry could use a whole lot more of that downplaying). That led to Woman, an album that draws it’s likeness from Sade’s luscious voice and Hannibal’s masterful grasp of epic, intimate, slow-tempo music. The melodies throughout the project are some of the most lasting in recent years and the production quality is as high as it gets, so we can only hope that Rhye continues to craft such inspirational art.
Artists across all genres are getting smarter by the minute, and Fifty Grand is an artist who not only knows how to translate a feeling through her music, but also how to maintain just the right amount of attention throughout the course of a song. Each of the four songs on her stunning Join You (The October Demos) revolves around a tight song structure that arcs like a story with a distinct beginning, middle and end. Most of the music on her gem of a Soundcloud page shares similar narrative attributes.
When she released Join You on Bandcamp, Fifty Grand had this to say about the project:
8 months ago someone close to my heart died tragically and unexpectedly. I took to music for healing purposes and made these songs. I can’t imagine revisiting them now and working them to a different level of completion, so here they are, untouched as of when they were created last October.
Thus, the songs not only deal with death, but were made in the wake of a personal tragedy, and therefore add a layer of meaning to the listener’s experience. Everything you need to know is in the music, though, and that’s the sign of an incredible artist.
L.A.-based duo Skin Town are made up of vocalist Grace Hall and producer Nick Turco (Zola Jesus’ live synth player), and they really seemed to come out of nowhere with a wonderfully fully formed debut album, The Room. It’s a hazy, sexually charged record full of post-Weeknd R&B, but with beats that hit harder, and synths that cut deeper than Abel Tesfaye’s recent output.
Listen to the whole thing below.
You’ll notice that many of the artists on this list have been impacted by Frank Ocean and The Weeknd, two decidedly different R&B acts who dominated the genre last year. Joel Compass lands on Abel’s side, complete with falsetto vocals and moody moaning. He released his Astronaut EP on Island Def Jam this past year, and tracks like “Fucked Up” explicitly refer to drugs, failed relationships, and growing despair.
The South London singer distances himself from The Weeknd with less self-indulgent howling and a slightly more traditional vocal style, but the pounding, smoky production on “Amazing” definitely uses House of Balloons as a jumping-off point. His voice has incredible low-to-high range, and that’s his clear strength. With a Pusha T remix already to his name (apparently requested by the rapper himself), Joel Compass could be the next breakout R&B star.
Autre Ne Veut
Sparkling, starry synths introduce Autre Ne Veut’s astounding new album, Anxiety, and thus begins a soulful, gut-wrenching journey through the life of Arthur Ashin, the New York singer/songwriter who produced this entire album of pop and R&B.
There’s a fragility to his voice as it pours out of him into songs like “Counting,” which look to counteract the raw emotion of the album with hopeful anticipation. Recorded with the help of Ford and Lopatin, Anxiety builds from one song to the next—“Ego Free Sex Free” starts with hand claps and soft choir harmonies, and by the end it’s a colossal, synth-sprinkled mountain of a track. He’s mentioned that the album encompasses the last three years of his life, and going off the music, it was one hell of a roller coaster. Do yourself a favor and play Anxiety often. It’s one of the most dynamic, rewarding albums of the year, and contrary to its title, it might actually help you relax.
Mapei is hard to pin down. She has Solange’s ear for song structure with a touch of M.I.A.’s combative rebelliousness, and although she dropped her debut project four years ago, it’s the end of this year that has seen her really buzzing.
In November, Mapei released “Don’t Wait,” a song that she describes as “21st-century gospel doo-wop,” and it’s a drastically pop-oriented departure from her earlier work. Fingersnaps, robotic backing vocals, and a more daring chorus revolve around dance music inflected beat (Kingdom did a catchy remix, too), and gone are the raps in lieu of soulful bursts of energy. The change of direction seems to be gaining traction—as of today, it has over 650k plays on Soundcloud.
British singer Moko is taking a much different approach to R&B than most others. Her buzz was sparked when Chase and Status, a British electronic duo, saw her perform on Boiler Room. They asked her to appear on their single “Count On Me,” which ended up peaking at No. 5 on the UK Singles Chart. She followed that success with her debut Black EP on Chase and Status’ MTA Records, drawing comparison to trip-hop deities like Massive Attack.
Moko has the kind of voice that you’d hear sampled on huge dance tracks, like a modern day Donna Summer. She grew up on gospel and soul records and she sang in church on Sundays when she was young, but her shape-shifting new music reflects the frantic pace and manifold influences of her hometown London. She’s an electrifying talent who’s only just getting started.
Imagine an artist who had the arena-busting voice of a country star, but was operating in R&B instead. Njomza has that kind of quirky, out-of-place sound that floats effortlessly on the rap-tinged beats provided mostly by Chicago producers THEMpeople, and her GOLD LION mixtape is a prime example of how well those sounds merge together. She’s reminiscent of Ariana Grande (complete with a Mac Miller guest feature), but her sultry voice is more mature than Ariana’s, and perhaps more weathered. It’s undetermined where exactly she can fit in, but she’s only one hit single away from wider popularity.
Solange’s True EP from last year is still sending waves throughout the indie sphere in 2013, so she took advantage of the rising tide and grabbed Kendrick Lamar for an internet favorite, “Looks Good With Trouble.” Her own personal output, however, is less important this year than the people she’s been putting on via her new record label Saint Heron. The imprint’s first release was the Saint Heron compilation, which brought together vocalists like Jhene Aiko, Sampha, Kelela, and Cassie along with several other lesser-known artists like India Shawn, Starchild and Petite Noir. It’s a move that only the most important figures in any given genre can pull off, and it’s cool to see such a popular artist use her reach to put newer artists on. That’s the kind of spirit that keeps music scenes popping.
London continues to bless us with musical talent, and this time it comes via Nigeria in the form of the outrageously talented Azekel. He has a classical bent in his voice, channeling Frank Ocean and thus emphasizing a more raw, less touched-up vocal style. His first pair of singles, “That Feeling” and “A Song To An Unborn Child (Delilah),” carved out sonic space for Azekel to lay it down and paved the way for his proper debut, the Circa EP. The cover is an ode to Otis Redding’s 1966 album Otis Blue, so it stands to reason that Azekel considers himself a throwback, but producers like Youan, Blaksmif, Adelight and Vincent Perez ensure that he’s backed by electronic screens of sound. Studio effects play a larger role on the EP, but they do little to distract from the raw natural power of his voice. Azekel one to keep an eye on in the near future.
Every artist that appears on this list has taken a color from Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dream, the knockdown album from last year that continues to ripple throughout the sounds of others. The ascendant, slinky Marvin tribute that is “Adorn”; the unabashed honesty in “Pussy Is Mine”; the crispy slow grind of “How Many Drinks?.” In a year where Miguel’s killer leg-drop was what got him the most headlines, he’s been touring non-stop, currently performing with Drake and Future. Kaleidoscope Dream is so influential that Miguel has barely done any music this year, and he’s still partly responsible for making things hot in R&B.
Thanks to his vocal prowess, “Power Trip” became one of the biggest rap singles of the year, while Kendrick Lamar felt the need to drop a couple bars on “How Many Drinks?” and Janelle Monae secured an uncharacteristically down-tempo collaboration with “Primetime.” On top of all those contributions, he managed to hit Adult Swim off with “Can’t Sleep Together”, which finds his vocal register lowered a couple notches for a change of pace. The guy is a certified star off an album that’s over a year old. There’s no doubt that he’s continuing to keep R&B interesting in 2013.
One look at inc.’s cover art for no world tells you everything you need to know about the music contained within: overcast, muted, but with a hint of brightness. Every rainy day makes the indoor possibilities endless, and the Aged brothers seem to have made the most of their studio time with songs like “no place”, the upbeat lead single. That song evokes the spirit of Maxwell, soulful and delicate, while also entering the realm of contemporaries like How To Dress Well and Rhye with its rich, bleeding-heart observations.
Innocence and youth are amongst the album’s themes, while sonically the brothers also mix crisper drums in with the generally smooth production. “black wings” swells with reverberating strings while “desert rose (war prayer)” sounds like a more tuneful cousin to King Krule’s guitar-driven sound. inc. dabble with different sounds throughout the 11-track album but plush production mixed with whispered vocals are what makes the music float around in your head, like wisps of cloud across a crisp blue sky.