Especially given the juggernaut success of Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience albums, 2013 was a big commercial year for all things R&B and soul music. But you can’t exactly call it a banner year artistically. 2013’s biggest records were blue-eyed soul artists strategically looking in the rearview mirror: besides JT’s MJ fetish, there was Daft Punk’s Chic-throwback and Robin Thicke’s Marvin Gaye-throwback. But why stop there? There was Ariana Grande’s Mariah-throwback on Yours Truly, Ciara’s Aaliyah-throwback on hit single “Body Party;” and R. Kelly’s throwback to himself on Black Panties. More eccentric R&B, fused to weird electronic sounds and twitchy beats, irrevocably changed the sound of the genre in 2013: artists as diverse as AlunaGeorge, Blood Orange, Solange, James Blake and Jessy Lanza delivered significant contributions. If that alternative R&B came off too detached or robotic-sounding for you this year, you could always opt for gut-wrenching vets like Charles Bradley or delicate crooners like Daley. Here’s a look at five memorable songs that suggest the state of R&B in 2013.
“Blurred Lines,” Robin Thicke feat. Pharrell and T.I.
If you were breathing in 2013, you couldn’t escape hearing this retro disco summer anthem. But the reputation of the year’s most Shazam-ed song has already come into question, first by the way critics railed against its ambiguous, possibly pro-rape lyric, and then by the claims of Marvin Gaye’s estate that “Blurred Lines” infringes on the late singer’s classic 1976 “Got to Give It Up.” The question of whether “Blurred Lines” is a total rip or just a friendly homage is a legal conundrum for the courts to sort out. But Thicke has already damaged some public goodwill by seeming to further a long, bitter tradition of white artists stylizing the work of black innovators without giving proper credit or financial remuneration. (To say nothing of the way he’s been tried in the public courts in 2013 for his ill-advised twerking session with Miley Cyrus at MTV’s VMAs.) Still, no other tune in 2013 — except for that other disco summer anthem, Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” also featuring ubiquitous Pharrell — was as purely galvanizing and pleasurable on a musical level. 2013 might be remembered by some as the year when “blue-eyed” soul ruled. But Thicke is nothing if not consistent: he also made his 2002 debut with “When I Get You Alone,” a propulsive groove pop tune crafted on the success of an earlier disco hit (Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven.”) It’s audiences who’ve finally caught up.
“Hurt You,” Toni Braxton and Babyface
The ’80s and ’90s’ most creatively gifted and prolific R&B songwriter-producer, Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds delivered his best work writing songs that gave dimension and diversity to women’s emotional issues — as on his 1995 magnum opus, the all-female performed Waiting to Exhale soundtrack. Babyface’s writing and production hit machine reached its peak with his musical marriage to husky-voiced Toni Braxton; unfortunately their streak of chart success in the ’90s came to a close on the heels of her bankruptcy while signed to his LaFace label. Now that the Braxton family has rebranded itself thanks to reality television, Braxton is a household name again, and she and Babyface have announced plans to re-unite for a full-length duet album set to drop in 2014. “Hurt You” is the preview single — a delicate, bass-bumping midtempo that feels no need to break new ground. Instead, it’s satisfied to remind us that emotionally invested, mature, grown-folk R&B is enough on its own. To my ears, “Hurt You” is every bit as smooth and seductive as Drake’s Toto-esque 2013 smash “Hold On, We’re Going Home” — and it doesn’t sound as if it’s sung by a mannequin.
The U.K. godfather of nu-soul, Omar Lye-Fook was delivering soulful sounds over broken, jagged funk grooves long before it was universally fashionable. His music continues to be a reminder that it was the U.K. soul renaissance of the ’80s and ’90s (Sade, Paul Young, Wham, Soul II Soul, Human League, Lisa Stansfield, etc.) that first carved out musical and sonic space for the U.S. renaissance that followed in the ’90s via artists like D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and J. Dilla. Though Omar was recently bestowed with an MBE, he’s never really received his full due outside of select markets and R&B collectors with sophisticated tastes. “Simplify,” the near-classical debut single from his 2013 The Man, finds Omar’s wise tenor floating over a nerve-twitching groove and intricate pizzicato synth patterns. Recalling bits and pieces of mid-’70s Leon Ware as much as post-Songs in the Key of Life Stevie Wonder, The Man is the undeniable work of a master of his craft. Fans of D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange should hear this album once; even Welsh bassist and D’Angelo collaborator Pino Palladino makes a cameo.
“Guns & Synth,” Kelela
One of the biggest R&B stories of 2013 was the mainstream return of deep groove and disco; another was the continued artistic development of the so-called “alternative R&B” sound, led by eccentric cross-Atlantic female cultural rebels like Alice Smith, Laura Mvula, Solange and Dawn Richard. Los Angeles transplant Kelela is quickly becoming a critics’ favorite of the movement, especially on the heels of her 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me. What her introspective soprano lacks in technical depth, soulful heft and professional polish, it makes up for in emotional urgency — Aaliyah had that same fragilility, that same dark trouble at the core. Drawing on the recipe of experimental electro-R&B that Brandy and producer Rodney Jerkins cooked up in the early ’00s, and matching it to innovations in minimalist techno and post-dubstep, Kelela and her visionary producers like Girl Unit and Bok Bok (most of whom are associated with the label Fade to Mind) are pushing the envelope of what R&B can potentially sound like. “Guns & Synths” is all moody atmospherics; I’m tentatively emboldened by the sonic future it suggests.
“The Apple,” V V Brown
Innovation in R&B has shifted in the last 24 months or so away from hip-hop influence toward the retro synth-robotics of groups like AlunaGeorge and Disclosure. Jamaican-Puerto Rican Brit V V Brown’s sound has evolved too: she caused quite a stir when she released her debut in the late ’00s, and she’s now come back in 2013 with Samson & Delilah, an electronic pop soul album that’s just as bold and artsy as anything Little Dragon or Robyn or Lykke Li has delivered of late. What I love about her singing on the bubbling, majestic “The Apple” is that arch, imperial attitude, halfway between throaty Grace Jones and operatic Victoria Wilson-James. Given her model looks and sonically evocative music, V V Brown has, of late, become quite the fashion icon and brand collaborator; let’s see if her music catches on with a wider global audience.