We agree with FKA Twigs: “Fuck alternative R&B!”
No, not the artists commonly tagged with the condescending tag, but the term itself. The R&B landscape in the 2010s is rich and expansive — there’s no need for false dichotomies and pigeon-holing. Last year saw the return of soul legend D’Angelo and the ascensions of K. Michelle and Tinashe; this year promises albums from Kelela, Frank Ocean and (maybe even) Jeremih. We’re ready for all of it.
As part of our coverage of artists you need to know in 2015, we’re tackling R&B artists that should have big years, from West Coast Rnbass party-starters and Awful Records-aligned iconoclasts to songwriters-turned-stars and industry survivors.
More 2015 ones to watch:
20 albums coming out in 2015 we give a shit about
10 rappers to watch in 2015
10 hip-hop producers to watch in 2015
10 club producers to watch in 2015
10 record labels to watch in 2015
The 10 best albums we missed in 2014
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Awful Records’ Abra reimagines ’90s R&B with the sensibility and aesthetic you’d expect from someone who describes herself as the “Darkwave Duchess.” The London-born, Atlanta-raised singer-producer brings heat to icy, electronic productions; her songs mix seduction and spookiness as she seeks flesh like a succubus come to life. She quietly dropped BLQ VELVET last week and is already exceeding expectations.
Inspired by Aaliyah and a legion of neo-soul chanteuses, Alexandria released the slept-on Rebirth last year, emerging fully-armored like an R&B Minerva. Her creative partnership with producer-to-watch Ethereal is a fruitful one: the pair already have plans for an EP and another album this year.
London’s Clara La San popped on our radar with her contribution to last summer’s Pleasures & Qs Volume II mixtape, the gentle, lovelorn ‘Let You Go’. The artist has been quietly releasing originals (and Timberlake covers) and could fill the role that Kelela and Katy B fill for Fade to Mind and Rinse, respectively.
Bay Area talent Derek King impressed us with his pro-grade debut, Fake ID. One of the better examples of RnBass, a sub-genre that fuses pop-R&B with DJ Mustardesque ratchet. Like the best Mustard tracks, the mixtape played the ’90s nostalgia card and saw King interpolating everything from Kriss Kross to Oasis — and pulling it off.
Ian Isiah is a part of the queer club scene that birthed Hood By Air, GHE20 G0TH1K and rappers like his collaborators Le1f and Mykki Blanco. On his UNO-released The Love Champion, Isiah established himself as the scene’s analogue for The-Dream, working with the likes of Brenmar, Gobby and Sinjin Hawke on Auto-Tuned sex missives. He does club tracks (‘Sweat’) as well as tear-jerkers (‘Freak U Down’); we’re curious to see what he does on Future Brown’s forthcoming album.
Kehlani rolls with the HBK Gang (IamSu!, Sage the Gemini et al) and quietly had the best 2014 release of the entire crew. The lighthearted pop-R&B of Cloud 19 was radio-ready, the 19-year-old singer balancing youthful innocence and grown-woman business. With a nod to Montell Jordan, ‘How We Do Us’ remained one of our most played songs: a saccharine sweet duet where the male voice doesn’t undermine the female star.
This may be cheating, but we couldn’t choose just one act from Chicago’s Lo Motion camp. Spearheaded by The-Drum, everyone on the label chisels R&B jams from slabs of ice. Dre Green’s voice is pure smoke; JODY (featuring vocalists The GTW, David Ashley and Khallee) is revitalizing the guy group; Rahel has collaborated with Le1f and LSDXOXO. Stay tuned for the latter’s debut full-length, the strongest Lo Motion release yet.
With credits for Beyoncé, Tinashe and Jennifer Hudson, Lyrica Anderson is yet another songwriter trying to make the transition from behind the scenes to on the mic. She has as good a chance as anyone: her sweet voice more than carries the sex-jams that are her bread and butter. Last year’s King Me 2 relied a bit too heavily on rap co-stars, but the songs are solid — look what happens when she does them acoustically.
Mila J’s story — teenaged girl group beginnings, label purgatory, shelved debut album — is a familiar one. The older sister of R&B somnambulist Jhené Aiko, Mila relaunched her career last year with two singles that we kept on repeat: the syrupy ‘Smoke, Drink, Break-up’ and girl-love anthem ‘My Main’ (plus an appearance on the ladies-only remix of ‘Loyal’). At 31-years-old, she has the richest, most self-assured voice on this list and does a great job of navigating the rap-laced R&B world. A long-awaited debut album is expected this Spring.
The post-Destiny’s Child landscape has been tough for girl groups, but one that gives us hope for a return of the old school staple is New York trio 2NYO. Comprised of teenaged sisters Kia, India and Tiyanna, they’ve made this list on the strength of one song: summer anthem ‘Roll With Me’. Here’s hoping that familial bonds will help them avoid the fates of ill-fated industry constructions (RIP Danity Kane).