With R’n’B in the midst of a resurgence, there’s been an upswing of artists pushing the genre out of the shadows of hip-hop. And it’s the ladies who are doing the heavy lifting of getting R’n’B back to its soulful roots. From Queen Naija to Kiana Lede to VanJess to Amber Mark to Sabrina Claudino to Alina Barez, there’s a breathtaking array of voices emerging and captivating listeners, seemingly by the minute.
“People are quoting my lyrics and telling me, ‘Oh, this is my diary,’ [and] have gotten them tattooed on their body and told me the music has gotten them though depression,” says HER, who is up for five Grammys, including best new artist and album of the year. “This connection people have felt to my music is so special to me. I didn’t expect to do it. I’m very proud of that.”
Here are some of other the risk-takers pushing R’n’B into the future.
After flourishing in Danity Kane and the hip hop fusion project Diddy-Dirty Money, Richard’s solo career has seen the singer-songwriter morph into a serial disruptor. In her idiosyncratic approach to R’n’B — which she calls “genderless, colourless and genreless” — Richard doesn’t just break rules, she sets them ablaze. Her ‘Heart’ album trilogy made room for electronica and experimental art pop. In her upcoming “new breed” she returns musically and spiritually to her native New Orleans.
“To walk out into the world as a woman of colour and try to innovate in a world where there is no colour at all is such a risk,” Richard says. “If we decide we want to do pop music, that’s a risk. If we want to do electronic music, another risk. If we want to do alternative rock, dear God. Every time we are counted against. It makes me proud to see so many black female artists that are unapologetic in who they are break out. Our voices have been stifled for too long.”
A great deal of R’n’B’s resurgence over the past year can be attributed to the breakout success of Mai’s debut single, ‘Boo’d Up,’ a syrupy groove that conjured the brightness of 90s R’n’B that earned the young British star the longest-running No 1 on the R’n’B/hip hop airplay for a woman. Mai went from singing Instagram covers to working with DJ Mustard, whose frosty minimalist beats anchor the singer’s sweet and sultry harmonies. Her commitment to the moods and textures that defined R’n’B during the 80s and 90s is inherently clear in her self-titled debut, a collection of richly assured down-tempo jams and smooth grooves directly informed by the last three decades of R’n’B.
“I wanted to make music that was super relatable,” she says. “Hearing people say things like, ‘Oh, my God, your song changed my life’... it stays with you.”
TARRIONA ‘TANK’ BALL
Tank comes from the great school of Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Joi and Leela James — vocalists who inhale soul and spit it out back out with the power of every fibre in their body. She’s the frontwoman of Tank and the Bangas, a wildly adventurous collective that deftly fuses R’n’B, soul, hip-hop, funk, soul, jazz and slam poetry and is anchored by Tank’s ferocious voice. She’s as nimble a lyricist as she is a vocalist. One minute she’s unpacking sinewy couplets and rhymes with fury and the next she’s wailing like she’s at a church revival. Though Tank and the Bangas’ infused R’n’B plays beautifully on record, the group’s live showing is an otherworldly experience that’s essential viewing.
“It’s like I’m painting,” she says of her performance style. “Lots of fun imagery comes to mind... We truly have a lot of fun, it’s like a recess — only on stage. [It’s] a peek into our world and how we are in everyday life ... it’s colourful, vibrant, alive and fresh.”
“I just need it now, better swing my way... I just need some love,” Summer Walker sings on ‘Girls Need Love.’ Her full command is unprintable here, but that’s the beauty of the raw, straightforward R’n’B from the Atlanta upstart. The merging of R’n’B and hip hop has been distilled through the male gaze for so long that women like Jhene Aiko, SZA, Kehlani and, now, Walker dropping songs where they sing freely about their own sexual desires has felt like an overdue breath of fresh energy. Walker’s debut, ‘Last Day of Summer,’ sizzles with a startling intensity as songs play like hushed conversations late at night.