Circling Back to “Alternative R&B”
by Damon Pham
I am twenty-three years old. Statistically, on average, the music I like most is already behind me.1 I might be in-the-know about the latest hits, but rarely am I of them, it feels. This frustrates me because of my residual entitlement: I’m still coming off the high of having been within the music industry’s most commercially catered-to age bracket. Maybe, here and there, I’m able to place my finger on the pulse of the sound of today and quip a diagnosis, but to actually sense any of it beating within my own chest? Unlikely.
At least there’s a flip side: now I can place my favorite music within hindsight. Sure, memories deteriorate and sentimentalize, but to behold something fully in frame it helps to have distance from it. Without it, narrative collapses into play-by-play. And when are we prompted to look back? When we fall, tripping on some paradox in a story we’ve been telling ourselves, a skip in the record. Or when we sense something has left us, and are unsure if it slipped from our lives just now or much earlier, its fading presence unseen. My favorite music, since I was a teen, is—to an extent, to some people—labeled “alternative R&B,” and with all the maybe-misguided authority of a twenty-three-year-old male music fan, let me try to convince you (and myself along the way) that we got it wrong, just a bit wrong, that what this term refers to used to be sort of nothing, and now is sort of everything.
“Alternative R&B” is hard to pin down, but perhaps that is not unusual for a contemporary (sub)genre. I’ll try my best anyway. My understanding of its definition is multilayered. First, the word “alternative” connotes recency, a DIY ethos, more experimentation, more subversion, less polish, and less commercial scaffolding than R&B, in the same way that “alternative” does in “alternative rock.” (Of course, many “alternative rock” and “alternative R&B” acts have since found huge commercial success, to the extent that “alternative” has become a marketable keyword.) Second, critics and music enthusiasts mostly agree on a few distinctions that set it apart from contemporary R&B.2,3,4 It’s more atmospheric: the percussion, vocals, and harmonic elements are filtered and meshed together in unfamiliar, blurry ways. There is more (ungated) reverb and more distortion. Samples are reversed and stretched out. The acoustic guitar is set aside in favor of digital pads and keys. The drums are electronically-programmed, off-kilter, and effect-ridden, offsetting any dreamy languor imposed by the other components with syncopation and surprise; still, the mainstays of contemporary R&B percussion which bookend the frequency spectrum remain endemic: powerful 808s and scintillating high-hats. The lyrics are more introspective, philosophical, or outright impenetrable. A song about sex might not sound sexy. It draws greater influence from hip hop, garage, electronic music, and indie rock. (These are all only patterns, of course, and not criteria set in stone.)
So if you like the genres it allegedly draws from, you might like “alternative R&B,” which emerged in 2011—along with its short-lived pseudonym “PBR&B,” which references the hipster-loved beer5,6—as journalists, critics, and fans attempted to classify music made by acts including How to Dress Well, The Weeknd, Frank Ocean, Blood Orange, and Janelle Monáe.7 A piece for the Village Voice8 highlights Frank Ocean and The Weeknd, back then thought to be “a Canadian collective,” as its torchbearers: Frank Ocean’s lyrics are “progressive” and conversant with rock and pop samples9; The Weeknd’s debut is “spacious, moody R&B deconstruction.” Both auteurs share a “vaguely secretive but accessible sensibility,” and both have built their fanbases online with Tumblr feeds and free album downloads. Its description of “alternative R&B” renders a negative image of contemporary, non-alternative R&B as a genre which is more commercially pre-packaged, veneered, and uncomplicated. Fair enough?
Maybe, maybe not. Right from inception of “alternative R&B,” voices of opposition arose from both sides of the ontology it induces: opposition against delineating some of its acts from the rest of R&B, and opposition against identifying others as any type of R&B at all. “Alternative R&B” is almost as contentious as, well, “R&B.”
The “R&B” genre began as the “Harlem Hit Parade” in the 1940s, a Billboard survey of Harlem record store sales, and morphed into “Race Records,” “Rhythm & Blues,” “Soul,” “Black,” and then back to “Rhythm & Blues” in the 1990s.10 (Somewhere along the way “Urban” also gained traction as a term referring to both R&B and hip-hop.) Thus the original, de facto definition of R&B was music made by and for African Americans, and throughout its history any actual sonic distinctions compared to other, “whiter” genres were either flimsy (in the 1950s, as R&B and rock & roll were only beginning to diverge), apparent (the 1990s, I think), or nebulous if not historical (today, as contemporary pop and R&B have become just barely distinguishable). It is an unresolved debate whether a name like “Black” or “Urban” rightfully recognizes the contributions of those who have developed an art form, or whether the practice of delegating genre on the basis of demographics is outright inappropriate.11 Also, when any genre label is invoked, it is not always clear why: the artist’s vocal delivery, instrumentation, lyrics, harmony, mixing & mastering, creative community, inspirations, audience, venue, and past work all could be pointed to. Someone labeling a track as “R&B” could be a lazy racist, or they could be carefully tracing its sonic threads back to historical landmarks and signifiers in R&B.
The choice of one genre over another is also not inconsequential. Long, long ago, when music was discovered primarily through the radio, a song’s format would effectively limit who might listen to it. A white artist like Pat Boone could repeatedly cover black artists’ songs, making tons more money because he was being played on pop radio, while also snatching the creative creds since many listeners didn’t even know the songs weren't his. The segregatory distinction between R&B and rock or pop directly enabled economic grift.12,13 All in all, with “R&B” you have a label that appears discretionary, that has had discriminatory effects, but that also presently indexes some kind of sound, as well as a long tradition of music-making, a potential source of pride for Black Americans.
So the applications of “R&B” are complicated, and reason enough to be suspicious about a term like “alternative R&B.” When the latter is used to stress a disconnection from the former, it can reveal limits placed on the definition of R&B: is R&B such a static concept that we need to come up with a new subgenre to encapsulate these artists? Maybe R&B is being confined because the critic or fan disdains it: “What’s That Racket? Are Rihanna’s Euro-disco leanings leaving you cold? Does Chris Brown’s appropriation of polished EDM beats make you feel dirty? Do Will.i.am’s grating auto-tuned vocals make you want to perforate your own eardrums with a blunt implement?” Hardeep Phull asks, like an hysterical barbershop quartet in rising harmony, in a 2012 New York Post article praising the rise of “alternative R&B.”14 He cites another critic who joins in on the beat-down, contrasting “alternative R&B”’s ambitiousness, intelligence, and creativity with contemporary R&B’s “David Guetta beats over really dumb and cheesy lyrics.” Their conception of contemporary R&B is wildly skewed: the previous year alone included releases from Mary J. Blige, Boyz II Men, Jill Scott, Marsha Ambrosius, and Kelly Rowland; anyway, Rihanna’s Loud and The Black Eyed Peas’ The E.N.D. are more pop than R&B, if at all. Phull also mistakes passing trends in many genres of music at the time, namely EDM-inspired production and transparent autotune, with features inherent to R&B: even Taylor Swift was making dubstep in 2012!15
Many more strike a similarly troubling tone. Two critics on the New York Times “Popcast” celebrate Tinashe and FKA Twigs because R&B “needs an infusion of new ideas,” some “new meat on it.”16 A positive review of Autre Ne Veut’s Anxiety thinks “it’s such a formidable work that tagging it with the R&B name is to strip it of what makes it such a groundbreaking experience.”17 (The reviewer prefers to think of the album as “pop music for people who like contemplating deeply about pop music.”) A feature of “alternative R&B” artists in The Independent18 writes off contemporary R&B as formulaic “girls and guns,” and quotes someone who deems it a ‘bland, fairly tiresome music form, which wasn’t particularly innovating.” In a similar feature for Vibe, a critic ventures that alternative R&B acts are “more cosmetically highbrow”19 … that’s not even the most eyebrow-raising offender: an article in TheGrio concludes, “Darwin’s theory of evolution suggests that complex beings evolve from more simplistic predecessors over a period [of] time. Considering how disappointing the majority of mainstream R&B releases have been over the last several years, it would seem that R&B’s theory of evolution works exactly the same way.”20 For the author, simplicity is weakness, a sign of deserved extinction. And with “alternative R&B” having a greater proportion of white artists, the whole survival-of-the-best-fit thing reeks of you-know-what.
This-genre-is-better-than-that-genre takes are part and parcel of puckish music discourse. Still, the zero-sum game some people play when comparing “alternative” and contemporary R&B is cringeworthy at best. We should be able to celebrate the unusual production choices and thematic elements of “alternative R&B” without denigrating the endeavor of making a “pre-packaged, veneered, and uncomplicated” contemporary R&B hit, right? There are times when we want dancing and romancing panned center, and crafting songs that fit the bill with consistent commercial success is not easy. This is not even to get into the wealth of experimentation21 and variety (from “Quiet Storm” to “New Jack Swing”) within R&B’s past. Furthermore, while I agree that in the early 2010’s some “alternative R&B” acts offered relief from the womanizing, heteronormative tones of some contemporary R&B acts, The Weeknd and a few other “alternative R&B” acts made no improvements in this regard, unless you count adding drugs to the equation as an improvement.22 It’s also not like rock, electronica, or other genres were brimming with feminist, queer iconography either, so the complaint seems to belie a double standard.23,24 All this, combined with the awful, long history of people devaluing R&B, should lead us to avoid framing celebrations of “alternative R&B” as criticisms of contemporary, non-alternative R&B, to avoid overemphasizing their separateness when, really, the former is a subset of the latter.
And then there’s the separate problem of labeling an artist “alternative R&B” when they are not, or not just. In a 2011 interview for The Quietus, Frank Ocean asks to be recognized as a singer-songwriter instead of an R&B artist: he says “the former implies versatility and being able to create more than one medium, and the second one is a box, simple as that… If you’re a singer and you’re black, you’re an R&B artist. Period.”25 If he were white, people would listen to his same songs and say “‘yeah, he borrowed from R&B but it’s not just R&B—it’s a lot of things, and you can’t just call it R&B.’” Nonetheless, music enthusiasts continue to refer to him most often as “alternative R&B” to this day.
Over the next few years, Frank Ocean is joined under the “alternative R&B” banner by FKA Twigs, Kelela, Solange, Jai Paul, Nao, Tinashe, and Rhye, to name a few. A 2014 interview for The Guardian quotes FKA Twigs voicing similar complaints as Ocean26:
“When I first released music and no one knew what I looked like, I would read comments like: ‘I’ve never heard anything like this before, it’s not in a genre.’ And then my picture came out six months later, now she’s an R&B singer. I share certain sonic threads with classical music; my song Preface is like a hymn. So let’s talk about that. If I was white and blonde and said I went to church all the time, you’d be talking about the ‘choral aspect’. But you’re not talking about that because I’m a mixed-race girl from south London.”
It’s important to recognize that neither Ocean nor Twigs denies having R&B influences and elements in their music27; rather, they object to the disproportionate application of the R&B-centered framing of their work, based on their race.
Plenty of critics and fans agree with Ocean and Twigs, generously offering further explanations. Says one, “the work these artists put out is demoted by the prefix ‘alternative’ because it implies that while the R&B aspect of the music is neither intellectual nor innovative, there is still something there that is interesting.”28 Another continues: “It throws side-eye at the genre, while at the same time claiming to have discovered something worthy within it. To call someone ‘alternative R&B’ is pretty much the ultimate musical negging: it feels like it’s not so far away from saying, ‘This is innovative… for R&B.’ It allows curious outsiders to have their say while still maintaining a spectre of segregation.”29 A writer for The Awl takes a different, efficient angle: his article’s title quips “You Say Hipster R&B, I Say Nappy-Headed Pop. Either Way, It’s Offensive.”30 All three and others31 concur that “alternative R&B” is, at the very least, vague: “alternative” in what way?
I agree with this last concern. I also think that “alternative R&B” is sometimes used as a privileged staging area for black artists: when Phull says that Ocean’s Channel Orange “has not only set a high bar for modern R&B, but inspired reams of praise from the indie-rock world,” note who is asked to improve (R&B) and whose critical judgement matters (indie-rock). The New York Times “Popcast” suggests that “low-level R&B stars” are those who are popular with black audiences only; a review of Kelela’s Take Me Apart in The Daily Texan says that “minor slipups aside” (too much reverb, autotune, and general effects in his opinion), Kelela “makes a strong argument that she deserves a place amongst” the alt-R&B echelon32; the feature in The Independent continues the thread by suggesting that some “alternative R&B” acts are so good that they might even “have a shot at crossing over into the mainstream.” A stepladder progression is implied, going from R&B, to “alternative R&B,” to pop. As a black artist, you are lucky to be labeled “alternative R&B,” and if you work hard enough to fulfill criteria you may not even ascribe to, you just might be able to achieve true, “pop” success: the approval of white audiences. Basically, I take issue with the slippage from celebrating a wider audience to celebrating a whiter audience; the two could go hand-in-hand, but one (whiteness) would just be a consequence of the other (wideness), rather than a motivating goal in and of itself.
Despite all these problems with “alternative R&B,” at the outset of writing this piece I had mixed feelings about an outright exorcism. Most importantly, a few of its detractors seem to take for granted that R&B is a guilty pleasure, a lesser genre: shouldn’t that idea be demolished instead? The word “alternative” doesn’t necessarily imply that R&B is “neither intellectual nor innovative,” as one critic said. The opposite could very well be true: compared to the alternative sub-genre, non-alternative R&B might be seen as first-rate, untainted, the real deal. It all depends on your bias. Historically, yes, R&B has been denigrated by those with greater cultural leverage on average, but let’s push back against this stereotype rather than assume it is immutable.
I have to say, I was also held back by how useful the “alternative R&B” umbrella has been to me personally, as a fan. Like others,33,34,35 I really, really enjoy so much of the music dubbed by others as “alternative R&B,” and although the genre’s definition is loose (even given the looseness of genres, as they are), it’s not made of thin air, it does refer to a certain collection of sonic attributes. Without a singular “alternative R&B” label, maybe I would not have discovered some of my favorite artists. I remember my music streaming app kept playing songs by Jessy Lanza after it saw I loved Kelela and FKA Twigs. I was annoyed at first, but after a few open-minded listens I became hooked, and now I’d easily say her album Pull My Hair Back is my favorite of all time. I think I discovered Smerz, PARTYNEXTDOOR, Bryson Tiller, and Erika de Casier similarly. Being on the lookout for “alternative R&B” while reading Pitchfork reviews (yeah yeah, save the eyerolls) introduced me to Klein, Tirzah, MHYSA, Kacy Hill, and KeiyaA too. And in writing this piece I’ve also recently stumbled upon songs from Miguel, How to Dress Well, Jeremih, and Autre Ne Veut which I would hate to forfeit from my heavy rotation. The looseness of “alternative R&B” directly enabled me to discover this wide variety of music: it’s beneficial that artists can flexibly move between genres, but it’s also beneficial that genres can adapt to subsume new sounds over time—much of the ontological controversy I’ve presented boils down, I think, to these two factors being in opposition. Lastly, I must add that “alternative R&B” led me to deliberately explore the older sounds of R&B, bringing me in connection with Alexander O’Neal (and others who worked with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis), Sade, Brandy, Janet Jackson, Ashanti, SWV, New Edition, and Jaheim. If “alternative R&B” had been named something else outside of “R&B,” that may not have happened.
So—what to do with “alternative R&B”? You may be surprised that, in spite of my loopy rambling, I have a straightforward answer to offer. It comes in two parts. First, I think an artist’s own classification of their work should take precedence over all other methods of genre assignment. If Frank Ocean wants to be recognized as a singer-songwriter more often, let’s respect that. FKA Twigs said her EP1 has choral elements, so I think it would be awesome if someone were to revisit that album and explore it deeply from that musicological angle. Sure, this policy opens the door to artists mislabeling their work, even deliberately, but so what? A violin solo filed under drum-and-bass would just be dragged for having not enough low-end.
Citing multiple genres, instead of aiming to classify a song (or worse, an artist) under a single genre, is the second half of my proposal. Fatma Wardy really elucidates the benefits in her article for gal-dem as she lists “alternative R&B” artists36:
“Kelela is very much working in the framework of what I’d describe as ‘House R&B’; tracks like Beyoncé’s ‘7/11’ certainly have elements of what could be called ‘Trap R&B’; Blood Orange is undoubtedly ‘Funk R&B’; while Frank Ocean is probably the closest to incorporating the introspectiveness of indie music to his brand to make ‘Indie R&B’.”
Her descriptions, though brief, are strikingly accurate to me. Under a multi-label system, we can still connect these acts to the legacy of R&B, and especially to each other (they all have in common major influence from at least one other genre, the status of being a hybrid), while also being more specific about what we’re discussing, rather than relying on a catch-all term like “alternative.” Under this system we can continue that Jessy Lanza mingles footwork and R&B; Smerz merges electronic, R&B, and classical; KeiyaA finds new resonances between hip-hop and R&B; and so on. In other words, I think we should use genres as tags, not as boxes. Many music databases already do so, but perhaps we could be more explicit about the abandonment of mutual exclusivity when we assign genres.
These two suggestions, then, leave no room for the continued use of “alternative R&B.” Despite what it’s given me, through writing this piece I’ve become okay with getting rid of it, I swear, and another reason why is because it’s not really anywhere to be found today. Rather than coalescing together, its supposed forerunners seem to have dispersed like seeds of a dandelion. And that’s okay. As of late 2021, The Weeknd is making hyper-commercial new-wave synth-pop; Frank Ocean is hawking million-dollar jewelry37; and FKA Twigs and How To Dress Well have released albums which seem to originate from unnamed, alien planets. Moreover, the “alternative R&B” movement of the 2010’s seems to have pollinated its adjacent genres, blurring any boundaries that may have once existed. Interiority, vague relatability, and a rejection of perfection are just as common in R&B and pop nowadays. In fact, I’d argue that a large portion of today’s pop is that indie/R&B sensibility wrapped up in trap/R&B-oriented production, plus a bit of rock, lo-fi, or whatever else it ends up actually getting labeled as. Contemporary R&B songs like Normani’s “Wild Side”38 are using crazy-cool electronic manipulation, and even former One Direction members are making airy, bass-heavy songs that I’d have once hazarded to tag with “alternative R&B”: ZAYN’s “Let Me”39 and Liam Payne’s “Rude Hours.”40 The latter song comes off of Payne’s album LP1 (not to be confused with FKA Twig’s debut album); its lyrics have gotten41 so42 much43 flack for being comically gross, but for reasons I don’t have enough space here to defend, as with many of my favorite “alternative R&B” songs, I’m so enamored by its dreamy, escapy, dare-I-say romantic atmosphere…
Okay, and we have these four streaming app playlists: an “Alternative R&B” playlist45 with subtext that says “these progressive R&B and soul tracks can’t be put in a box,” as it goes on to, well, put them in a nice box for us, haha. There’s “POLLEN,”46 which maybe I stole the whole pollination metaphor from. Its subtext says “Genre-less. Quality first always.” Next, a catalogue of music played inside H&M stores.47 And lastly, “Soft Office,” music for intimate, homely study corners.48 I bring these up because, if you blindly choose one of them to shuffle-play, I think it would take a while to make a good guess as to which one you’re hearing. In 2021, what was once maybe the “alternative R&B” of the 2010’s is as everywhere as H&M outlets; it’s simply part of the backdrop for today's musical moment. The “alternative R&B” genre had its time, for what it was. It did its job like—let’s try a different metaphor—the bones of an odd beast, its marrow now extracted into the soup. What’s left of the bones tastes like the broth now, and the broth has since gained a new suggestion of umami, of something taken from somewhere.
So there: “alternative R&B” began as a controversial gesture to a certain pattern of creativity involving R&B in the early 2010’s, and by the early 2020’s its project seems to have dissipated into all kinds of corners of popular music. It was sort of nothing, and now it is sort of everything, as the author of that Village Voice piece appears to have predicted: “At the moment, Ocean and the Weeknd feel like revolutionaries. They’ll be gobbled up and reprocessed soon.” I still really, really like the type of track that others might file under it, but I myself will try to talk about its R&B aspects in addition to its other influences, rather than point to the ill-defined, “alternative” space in between all of them, where none are clearly referenced, where nothing but that track itself might actually exist.
To close this out, I feel like I owe you a little bit about why I like R&B so much. But I can’t give you the little bit without telling you the whole lot, and I’d like to ramble on and on, so it will have to wait until we meet next time. In between now and then, though, here are a handful of albums to check out from this year:
︎ Heux Tales by Jazmine Sullivan
︎ Believer by Smerz
︎ Sensational by Erika de Casier
︎ Be Right Back by Jorja Smith
︎ 333 by Tinashe
13) Imposing the distinction still bears consequences: see the discussion of Megan Thee Stallion”s “Hot Girl Summer” in the previous citation. Also see Corinne Bailey Rae's wonderful “Put Your Records On” and the cover by Ritt Momney; I think the latter actually made a good effort on his own part to credit Bailey Rae, but to be honest, the appeal of his cover eludes me...
22) Some say The Weeknd’s House of Balloons is a critique of “hegemonic masculinity” which connects drug abuse with “emasculation”(https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1367549414526730), but this should appear tenable only in a funhouse mirror: that’s simply not how the vast majority of his listeners engage with his music.
24) Not to mention feminist or (closeted) queer singers further back in R&B history, such as Gladys Knight and the Pips, Dusty Springfield, Luther Vandross, and Whitney Houston.
27) For example, FKA Twigs cites Prince as an influence: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pe4eTsTcyEc