Throughout the course of my life I have not been what you would call an R&B listener. A brief history of my dabbling: I owned a cassette copy of Boyz II Men’s II because who didn’t? A year later I nabbed Mariah Carey’s Daydream on CD, mesmerized by the tree swing party that was the “Always Be My Baby” video. I bought What’s Going On during that formative music geek phase when you plow through any and all “greatest albums of all time” lists (a ritual that blurs the line between the insatiable hunger for exceptional music and the even-less-satiable ego quest to have an opinion on everything “important”). I never turned off Brian McKnight’s “Anytime” when it popped up on VH1, and TRL made sure Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?” was a key component of summer 1998. D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” got more burn than most of my iTunes library in college. I’ve spent countless hours bumping my homemade R. Kelly mix in the car. On balance, though, I haven’t been much more than a dilettante in this genre. I spent the past decade nebulously identifying as an indie rock fan; my inconsistent tangents into R&B felt more like cultural tourism than full-on embrace. Don’t ask me to flex on the Maxwell discography or rhapsodize about lesser-known oddities of New Jack Swing. I ain’t about that life.
That’s why I find it so odd that R&B has owned 2012 for me. I imagine I’m not the only one who feels this way, and it goes without saying I’m not the only one who has noticed how the winds of indie rock have shifted toward R&B at the same time mainstream R&B has been making advances toward the blog-powered underground. On both sides of the Atlantic and both sides of the radio firewall, R&B is brimming with fresh ideas and experiments gone right. A year after the initial wave of “PBR&B” trend pieces, worlds continued to collide in 2012, and the result was a bumper crop of groundbreaking, art-damaged pop music. Last year’s budding movement was in full bloom this year, and it shows no signs of withering away as we barrel into 2013. But enough about the future! Let’s marinate a little longer in the recent past.
At the dawn of 2012, if I had to predict which R&B singer’s record would absolutely own me this year, my bet would have been on Frank Ocean. Last year’s gold-hearted, silver-tongued Nostalgia/Ultra got my wheels greased real good, to the point that every last snippet of sound that eked onto the man’s Tumblr was feeding frenzy fodder during the first half of 2012. His rap verse(!) on Odd Future posse cut “Oldie” was transfixing. And when the music from Channel Orange started to trickle out, Ocean certainly seemed on pace to dominate my consciousness until the calendar expired: First came the absurdly ambitious “Pyramids,” a resplendent reincarnation epic in many movements capped off by John Mayer’s finest contribution to society. Then the sonic passion fruit that was “Sweet Life.” Then, days after the letter that changed everything, that lung-paralyzing, heart-walloping, body-can’t-stop-tingling rendition of “Bad Religion” on Fallon. When Fallon announced that the record was online a week early, I was elated. Initial listens revealed a work of staggering scope, jammed with ideas to unwind and wrinkles to explore. Some incredible songs were in there, too, evocative stories sung by a voice for the ages using a palette of sounds that could only be his. I don’t think “masterpiece” is an overstatement. It’s a brave, marvelous collection from the most exciting young voice in music, and I can’t wait to hear what he does next. In fact, I’m convinced Ocean still has something greater in him, partially because no matter how many times I try to plumb the depths of Channel Orange, I always find myself back in orbit somehow. I enjoy grappling with the tattered loose ends of genius, but every time through I feel like something’s missing. It’s similar to the inscrutable wonder I felt at the end ofThe Master, a lingering desire to call bullshit tempered by a gripping hunger to go back and experience it again.
That sort of hedging is never a problem when I rock Kaleidoscope Dream. Miguel’s sophomore stunner is complex in execution but easy to understand. It is the product of a gloriously nuanced vision, but its pleasures are plain — and really, pleasure is the only word for it. It’s not a feel-good album so much as an album about feeling as good as possible at all times, and to its infinite credit, it never fails to make me feel incredible. (This from a man whose answers to questions like “Where’s the fun in forever?” and “Do you like drugs?” couldn’t be farther from Miguel’s.) Warmly, gorgeously, and repeatedly, the singer and his production team conjured what a guy like Calvin Harris reduces to cold calculation: the invigorating rush of fully giving yourself over to the moment. It’s such a huge step forward for Miguel; his previous singles were above average, but prior to the pointedly experimental Art Dealer Chic EPs I hardly could have seen something like this coming from the guy who sang “If you be the cash/ I’ll be the rubber band” on last year’s pleasantly pedestrian “Sure Thing.” Not that lyrics are Kaleidoscope Dream’s selling point, confident and colorful though they may be. The album’s sonics are singular and sublime — a lush, woozy bed of far-flung sounds for Miguel’s falsetto to run wild in. His genre cocktail is firmly rooted in the classics, from the blatant “Sexual Healing” homage of “Adorn” to the Zombies interpolation on “Don’t Look Back.” Yet the end product is anything but retro. Sleek and modern, this multifarious music pounds and surges, mirroring Miguel’s tales of passion, adrenaline, and zonked-out bliss.
Both of these critical darlings bum-rushed the radio this year, yielding legitimate hits in “Thinking About You” and “Adorn,” respectively. Simultaneously, the Weeknd emerged from the shadows of the internet and proved himself a hook man capable of imparting his glassy-eyed, drug-fueled creeper aesthetic to the likes of Drake and Wiz Khalifa without compromising those dudes’ pop appeal. Abel Tesfaye may even be approaching some hits of his own; I heard “Wicked Games”on my local urban station the other day. Combined with Usher’s gliding, Diplo-produced falsetto clinic “Climax,” it was a banner year for forward-looking R&B in a mainstream typically defined by straightforward sounds from the likes of Trey Songz, Ne-Yo and every Usher single not called “Climax.”
Ironically, I think we can credit diametrically opposed Tumblr-era stars Drake and Odd Future for creating room for some unusual approaches. Drake blew up the genre lines between rap, R&B and indie rock with So Far Gone in 2009, and as he’s become hip-hop’s center those lines have stayed blurry enough to sneak in the occasional oddity — a Jamie xx production here, a Weeknd guest vocal there. His loud cosign helped both of those artists glean a wider spotlight. Then there’s Odd Future, whose grassroots blitzkrieg blew up the hip-hop business model. Maybe they haven’t scored a legitimate radio hit, but when Tyler, the Creator is winning VMAs, hanging out with Justin Bieber, and recording with everyone from Kanye to Miley, at least some of his anything-goes approach has to reverberate into the urban mainstream. If nothing else, he foisted Ocean into the public eye by vouching forNostalgia/Ultra on Odd Future’s Tumblr account. R&B also tends to share air space with rap, and when a weirdo like Kendrick Lamar is moving a quarter-million copies in his first week, you just know the gatekeepers are going to let some more colorful tracks on the air. Now that R&B radio has ventured outside the box, I’m eager to see who scores the next leftfield hit.
Of course, it would be foolish to limit a conversation about the glories of 2012 R&B to the music that cracked regular radio rotation. The blog world was teeming with this stuff, and while the returns were less consistently great than with the big-budget hits, there was no shortage of compelling music in this vein. (Still not sure what to call it; PBR&B is too reductive, and “bedroom R&B” just makes me think of R. Kelly — kind of like “black comedy” could mean Dr. Strangelove or Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes To Jail.) I’ve always thought How To Dress Well’s Tom Krell was a charlatan, especially after watching him whimper unpleasantly over iPod tracks in a Greenpoint church during a New York trip two years back. But Total Loss is a vast improvement over his past work, showing vibrancy and craftsmanship that far outstrips his prior stabs at shapeless, ghostly New Jack Swing. Similarly, although I don’t have much patience for the art-school talent show trappings of Purity Ring’s live set, Shrines puts those same creative inclinations to stirring use in the form of glitchy snaps and pops. The xx’s return, Coexist, wasn’t a leap forward, but it was good to hear them sighing again, and obviously Jamie xx’s extracurricular activities present a bounty of possibilities. I was dumbfounded by the beauty and distinction of Doe Paoro’s Erykah Badu-meets-Imogen Heap meditation Slow To Love and comforted by Rhye’s subtle somnambulance. Solange, who has superstar credentials but really belongs with this bunch, teamed with Dev Hynes to produce this year’s most effortlessly effervescent EP. From the sounds of early singles by the likes of Autre Ne Veut, Dungeonesse and Toro Y Moi, next year is shaping up to be just as fruitful in this field.
I haven’t even touched on Jessie Ware’s seductive modern update to Sade’s quiet storm or AlunaGeorge’s expert transfusion of the brainy and the heartfelt; both acts made a splash on the internet and scraped the nether regions of the UK charts. Nor have I referenced this year’s outpouring from R. Kelly, who contributed a traditionalist triumph with Write Me Backand an absurdist curiosity with the continuation of Trapped In The Closet. And where does a guy like Cody ChesnuTT fit into the conversation? I’m not sure I know, but I’m glad he’s releasing music again. The point is this: As a vital innovative force, rhythm and blues is alive and well. If I’m gushing here, well, so are R&B’s creative juices. The genre presented so many fascinating threads to tug on this year, threads that will hopefully keep weaving and tangling into exciting new forms and textures as this decade rolls on. Will 2013 bring Solange’s ascent to widespread stardom? Will another Jamie xx cross over into hit production? Will we finally get that new D’Angelo record? Maybe unforeseen collaborations will sprout; maybe Miguel will take Dungeonesse on tour with him; maybe Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar will release a song together, and I’ll die of happiness. (This seems like a thing that could happen.) The possibilities are endless — they’ve always been endless, really, but now they’re coming to life.