A few years back, a critical mass of musicians started making R&B steeped in the sort of art-damaged signifiers indie rock has traditionally claimed as its own. This wasn’t the first time rhythm & blues had pushed boundaries; legendary figures from Curtis Mayfield to Prince to Missy Elliott managed to get some of the most mind-bending sounds of their respective generations on the radio. Still, the sheer number of musicians making R&B their vehicle for sonic exploration demanded attention: How To Dress Well’s bleary dreamscapes and the Weeknd’s nightmarish seductions; Solange Knowles and Blood Orange’s stylish retro dance-pop; darkly crystalline R&B-inflected electronica from Holy Other and Purity Ring; Technicolor psych-pop concept albums from Frank Ocean, Miguel, and Janelle Monaé. As Nitsuh Abebe noted in a roundup of this emerging trend — God bless you if you’ll join me in letting the acronym die — some of these musicians were arriving through traditional R&B channels (usually the black performers) and others through traditional indie-rock outlets (usually the white ones). They were unknowing co-conspirators, not a unified movement. That’s partly why this wave of R&B innovations felt so big: Black musicians were experimenting with traditionally white sounds at the same time white musicians were experimenting with traditionally black sounds, all of them blurring into a new R&B avant garde that was far too colorful to be described as gray. The accidental scene was, to borrow a word from Miguel, kaleidoscopic.

By 2012, R&B was a flourishing subgenre within underground music. Its reach has only continued to expand since then; two years on from a year that made R&B fans out of indie-rock dopes like me, R&B is feeling more and more like alt-culture’s new normal. It is no coincidence that Ariel Rechtshaid, a producer who scored his biggest hit with Usher, was behind several of the most acclaimed and successful “indie” albums of 2013. The underground (and the segment of the mainstream the underground claims as its own) is far too diverse to be reduced to just a continuum between Rhye’s pillow talk and Autre Ne Veut’s computerized soul abrasion, but that continuum does exist, and it has become a favored sweet spot among the bedroom virtuosos and urban cool kids that tend to drive musical trends — not to mention some of mainstream R&B’s foremost superstars. The likes of Drake and Beyoncé are prisms, soaking up their favorite experimental sounds and refracting them back into the underground. Art-school musicians are just as likely to cite those two as primary influences these days as Ian Curtis or Lou Reed.

As such, new musical acts performing R&B with indie sensibilities are springing up all around the globe. From Austria via England there is SOHN, a sighing, skittering hi-tech balladeer. From England via California there is Banks, a stylized, sad-eyed seductress emanating ominous vibes in the Weeknd’s wake. From California via Holland there is Young & Sick, a visual artist turned digital Daryl Hall with a flowing blonde mane to match. The list goes on: Portland producer Shy Girls copies How To Dress Well and covers Brandy. Stockholm’s Naomi Pilgrim, a former backup vocalist for indie-pop singer Lykke Li, churns out gurgling, morphing, crystalline soul tracks. London fashion freak FKA twigs splits the difference between Bjork and Aaliyah. Ontario’s Jessy Lanza trades in sleek electronic slow jams akin to Junior Boys, a group that helped clear the way for this movement a decade ago with its breathy synthetic comedown music. These R&B upstarts run the gamut from dramatic (Movement, Doe Paoro) to breezy (SAFIA, Jacques Greene) to off-kilter (Kelela, Matthewdavid), and they are legion.

As this spring’s album release schedule has evidenced abundantly, even those whose sound started out nowhere near R&B are jumping on the soul train. White Hinterland’s Casey Dienel, whose Wikipedia photo pictures her strumming a ukulele, has taken the next logical step from the synth sounds of 2010′s Kairos to the vocal trills and big bass of Baby. Six years ago she was playing coffeehouse jazz and operatic folk-rock, but the current has carried her to songs like “Ring The Bell,” which could pass for an unpolished Rihanna in a pinch. TEEN, the sister-driven Brooklyn combo that two years ago specialized in rumbling fuzzed-out psychedelia, has taken a page from that other sister band and openly embraced their breathy ’90s idols on the new The Way And Colour. The resulting psych-R&B of songs like “Not For Long” is fascinating and inventive, in part because it forces TEEN’s fuzz-crunch and head-trip elements to fight for space with the airy soulful bounce. The Way And Colour is in line with the flavor of the moment, but it has its own flavor too.

Boots, the producer behind much of last year’s vaunted Beyoncé album, has released a steady stream of dusky R&B singles this year, including one actually featuring Beyoncé, but not that long ago he was making Cults-like kitchen-sink indie pop under the name Blonds. Wye Oak’s transition away from moody guitar spasms toward moody bass-synth grooves — lead singer Jenn Wasner’s response to a falling out with her guitar — has been well-documented, but it’s more of a change in clothing than a change of heart. Wasner’s dalliances with R&B under the guises of Flock Of Dimes and Dungeonesse were far more radical genre adventures. Still, the distance between Shriek’s bass wallops and those that still reverberate through indie rock’s more abrasive corners feels formidable. Even the fiercely individual Merrill Garbus can be found dabbling in R&B on her new tUnE-yArDs album Nikki Nack. The deep cut “Wait For A Minute” trades tUnE-yArDs’ usual yawps and polyrhythms for something mellower and smoother, a sort of boom-bap sequel to Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl.”

Earlier on Nikki Nack, Garbus sings, “When I see you changing, it makes me think that I could change too,” which just about sums up the climate. R&B is the “floppy on top, shaved on the side” of genres right now, the default way for indie-rock artists to shake up their aesthetic without risking sounding out of step with the times. It’s like going trip-hop in 1996 or “IDM” in 1998 or dance-punk in 2002 or freak-folk in 2004 or chillwave in 2009 or synth-pop in 2011. And just like those trends, some of the music will stand the test of time while some of it will sound impossibly dated in just three or four years the same way bands that ripped off Merriweather Post Pavilion sound dated now. That’s not to say everyone experimenting with the sound is doing so cynically; Wye Oak’s Wasner has made it clear in plenty of interviews that she felt paralyzed by her band’s established sound and needed to follow her muse wherever it led her. Others might finally feel free to indulge impulses that once would have been wrongheadedly rejected as “guilty pleasures.” Still others might simply have heard Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness Is The Move” or Frank Ocean’s “Pyramids” and experienced a bolt of inspiration; after all, what is any creative endeavor if not a response to the creator’s environment?

Now that R&B more or less is the environment, though, its time as the underground’s de rigueur creative catalyst is surely nearing conclusion. It’s hard to imagine the indie-rockers who’ve come late to R&B in search of a creative jolt sticking with it as a long-term proposition once the freshness wears off, and some of the key initiators of the movement are already moving on. Look no further than How To Dress Well’s Tom Krell, whose latest single is closer to space-age soft-rock than the ghostly R&B he pioneered. His sound became the template for countless copycats, and rather than become calcified in that sound and risk disappearing into a SoundCloud of imitators, he is pressing on, leaving others to hammer his advancements into clichés. Abel Tesfaye, whose initial releases as the Weeknd felt so fresh despite feeling so musty, would be wise to forge a similar path lest his bleak, druggy sex tracks devolve into self-parody. He so thoroughly plumbed his aesthetic on his initial trilogy of mixtapes that by the time he got around to releasing his official debut album, he has exhausted the possibilities of that signature sound. These days the likes of Jeremih and Shlohmo are beating him at his own game.

This is how it always goes. Genre fads come and go, but each one contributes a few permanent fixtures to the festival circuit, stars who transcend their trend. We saw it happen with chillwave — the innovators moved on to new sounds and remained viable, and those who stayed too closely aligned with the sound of a passing moment were banished to obscurity. In this case, it seems likely that Ocean, Miguel, and Monaé will endure because their careers hinge less on the trend that lent them extra visibility than the timeless quality of their songwriting and/or performances. Solange and Blood Orange have established similar star power on an underground level. Others might manage to last, but if they do, it will be by virtue of the dynamism that made this wave of R&B feel so exciting in the first place. A kaleidoscope remains alluring only as long as it keeps moving.

Comments (54)
  1. I enjoyed the analysis, and I think that’s interesting that you suggest it may be a fad bubble within the genre right now. I would love to see a side-by-side or a comparison to the rise in indie R&B and the new, largely-female fronted electronica scene (CHVRCHES, MS MR, HAERTS) that seems to be intentionally borrowing some of those R&B stylings in the singing, yet intentionally rejecting the instrumental backing for more driving music. I feel like Purity Ring and the Wye Oak transition mentioned might serve as an especially interesting comparison point… just a thought.

  2. Nothing is more underground than Beyonce’s sister.

  3. What exactly is the point made by this article? That three years ago people noticed a trend and they were right and the trend has happened and now there are lots of people doing the trendy thing? You don’t seem to have any real critical line on the trend other than its cool to “do R&B” now, and some of it is good and some of it is bad and some of it is meh.

    • I read this article. I read it again to see if I missed something. I don’t disagree with the feelings about where modern R&B is, but then again, I didn’t entirely get the purpose of this article whatsoever even if it’s just n “essay” post. But then again, Chris is always trying to tell us when things end and begin. Soon, he will be telling us the emo revival is over, then he will tell us that the “monogenre” has self-destructed or something.

      So pack it up, R&B! Stereogum’s Chris Deville says its done!

      On a serious note, it’s sad that Solange has dragged her feet so long to put out an album, because where she once was at the forefront of the movement, a lot of people have caught up to her game.

    • To the author: That’s cool you finally noticed R&B. You should write an essay about it.

  4. I would be more positive about this trend if Drake didn’t make me want to kick him in the teeth every time I hear his voice.

    • Whether you like it or not, Drake helped spawn this sub-genre. While a lot of people attest it to Kanye’s “808 and Heartbreak” album, if it wasn’t for Drake using the minimalist R&B he used on his “So Far Gone” mixtape, one could argue that this movement never would have happened.

      • Perhaps both Kanye and Drake(even though, no, I don’t like it) could be seen as breaking new ground with 808′s and So Far Gone, but they are both indebted to the lonely days and nights of Scott Mescudi.

  5. Any reason Jai Paul wasn’t included among the artists mentioned in this article? To me, he’s the most exciting artist working in this expanded realm of R&B.

    • Word. Jai Paul may not get the most popular nods. But if there was one artist whose music from this “fad” will “stand the test of time”, for me it’s Jai Paul.

  6. This debate is essentially what allows music to continue to find ways to be relevant under its own umbrella. Classic examples are The Stones doing it with Robert Johnson/Muddy Waters, or you’d argue Chuck Berry and the Beatles along that line, too. A band who has the ability to take an existing soundscape and transform it their own will always be labeled as trailblazers, and the robbing and stealing will always evolve from that point, sometimes in influential ways, and other times in purely plagiarizing ways.

    In the case with current R&B, the ‘egg’ is an easy one…Motown. Sure it was a cocktail that had a dash of Gospel, little blues and so on, but Barry Gordy lit the flame and popularized it. You can certainly argue that the white influence of Elvis or even The Beach Boys helped bridge the sound, but really, R&B will always resurface in weird ways off its origin, and I think its because of how adaptable the core beat can share. I truly the think the next level started with Grand Funk, later Sly and ultimate Michael and also, who I believe is the pure revolutionist in any R&B discussion, Prince. And, the bands you mention above (which are all so fantastic) and merely taking this beautifully mutated strain, and finding ways to hit the refresh on it.
    The thing is that there are too many influences to be able to nail down one or another that’s responsible (and way over my head anyway). I tend to think this current ‘movement’ isn’t saturated, frankly, that’s top 40 radio’s job to do that…..take a new sound and cookie cut it until the true pioneers of the time simply leave due to feeling guilty by association.

    In the meantime, keep the new Frank Ocean, Weeknd, How To Dress Well, Blood Orange, Janelle Monae, Ryhe, Purity Ring & Miguel music coming. I will gladly stay aboard those innovative soul trains. Its the same method of transportation only instead of coal driving me down the tracks, its electricity.

    • We can all trace this back to 1984 when “Purple Rain” was released and call that the TRUE start of the alternative R&B movement if we really want to get technical. Maybe even “1999″ or “Controversy”.

    • Or Huey Lewis & The News with blues, soul, and synth portion of 80′s prog rock?

      (sorry, been listening to the re-release of ‘Sports’ a bunch this week)

      • Still waiting for the indie rock world to give Sports its due –– a wave of Huey-inspired bands (or “newscore,” as I like to imagine it being called) would be a breath of fresh, middle-of-the-road, snyth-soul air. A critical reappraisal of Mike and the Mechanics is also long overdue, but unfortunately I have a feeling that “All I Need is a Miracle” for that to happen.

    • As far as Prince goes, I think you have to start with Dirty Mind and it’s blend of R&B and new wave. But there’s always been alternative or underground aspects in black music – Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix and Parliament Funkadelic jump to mind as artists who popularized aspects of this.

      Anyway, I’m digging the cross-pollination of all this too, but I’m more excited by the influence of ‘indie’ on R&B than the other way around (as much as I like Autre Ne Veut, James Blake, etc.). R&B and hip hop became safer and more conventional as they grew more mainstream through the 90′s and into the 00′s. The creativity and idiosyncrasy I fell in love with by artists from James Brown to A Tribe Called Quest was harder and harder to find (Outkast seemed like an outlier, and a rare bright spot). But this resurgence in experimentation and all-around freakiness in R&B music makes me excited for what’s coming next.

    • Er, Grand Funk?!

  7. “That’s partly why this wave of R&B innovations felt so big: Black musicians were experimenting with traditionally white sounds at the same time white musicians were experimenting with traditionally black sounds.”


  8. Whenever discussing this topic, I always like to bring up the idea that this movement didn’t start in 2010, but in 2009 by The-Dream. While the entire album wasn’t alternative R&B, some tracks showcased early examples of what I believe The Weeknd and Frank Ocean later used as influences. Check out “Love vs. Money Pts. 1 & 2″ and “Fancy” on his sophomore album “Love vs. Money”. Maybe I’m over thinking it too much, but I like to give credit where credit is due.

  9. Interesting article, but I disagree. To me, saturation means staleness and a genre reaching a point where it can no longer innovate.

    Im the perfect case study for this. For most of the 2000′s was a typical indie hipster, Pitchfork and Stereogum fanatic. Then Nostalgia Ultra and Weeknd’s Trilogy hit in 2011 and most of my listening time from 2011 onward has been listening to the R&B sounds of Weeknd, Miguel, The Dream, HTDW, JT. I now listen to pop and r&b almost exclusively.

    I find indie r&b, or pbr&b, or just pop in general in 2014 to be as adventurous and inspiring as I did in 2011. I find the genre to be moving in exciting ways. I think R&b will be similar to indie in general. 2004 indie sounds nothing like 2014 indie. And 2011 R&b has evolved into 2014 r&b. I don’t think that means saturation. Because if that was the case, indie as a genre, in general, would have become stale and over saturated, in 2004 or something.

    Pitchfork nailed it in 2011, when they reviewed Love Remains, and said, essentially that this lo-fi R&b album would have a profound impact and cause a bunch of people to start recording their own r&b albums in their basement.

    3 years later, and we’ve seen that happen. Im as psyched about what i’ve heard in those 3 years, as I ever have been. And am looking forward to any other similar albums that come down the pike this year.

    • wow almost every thing in this comment happened to me. *solidarity nod*

    • We could also just call it for what it is: Pop music is simply more hip and in style with the ruling majority of listeners (who would happen to be the people who consume trend more so than than dig it up by themselves) than genuine indie music is right now. Pop is also being written better and produced better than it was during the 2000s era you mentioned where Pitchfork and Stereogum bands defined listeners’ coolness. I think people are still interested in indie music, but the cynic in me thinks that a lot of it was just trend following for the sake of feeling like an interesting / different person in front of friends and impressing girlfriends / boyfriends, and now that a lot of those lines between genuine indie and pop have been blurred, those people get to have it both ways and it’s more obvious to them. I can’t really blame them either. When a “Thrift Shop”-ripping Ariana Grande single gets Best New Music on Pitchfork, you know the bar has been lowered to allow for tons of room for error and never getting it “wrong.” (Thanks Stereogum alum, Corban, for that by way. SMH…)

      Part of me thinks this is because artists who came of age during that 2000s indie powerhouse era realized they could make a better career off of the thing by selling their talents as songwriters, producers, session players, etc. to pop artists and labels who wanted to sound “indie” in a genuine sense rather than struggle as buzz bands.

      • How would you say pop is being “written better and produced better” now than a few years ago? Are One Direction, Avicii, and Demi Lovato better than Outkast, Gnarls Barkley, and Lady Gaga? You could just as easily flip it and say Lorde, Drake, and Disclosure are better than Nickelback, Soulja Boy, and Matchbox 20. I don’t know how one assesses how pop has gotten “better.”

        • Look at the top two hot 100 tracks right now and tell me it’s gotten better

        • It depends how you are defining pop. If you are talking about radio hits / Hot 100 music, then we aren’t talking about the same thing. I am talking about pop as a GENRE, and not pop as in “what’s selling / popular to the masses / sitting on top of the Billboard Hot 100″ (although a lot of the musicians I am talking about still sell really well.)

          The current state of pop music is best reflected in this past year’s Coachella lineup: Lana Del Rey, Disclosure, CHVRCHES, HAIM, Lorde, Ellie Goulding, Pharrell, the 1975, BANKS, Solange. Off the top of my head not on that lineup, throw in Charli XCX, Robyn, Sky Ferreira. All of those artists are on major labels so you can’t make the case that they’re “indie” versions of pop, and yet
          they get a very healthy amount of critical acclaim and attention as opposed to 10 years ago when what all you had access to was American Idol winners, Avril Lavigne, Fall Out Boy and Maroon 5 while Robyn was releasing her music independently because she had lost faith in the major label system.

          Again, if you’re turning on the radio and using that as your reference of pop, then we aren’t talking about the same thing.

          • I think that has a lot to do with the blurring of the lines of mainstream and indie, that Stereogum and everyone has covered for several years now. There sort of isn’t an indie scene anymore. Pop acts appear on Stereogum and Pitchfork “best of” lists. Someone like Pharrell is the perfect example. He’s worshipped by both indie fans and gets played on your local pop music station.

            I just think music changed. I don’t know when that happened. But, theres really no genres or boundaries really. Your teen sister is into Charli XCX, Disclosure and Pharrell. My parents know who Pharrell is. And someone like Justin Timberlake is seen as an arbiter of coolness by both girls, but also guys too and has massive amounts of critical acclaim along with his clear commercial popularity.

            Things have changed.

          • This comment thread has me completely confused, I could have swore the article I just read was about R&B and not about pop. Also, I may be wrong, but I’m pretty sure the two aren’t interchangeable.

          • Going to have to disagree about one big thing: Stereogum and Pitchfork aren’t truly independent music websites anymore. They’ve sold out, kicked the old guard of Rolling Stone out and have become the mainstream press themselves, overrun by corporate advertising even though they allow writers with PhDs in independent music writer for them — Again, that’s like Beyonce’s team wrangling in hot indie producers and writers to bolster her cred. There are no lines to be blurred on these sites’ end between pop and indie, however, because they’ve already established themselves as outlets that cater to commercializing music just as major labels want them to, so seeing pop music on them should be expected at this point and will in all likeliness increase. There is always going to be an indie scene, and it will be whatever the cool kids and larger tastemakers are ignoring.

            Said it once, and I’ll say it again: Pop is just in fashion right now and it will go out of fashion eventually. The pop music machine felt left out when Pitchfork began to empower small bands without major label deals and barely any marketing, putting them at the top of the charts and making them the main attraction at music festivals, so the pop music machine hijacked its talents, its devices and its aesthetic for its own to cut its legs out from under it and kid consumers that . Maybe not next year, maybe not in five years, maybe it’ll take another decade just like it took that long for us to recover from late ’90s TRL tastemaking, but the indie scene will come around again.

  10. Its interesting to note as a Grantland writer did last year, that indie fans in 2014 are as likely to be bumping the new Beyonce, JT, and Lorde, as they are the newest obscure indie band.

    Saturation to me means the genre can’t evolve anymore. If we as a movement and culture have no accepted, JT, Beyonce, and everyone else as amazing music deserving of praise, which I think is the case, then I don’t think the movement has stopped growing. I think its still expanding and altering and changing.

    Its just now bands, as the article suggests, are as likely to be fans of Drake and Bey as they are some new Pitchfork endorsed band no one knows about

  11. Damn you lot left out Jesse Boykins III & FKA twigs. Jesse’s been doing this for sometime now, his debut LP came out recently too. People are sleeping on my boy!

  12. Interesting that FKA Twigs is in the “R&B with indie sensibilities”. I tend to look at them more as being part of a British lineage all the way back to “Blue Lines”. What Massive Attack could be doing right now, in fact. Anyway, I think their EP was fantastic, and I hope to hear more of them soon. As for the rest, time is the best way to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

  13. I guess Jamie Lidell is too old and not melancholic enough to fit into this wave of generation Y*90′s kidz*triphop*my life is hard*so I display everything on social media*yes let’s use cold lead soft synth and dress kind of gothic*and etc.

  14. I’m enjoying this whole R&B thing, I don’t want it to end. :( In my opinion much of this genre split off has yet to strike; Frank Ocean’s new record is due pretty soon and I’m awaiting that Banks record with baited breath. FKA should announce an album soon as well, there are lot of examples.

    • I don’t want the R&b thing to end either. Its what indie needed, a needed shot in the arm. But i’m obsessed with all the bands mentioned in the article and in the comments here as well. R&b is amazing in 2014.

      • Agreed. Rather this than another revival of a sebgenre from 20-30 years ago, which are starting to become revival revivals. Not that that is bad.

  15. Ian Cohen’s dreadful review of SOHN’s album (which I am really enjoying, by the way) made a similar point that is made in this piece. The sumarrsing quote: ‘all of these exciting fusions can result in “indie” albums based in pop and R&B and electronic music that are every bit as dull as your average Pavement or Yo La Tengo derivative from 1996.’

  16. Has anybody mentioned Inc. yet?

  17. Sorry, I skimmed the article and couldn’t find any mention of YEEZUS, so I figure this must not be a real Stereogum think-piece.

  18. Good article. There was a confusing error in your last paragraph though. “…Ocean, Miguel, and Monaé will endure because they are their careers hinge less…” The title of the article was slightly misleading but I enjoyed how you chronicled the whole resurgence of r&b in indie rock. I assumed the article would elaborate on how the sound has become somewhat oversaturated due to indie rock’s obsession with it. If anything it’s reached a peak where the emergence of more bands/artists that use it as a niche sound will only lead to a brief collapse for all trendy acts involved, which do not include your Monae’s, Ocean’s,etc…

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  20. i think its this youth generation in general. Ariel has worked with a lot of wide ranging stuff i like from Sky Ferreira, to HAIM, and my favorite folk tunes from Cass Mccombs. indie-pop music in general seems to be about anything and everything retro right now. I love the 80′s sound and aesthetic so I can’t really complain. its like the coming of age generation all over again. Breakfast Club. Meanwhile mainstream radio-pop listeners have just found out about EDM via Katy Perry, Gaga, and even rap??? (Pitbull)

  21. I don’t have much of a big picture comment for indie vs R&B/pop but I just want to say that the new TEEN record is amazing and Frank Ocean was meant to make R&B

  22. Uh, Active Child?! He basically started this whole thing (and is also my favorite of all of them) and he’s not even mentioned?

    Also there’s a Bastille-level knock off called Aquilo that just came out with an album. Basically the furthest distillation of indie R&B you can get.

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