In this day and age, especially in regards to music, the genre is a moot point. As technology progresses, more and more sounds and styles become available to us, which will change not only the sound of a genre but the aesthetic of it too. No genre in this day and age embodies this more than R&B.
Much like progressive Rock achieved in the late 60’s and early 70’s, R&B has gained the music sophistication and critical respect it lacked for so long, due to a shift in the way specific “R&B” artists arrange and present the music that they create.
Following on from Janelle Monáe’s The Archandroid, Frank Ocean’s nostalgia, ULTRA was one of the first in a continuous wave that has managed to completely reshape and redesign the genre’s style.
Spending years as a songwriter for the likes of Justin Bieber and Alicia Keys, Frank Ocean would make his first splash when he released his first album as a mixtape in a response to the lack of faith his label had shown in him, in what would be a career-making move. It created a small ripple that would later be added to by the likes of The Weeknd who would release a legendary trilogy of mixtapes detailing his escapades into the underworld of Toronto’s nightlife, and then Miguel, who would find his footing as an artist with Kaleidoscope Dream, after years of hitting just below the bar.
Both nostalgia, ULTRA and the Weeknd’s first offering House of Balloons would build the foundation that would later give the two a cult status, and while the latter has gone onto to become an established pop star, both are great examples of this shift. In presentation, they both offer a strong aesthetic that gives an inkling into each projects’ themes; nostalgia has a BMW E30 M3 in bright orange – which would later become synonymous with love in relation to Ocean’s work – while Balloons, styled almost like a newspaper clipping, shows a naked woman in a bathtub, her face hidden amongst floating black and white balloons. The black-and-white photo seems to capture a moment during a party, but the covering of the girl’s face creates a sense of obscurity and mystery that would surround the Weeknd for the rest of 2011. The 80’s BMW model, on the other hand, offers just a taste of Ocean’s alternative sensibilities and interests.
The music contained in both projects itself is revolutionary in different aspects. The Weeknd’s mix of indie rock samples on plush, pop-friendly production with what was once described as an “androgynous falsetto”, is commonly dubbed PBR&B, a reference to Pabst Blue Ribbon – a beer favoured by hipsters – a label that is almost entirely related to the Weeknd himself, and not his contemporaries. Ocean’s brand of neo-soul, which favoured inch-perfect detail in songwriting and interludes that samples (‘Streetfighter’, ‘Metal Gear Solid’, and ‘Soul Calibur’), as well as others that shun Jodeci in favour of Radiohead, was somewhat of a revolution, in similar fashion to that of D’Angelo over a decade earlier; it was R&B made with a Hip-Hop mentality, and was especially appealing to those who were appealed to by the hipster sentiments of Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco.
To put it bluntly, by the end of March in 2011, we had the aesthetic of Alternative R&B (the Weeknd with House of Balloons), and the soul of Alternative R&B (Frank Ocean, and nostalgia, ULTRA).
It speaks volumes of both projects that they are still useful when introducing somebody to either artist’s music, especially when you consider the leaps and bounds both have made in the four years since. Balloons remains as one of the Weeknd’s best projects – arguably one he hasn’t been able to top – and offers a glimpse into a darker, drug-fuelled life that Beauty Behind The Madness just can’t touch, both quality and content-wise. nostalgia has one of Ocean’s best displays of narrative and story-telling to date (‘American Wedding’), a slightly off-key Stanley Kubrick sample (‘Lovecrimes’), and offers the first hint at the singer’s sexuality (‘We All Try’).
Together, both projects show two sides of R&B that are great examples of why it is the new alternative genre; both push boundaries in relation to sound and scope, whilst at the same time possessing a unique quality that makes their own brand of what we call “R&B” have such crossover appeal. The Weeknd himself has ascended to pop stardom without sacrificing what makes him great, and the likes of Zayn Malik and Troye Sivan are just a few of the names that have emulated Frank Ocean in one way or another, and while it isn’t known as to when Ocean will emerge from hiding, you can rest assured that he will return with something innovative that swings the pendulum in a different direction – much like Miguel or Janelle Monáe continue to do in his absence – and justifies why he is one of the most critically acclaimed artists of modern times.