Featured in
Issue 202

A New Generation of R&B

Recent R&B albums by Kelela, Lafawndah, serpentwithfeet and Solange tune to newly radiant blues

BY Harmony Holiday in Music , Opinion | 19 MAR 19

And so, we obsess over the early-morning blue of screens and skies in our new songs and choirs. We join blue light’s origins and create myths that might rescue us from its dominance; we resist the lop-sidedness this light activates in our physiology with the involuntary, near-manic optimism and engagement that the colour demands. The azure light is always muttering a grammar of almost, of already, of forgone conclusions; of Kaamos, or the dayless daysof January and December in the Arctic. It’s cold with the promise of a coming bloom.We tune to blue’s mischievous radiance in an effort to protect our own. We rarely make it to high noon in this never-ending synthetic blue dream. As poet and performer Gil Scott-Heron wrote, or predicted, in 1971: ‘I think I’ll call it morning from now on.’

Recent albums of soi-disant R&B music – including Kelela’s Take Me Apart (2017), Lafawndah’s   Ancestor Boy (2019), serpentwithfeet’s soil (2018) and Solange’s A Seat at the Table (2016) – occupy this upward-spiralling, ever-present blue in order to reinvent the blues, and blues people, in the image of the near-constant emanations of this stolen light, as a matter of self-preservation. These artists use feral, vengeful and benevolent afro-mythocratic charm to convince synthetic tones to deepen and transmute the new electromagnetic auction block. Take, for example, Solange’s légère sweetness as she repeats the lyric ‘don’t touch my hair’ in the eponymous song from A Seat at the Table, which gives her blues a lift, a hospitable loosening and lucidity mid-indictment of those who would touch her as they search for the texture they lack or don’t understand. She offers both polemic and melancholy in response to the life of being groped for and over-studied that black people often face; and she decides she does not have to sound sullen to have the blues. But this is the genre’s new capacity – an ethereal optimism, even in the midst of trauma. The popular R&B artists of the 1990s and early ’00s, singers like D’Angelo, Sade and Jill Scott, provided a clear connection to crossroads blues; devil-got-my-woman blues; so-jubilant-I-could-cry blues; deep-southern-black, pleading-the-blood blues. But a new wave of hybridity has shifted the genre’s fixation on its roots to make space for the exploration of how we assimilate light, information and feeling. 

serpentwithfeet, 2018. Courtesy: Tri Angle Records; photograph: Ash Kingston

This new wave is cooler in its affinities: it is the colour of the technology that informs its surrogate cosmos, it is the soft bluing screens blurred by a search for soothing or redemption. ‘Daddy’, the first single from Lafawndah’s debut, Ancestor Boy, uses our collective electromagnetic/electroacoustic condition to access that tribal sky formerly denied. It soars there in airy ruminations and renunciations; she promises the changing wind, the patriarchal, the old guard. ‘The chip on your shoulder will not be mine,’ she sings, exposing how she views the inadequacy of that guard’s arrogant bluing. The ‘Daddy’ is conjured as a form of patricide, a tonal disavowal, a clear grievance in the pitch of an invocation as if to express: ‘Fine, bring it.’ We get the sense that the album will consider the divine feminine within the blue-blind African diaspora and beyond, and that the goal – if there need be a goal beyond beauty and truth – is to calm and reassure us into a new illumination, a new relationship with light, a realization that what we idolize and gather around as it stands might be toxic and inherently phantom. With ‘Daddy’, we are at the start of a captivating ritual, an epic that transcends the more straightforward spells of past R&B sound.

Serpentwithfeet, Lafawndah and many others in this new R&B idiom situate themselves as the heroes and anti-heroes of their music. They have successfully rebranded the genre and, in doing so, enact a series of events that repairs the web of time where it has been broken. The new blue sound allows more of what some call ‘black joy in the hour of chaos’. To accomplish this, the artists dive into the traumatic and chaotic and spellbound with talk-singing, often lilting light-hearted elocution, with a sense of both belonging to the blues tradition and surrendering to a new dimension of hope and colour within that legacy – they harness this oceanic new blues to buoy themselves. When the music changes this drastically, we are changing.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 202 with the headline ‘Spellbound’

Main Image: Lafawndah, Ancestor Boy, 2019. Courtesy: K7 Music, Berlin; photograph: Mathilde Agius

Harmony Holiday is a poet and performer. Her books include Reparations (2020) and A Jazz Funeral for Uncle Tom (2020). Her latest book Maafa will be released later this year.