The Rise of Alternative R&B


Sabrina Claudio at the Roxy.

Alexandria M. Santiago, Contributing Writer

As I walk through campus, I feel my pace begin to match the slow mellow beats of the Omar Apollo song ringing through my 3-year-old Skullcandy headphones.
I definitely haven’t caught up to the present AirPod trend, but as “Unbothered” ends and Daniel Caeser fluidly picks up the melodic vibe with a new song, I know that I’m on trend with this new music wave.
As a nineties baby who grew up listening to Ryan Seacrest announcing the hottest summer singles on 2-hour road trips to Ocean City, I’m familiar with alternative R&B’s predecessor.
It was Beyoncé who taught me how to distinguish my left from my right and Aaliyah that encouraged me to pick myself up and try it again, if at first, I don’t succeed.
TLC let me know how to avoid a scrub and honestly, I wasn’t gonna let anyone love me right unless he was Mario. I’m well versed in any #ThrowbackThursday song that’ll make your heart lurch and bring you back to a time when it was socially acceptable to have a crush on Chris Brown.
It was these artists and many more who contributed and shaped the early 2000s wave of R&B music as a genre that glorified love and chastised those who couldn’t love right.
While I compile my Throwback Summer playlist with these artists, I float over another playlist titled, “Alternative R&B”. Generated by Spotify, I take note of the artists and songs they qualify as members to this fairly new concept and indirectly realize the most obvious contrasts in the progression of this genre as compared to its past.
Rather than songs that exuded feelings of love and heartbreak, recent music labelled as R&B takes a more introspective approach to its lyrics.
Tones of alienation and excess have been the resounding topic of the music labelled underneath Alternative R&B. The Weeknd is the best example of this and has been one of the most celebrated artists within recent years. He consistently releases singles that are looped on local radio stations and streamed number 1 in numerous countries.
Although love and desire are not lyrically present in the same format as early 2000s artists, have traditionally done, as the genre of Rhythm and Blues, there is still that ever-present sense of longing.
The greatest contrast in the variations of this genre is that these feelings of longing aren’t centered around a single person of the opposite sex.
Instead, we identify with songs that address our personal concerns with finding peace in loneliness, substance abuse, or with our insecurities.
The contrasts don’t stop at subject matter for the distinctions between these different sounds. The key comparative point is the progressive electronic element often placed behind the voices of these artists.
They are reminiscent to a more EDM sound that makes the new approach to this genre so unique. There seems to be a delicacy in the approach to the music that plays behind the voices of these artists.
While often discredited for being “PBR&B” or “Hipster R&B”, you cannot deny the obvious artistry used in the development of these songs. The lyrics are thoughtful and the music is emphatically fresh and current.
While Alternative R&B is only present as a mere sub-genre on Spotify, I argue that the artists that have manifested their careers from this sound have dominated the R&B scene and have contributed to a consistent sound that has been widely accepted into the public sphere.
Artists like SZA, Frank Ocean and Miguel have since released groundbreaking albums from less than five years ago to now, that have contributed to the evolution of this alternative approach to R&B.
I look forward to the development of this new phase of a beloved genre and encourage its growth. As Alternative R&B continues to expand and encompass new artists with unique sounds, I urge you to take notice to this rise. Not only for the established voices of the genre, but also for underrated artists like UMI, Xavier Omar, Sabrina Claudio and Dijon who are very deserving of a place on your Vibes playlist.