Thunder Picks #014 – R&B Special
This weeks Thunder Picks are sponsored by the letter R and the letter B, dependent on your viewpoint you might even go so far as to say they are the Anti-Thunder Picks.
However, before you adjust your set its probably worth noting the influence of R&B and Hip-hop in current house production, Im not talking about EDM either. From Blawan to Cyril Hahn samples from 90s R&B records are everywhere. Then you have people like Jacques Greene who flaunt this relationship further working with vocalists like How To Dress Well and Tinashe, and citing Timbalands flawless production as an influence on his own.
We live in a time where boundaries between genres are less finite than ever. Which, for me, is a great thing; cross-pollination leads to new sounds and ideas and inevitably pushes things forward.
I love R&B. I like remixing it (e_l_l_e_ss oundcloud), I like DJing it, and, like the rest of the pop-oeuvre, I love trying to unpick it.
A hearty dose of melancholy and/or sass in any record never goes awry and R&B has this in spades. It also has the gold Rolly clichs and a beckoning finger toward the heartshaped waterbed, but this is less my bag. I like sharp-tongued women who take their lead from hip-hops confidence and the new gen of golden-voiced boys who probably got beat up at school but are defining the sound now.
Having set myself a nigh on impossible task of the ultimate selection here are a handful of perennial faves and future classics for your weekend.
All Night Long Mary Jane Girls
Rick James protgs the Mary Jane Girls have been sampled in the 90s across Hip-hop and R&B ad infinitum (Mary J, Jay-Z, Groove Theory..) and never gets old. The theme of female sexual empowerment that defined so much of their Disco predecessors (see: Donna Summer) continues here and paves the way for the next wave of no-messing girl groups from En Vogue to Destinys Child.
Nasty Janet Jackson
The world dont stop for breath in praising La Jacksons brother Michael in his influence and itd be churlish to deny his huge contribution, but hold up a minute, lets consider Janets Control album. This pioneering, autobiographical record pretty much developed the fusion of pop, rap and soul that we know as contemporary R&B today. The debt Beyonce and Rihanna owe to this womans creative vision as a writer, producer and performer is vast and potentially far outweigh that of her brother. Evidenced here is that mix of genres, pivoting on the double meaning of the word nasty, but essentially about sexual harassment it is awesome.
I Wanna Be Down Brandy
Typical swing-beat 1994 R&B from a 15-year-old Brandy, who continues this soul/hip-hop crossover vein in a confident proposition to a prospective suitor. At 15 I could barely look anyone in the eye let alone be down but there you go, things is different in R&B land. Even so early in her career, this is one of her best – the acapella can be found on Blawans 2011 Getting Me Down which launched him into consciousness and won everyones record of the year that year for nothing more than a clever use of her vocal and a simple but relentless beat. Im sure at the time there was plenty of yeh I coulda done that, easy, but the point you didnt, he did. So props to him and moreover Miss Norwood for a great record in the first place.
More Than A Woman Aaliyah
Its easy to deify people when they die untimely, young and beautiful and at the peak of their career but there is a reason why Aaliyah was so special. Its all about the balance; she dresses like a tom-boy but the vocals are liquid, cherubic feather-lite. Her songs are knowing and innocent, tough and girly and particularly as her career began at 15. Her album Age Aint Nothing But A Number (penned and produced by R. Kelly) is hardly the saccharine pink of a child-star. Later work, like this record, is definitive of Timbalands late 90s/early 00s production and can be heard everywhere from Missy to Justin. The melancholic rift weaved through the toughness of his beats, the bizarre video concept set inside the engine of a motor bike, and that she never looked or sounded more beautiful, make this her ultimate swan song.
Obsessed Mariah Carey
Before artists used twitter as their exclusive outlet for taking a swipe at each other, they used to write songs about it. The all time best and probably most explicit example of this is Nas Ether where Jay-Z receives a pasting in no uncertain terms. Here is Mariahs take on that format, a not so covert poke at Eminen after he (and the worlds media) had suggested they mayve been involved with one another. This Dream produced song is a direct descendant of Janets Nasty two decades earlier, its not Mariahs most iconic or even one that showcases her insane vocal ability but its demonstrative of her bite, at times overlooked sense-of-humour and her no-one-fucks-with-Mariah shtick: Youre a mom and pop/ Im a corporation/ Im a press conference/ youre a conversation. I love her.
Official Girl Cassie
On the surface Cassie could be dismissed as an also-ran-making-up-the-numbers R&B girl/ Diddys girlfriend, but she occupies this curious underground/overground space in R&B. With a prolific mixtape output and Me & U as the blog hit that launched a million remixes, she may not have the strongest voice (as some uncomfortable Youtube clips will attest) but boy shes got some tunes. Official Girl is an all time fave because it is both strutting and unsure, masked beneath the perceived confidence of Im so stylish/Im so bossy/Be a shame to say you lost me/ But if you want that its a wrap and I wont look back is a worrying plea about learning to love me, which in itself reveals that universal truth: if you have to tell your suitor how awesome you are they probably arent worth the breath.
Wicked Games The Weeknd
From the House of Balloons mixtape, this is a modern homage to drug-fuelled self-loathing set to a classic blues chord sequence. Its brilliantly brutal, the protagonist sways listlessly between cruelty, self-pity and selfishness. Its hard to decipher if hes an actual bastard or its the drugs talking? Drake endorsed but super-shy on publicity, The Weekend is a nu-age R&B antihero that navel-gazes his way through the genres clichd excesses of swagger and debauched late nights.
Pyramids Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean has been writing songs for other people (Brandy, John Legend, Beyonce) for the past 5 years or so but only in the past two really came to light as a performer in his own right. Part of Odd Futures extended family, his breakout piece Novocane was a soul-searching shout to the point where recreational narcotic use bleeds into a way of life, not a million miles away from the sentiment in Wicked Games, but perhaps more sensitively approached. Pyramids is from Oceans first full album Channel Orange (he released Nostalgia,Ultra as a mixtape prior to that) the song is a melancholic blast through the history of black woman as queen Cleopatra, shot through to modern day where her regal lineage is forgotten and she is reduced to a stripper. Its thoughtful and provocative and displays not only his delicacy and skill as a vocalist but also as a powerful songwriter.
Bo-Beep Shlohmo feat Jeremih
Jeremih content-wise tends to be fairly safe in the camp of old-school R&B sexing-babes-in-the-Escalade, he is important though because in recent times his vocal style has developed from simply the soullessness of autotune to a slightly more deadpan (and relevant) off-kilter place, plus production-wise he is not afraid to push it bit. This is specifically evidenced in his Late Nights mixtape and in this collaboration with lo-fi post-dubstep-ish Shlohmo; the track is genre-blurring and takes R&B somewhere else into a realm of a non-EDM slow-motion dancefloors than are neither hip-hop nor dubstep but somewhere in between.