Two days ago, r&b changed again. On Sunday night, a Canadian collective called the Weeknd released their nine-song mixtape, House of Balloons, on their web site. Though they were quick to deny the direct involvement of Drake’s sonic architect, Noah “40” Shebib, the apparitions in The Weeknd–no official members have yet come forward–have been heavily co-signed by the Toronto star. Why? Because they are Canadian countrymen? Because the Weeknd’s spacious, moody r&b deconstruction further cements Drake and 40’s reinvention of the genre? Is it just pure aesthetic appreciation? They’re all probably true. What is irrefutable is the calculation that has thus far gone into this project.
House of Balloons is impressive. It’s patient, often gorgeous, and consistently louche–sex, drugs and drink seem to be the raison d’etre–with the sort of blown-out underbelly and echo-laden crooning that has already made Drake’s less-than-a-year-old Thank Me Later such an influential guidepost. The cover, a photo of a nude woman in a bathtub, her face obscured by black and white balloons, is pure Purple Diary. There is a Tumblr, a Twitter account, a Facebook link. In this post at Blatant Ineptitude, Matthew Gardner calls it, “a Master’s course in building an engaging presence for the cool kids” and likens it to Odd Future’s cooptation of these platforms.
Odd Future member Frank Ocean, infamously signed and stored away by Def Jam, forced his identity on the world just a few weeks ago with Nostalgia, Ultra, the free album he shared on his Tumblr. Ocean sings over songs by Coldplay, MGMT, Mr. Hudson, and, yup, goddamn “Hotel California” on Ultra, but he’s an intuitive r&b stylist, with a firm sense of song structure (he’s written for Justin Bieber and Beyoncé) and a conversational talk-singing voice that is as indebted to Justin Timberlake and Pharrell as it is to R. Kelly. He’s also a bit of a goofball. He opens “Nature Feels,” his reinterpretation of MGMT’s “Electric Feel,” with the lyric, “I’ve been meaning to fuck you in the garden.” He also questions the veracity of the moon landing on “We All Try.” But on that same song, he obliquely announces his support of a woman’s right to choose and gay marriage. Hardly typical r&b tropes. Ocean is a more openly fun character in the world than the so-far self-serious Weeknd project. But they share a tone and a vaguely secretive but accessible sensibility.
SOTC buddy and writer Eric Harvey, while aligning Ocean and the Weeknd with Tom Krell’s cracked R&B strip-down How To Dress Well, cheekily dubbed this movement “PBR&B,” the implication being that this is rhythm and blues by or for hipsters. Which is sort of true, but only in the way it’s been presented. How To Dress Well trafficked in a similarly mysterious style for a time last year, but when fans witnessed his shaky, amateurish live readings, the sanctity of that experiment vanished. Ocean, for all his orange Beamer ’80s fetishism and progressive politics, is a fairly standard singer-songwriter. His picture is now available and his work behind-the-scenes for major artists continues to reveal itself. Likewise the seediness of the Weeknd’s Ace Hotel jams–this is pro music, made by pros.
So where does this leave good ole commercial r&b? Not at a crisis point, but certainly a curious one. Yesterday Chris Brown, he of the unforgivable anger issues, released F.A.M.E., his fourth album, and it’s got the feel of a big, fat hit. Last year, Trey Songz, after many years of waiting and praying, distinguished himself as an ascendant superstar by leaning as hard into his ballads as he had into his uptempo songs. His delicate throwback “Love Faces” sits at no. 3 on Billboard’s r&b/hip-hop chart right now, months after release. But there have been struggles. Usher abandoned the genre for pop glory(?). Ne-Yo’s latest album, Libra Scale, debuted at no. 9 last November, selling 112,000 copies, but it spawned no hit singles and left few dents in the genre consciousness. Women have fared worse. Keri Hilson, though riding a pop wave with “Pretty Girl Rock,” shifted her identity from relatable girl to grinding diva with lamentable results. Jennifer Hudson released an album just yesterday but her stormy mid-tempo ballad “Where You At” is stiff and flat–a fussed-over product of an old world mentality. After her latest fiasco, Ciara’s career as a formidable r&b artist is over. Former Floetry member Marsha Ambrosius had surprising success coming in at no. 2 last week with her new album, Late Nights & Early Mornings, but wait, what’s that? Oh, she covered Portishead on the thing. Damn hipsters. Even The-Dream, the patron saint of aggressively lush, counterintuitive r&b had a tough 2010, releasing his worst selling album, Love King, while also divorcing his wife, Christina Milian. Still no word on who retained custody of those riding boots.
So from Drake to Nicki Minaj’s naked bid for pop&b success to Wiz Khalifa, whose forthcoming Rolling Papers features four songs produced by Norwegian r&b technicians Stargate, hip-hop has again informed the sound and attitude of soul. The Weeknd–the group is anonymous so far, though it appears that musicians Hyghly Alleyne, Omari Shakir, Doc Mckinney, and Illangelo are involved (update from the Weeknd: “just to make things clear Production duties were headed up by Doc Mckinney and Illangelo”)–don’t even seem like r&b artists, even though one listen reveals as much. Likewise Frank Ocean, whose singing amidst a riot of rampaging, swag-chanting kids is a dead giveaway, is otherwise operating inside the industry in a simple, but fascinating way. The mode is the same but the language and delivery are changing. At the moment, Ocean and the Weeknd feel like revolutionaries. They’ll be gobbled up and reprocessed soon.