There’s an intense race going on right now. A race not a lot of you may know about. A race that even the people involved may not know they’re a part of. But it’s a race, and it’s happening: the race to see which r & b singer will end up on most critics’ top-ten lists at the end of the year.
It’s a big deal. Because, usually, at the end of the year, r & b is all but excluded on year-end lists. Which is what makes this year so exciting. Three artists are on the lips and minds and fingertips of critics, all of whom have a shot at Top Ten album honors just before the planet explodes like the Mayans predicted.
Those three artists: Frank Ocean, the Weeknd, and Miguel.
Let’s start with Ocean, who has been in the lead for quite some time now. The resident soul man for hip-hop hooligans Odd Future released his debut album, Channel Orange, in July to across-the-board raves and decent album sales. As far as emo soulsters go, Ocean has been the guy everyone can relate to, which explains his critical and commercial success. While other young r & b vocalists like Chris Brown and Trey Songz follow the rules in the r & b-vocalist guidebook, occasionally showing hints of vulnerability but balancing it with a chest-thumping façade that’s foreign to Ocean, who seldom covers the heart on his sleeve
Instead, he rambles through his own bacchanalia-filled album like the lone, black character in a Bret Easton Ellis novel: lost, lonely and struggling to find out where he fits in, not to mention who he fits with. Whether Ocean knows it or not, he speaks more to, for and about today’s youth — black, white, gay, straight, rich, poor — than any artist out there. And critics love praising artists who fit in that voice-of-their-generation mold.
Just like Ocean, the enigmatic Canadian known as the Weeknd first got people’s attention via free mixtapes, dropping a trio of them last year. And, like Ocean, Weeknd is a much-hyped artist who comes up with dreamy, down-tempo beats and sings of being a confused dude in a high-class, hedonistic world. Hell, most of his songs (like the F-bomb-dropping “Wicked Games”) have him sounding like he’s pitifully trying to have some sort of connection with a coked-up gal he met at an industry party. Those previously released mixtapes will be re-released and remastered as part of a collection called Trilogy, to be released on today. Whether or not critics will accept this as a new, official release and make it a part of their year-end best of list is still up for debate. Miguel, who released his second album Kaleidoscope Dream in September, is not as melancholy as Ocean or Weeknd, but can be just as daring and vulnerable. He can easily go from minimalist soul to noisy rock (occasionally in the same song). He also doesn’t mind showing some insecurity when it comes to the ladies, like when he begs a gal to tell him he’s the only one knocking it out the park on the aptly titled “Pussy Is Mine.” While his 2010 debut All I Want Is You, is arguably better, Dream will likely get lots of year-end love.
In a perfect world, these r & b rebels would all get their due from the pale-faced criterati at the end of the year. But let’s be real here: most year-end, ten-best lists rarely have more than one black music artist on their lists. (And that lone slot is usually sewn up by a great hip-hop album, which this year will no doubt be Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city.) And though others will, in fact, be overlooked — whether it’s veterans like Dwele, who once again came correct this year with Greater Than One, or newbies like BJ the Chicago Kid, who broke out this year with his Pineapple Now-Laters debut — Ocean, the Weeknd, and Miguel have put out work deserving of year-end acclaim. Other years each would’ve made a fine token choice. This year, all three together may signal a change.