While I won’t wholly endorse the popular notion that 2014 was some atrocious year for hip-hop, let’s agree that R&B prospered beyond fair comparison to rap. This breakout year of FKA twigs, this explosive resurgence of D’Angelo and Prince, and then one after the other, the respective returns of T-Pain and Miguel—the gods smiled upon us.
At summer’s end we rounded up the mid-year glut of R&B projects, covering twigs, Banks, Jeremih, Trey Songz, and Ty Dolla $ign, who all, according to Complex as well as Pigeons & Planes, made some of the year's very best music overall.
Beyoncé’s been running pop since last December, but so far as female R&B influences are evident and audible, 2014 was a year in tribute to Aaliyah and Ashanti, with twigs’ LP1 and Banks’ Goddess being bold yet indebted to their respective predecessors. In twigs’ case, critics struggled to define “alternative” R&B to encompass the woozy, hallucinogenic atmospherics of singers like twigs as well as Kid Cudi and the Weeknd; in contrast with workaday R&B traditionalists like Chris Brown, Omarion, K. Michelle, and Tinashe. My own sense is that the burgeoning “alternative” distinction is less about vocals and rather about arrangements; yawning bass, digital bloops, and sparse funk being R&B’s newest wave.
When I spoke with crunk sanger T-Pain a few months ago, he called bullshit on the burgeoning “alternative” distinction. “I don’t think there’s an alternative R&B,” he said. “People just don’t know what this new music is, so they have to put a familiar label on it.” FKA twigs, too, rejected the classification, arguing to the Guardian that certain distinctions among rock, pop, and R&B are rather insidious divisions of black and white artists. (Insomuch as she’s in the vocal lineage of Aaliyah and Janet Jackson, I think it’s safe to call her an R&B darling.)
As the traditionalists seem to be falling out of favor, it’ll be interesting to see the mass-market viability of the Weeknd, OVO stringers like PARTYNEXTDOOR and iLOVEMAKONNEN, as well as twigs, Frank Ocean, and Banks. Plenty of old hands are variously disgusted with the genre, and not a year too soon; the genre is charting new direction and staking new, exciting niches in which risk is its own reward.
A few major artists linger in release date purgatory: most notably Miguel and Jeremih, the latter bad boy having followed up a smash single with two EPs yet no album. While Jeremih’s mysterious delays are a running frustration of my editor, Damien, we were hardly starving for great R&B this year. We’ve got twigs. We’ve got Kehlani. We’ve got time.