Complex's Summer 2014 R&B Retrospective


Not Available Lead
Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

Not Available Lead

As summer sputters to cool conclusion, having roundly disappointed in both quantity and quality of major hip-hop projects, at least we can look back and appreciate a season of good ol' fashioned, new school singing and dance. We got studio debuts from BANKS and FKA twigs. A breakout hit from former girl-group singer Tinashe, and another coveted Drake/OVO co-sign for Atlanta's own iLoveMakonnen. An insurgent mixtape showing from Ty Dolla $ign and PARTYNEXTDOOR, and resurgent laps from Trey Songz, Chris Brown, and Jeremih.

With so many dope R&B projects having dropped, and with so little time to review them all individually, here’s our round-up analysis of this summer's releases from FKA twigs, BANKS, Jeremih, Trey Songz, and Ty Dolla $ign. (We reviewed PND and Breezy fully, separately.) Do feel free to sing along.

FKA twigs

Not Available Interstitial

Prince, Beth Gibbons, and Trent Reznor could all be on FKA twigs’ musical family tree, and the varying influences make for a sound that resists classification—or at least wants to. The British singer of mixed race has balked at being called alternative R&B, insisting last month that the label was assigned to her only after people saw her face. FKA twigs' voice is the most immediate entry point into her music, and since she relies on trills and flourishes, she sounds like an R&B singer. The trip-hop and electronic music surrounding her is not traditionally aligned with the genre, so she gets pegged as alternative. It’s a reductive method of grouping that ignores artists' idiosyncrasies, where an FKA Twigs and a Kelela, no matter how sonically distant, might stand together. Still it’s not wrong to call FKA twigs R&B or alternative because she is taking R&B and widening the genre's boundaries as any “alternative” artist does.

“Preface” is a choral exercise buttressed by industrial beams. “Lights On” shows off the power in twigs’ breathy voice as she promises, “When I trust you, we can do it with the lights on.” It’s sensual and direct, not coy; she’s looking you straight in the eyes when she says it. “Two Weeks” is her debut album LP1's climax, a boastful “I’m better than your girl” song whose baiting temptations might be all in her head. “Pendulum” creaks like a settling house, and “Numbers” finds her agitated and wounded over the idea of being “just a number to you” while a threatening chaos of shimmering and clacking percussion swarms her. twigs’ voice is her greatest asset, a mixture of desire and sadness and bravery, but the space she allows around it has such a strong presence that it’s almost like an extra band member, a silent backing vocalist. The bassy undercurrents, dry echoes, and drum machine smacks sharpen the music’s edge, but twigs’ songs are suspenseful because she allows them some air, a pause for breath that leaves you to wonder whether you’re floating or rather about to fall. —Christine Werthman


Not Available Interstitial

She's the weakest vocalist of this batch, I admit. A pipsqueak waver in the tradition of Ashanti and super-sultry Janet and, most recently, Lana Del Rey. If you're opposed to meek, steamy, breathless singing, then you'll be catching another wave, assuming one comes. Me, I'm riding with BANKS; I'm riding high.

A capable alt-pop pretender, BANKS is a lady stoner songstress, the dark mage sort, but not quite brooding and never affected. Effective, however. "What if I said I would break your heart? What if I said I have problems that made me, me? What if I knew I would just rip your mind apart?" The strongest cuts of her Capitol/Harvest debut, Goddess, “You Should Know Where I'm Coming From," “Stick,” and "Begging for Thread," are varied enough to prove her dexterity and potential as a crossover feature vocalist. Throughout, the somber piano and acoustic plucks do occasionally sound like R&B-meets-chamber music, but the pen is strong with this one. "My words can come out as a pistol, and I'm no good at aiming." Pray that she transcends the it-bar ambience and Brooklyn-based hype. —Justin Charity


Not Available Interstitial

Jeremih’s had a busy 2014 so far. The Chicagoan with the pillowy voice and penchant for melodies that work well in supporting and elevating his ever-changing row of collaborators has managed to keep his name popping arguably more than anyone on this list. He gifted fellow Windy City resident Tink with a career-defining single in the bouncy and saccharine “Don’t Tell Nobody,” had “Don’t Tell 'Em,” the first single from his soon-to-be released third album, break into the top 20 on the Billboard chart, and helped DJ Khaled continue his streak of puzzling posse cuts. He also released a mixtape tiled N.O.M.A., which consists of tracks that will not be on his album. You’d do well ignoring that, however, and instead pay most of your attention to the EP he dropped in August with California-based electronic producer Shlohmo, No More

There are artists whose music works well as a soundtrack for nightlife. Not nightlife in the Meatpacking District, Bridge & Tunnel sense of the word, but nightlife in the nocturnal ambling that takes place when you’re creeping beneath the city lights sense of the word. The Weeknd is a great practitioner of this, though his music veers more toward masochistic delights. Jeremih’s late nights are a degree happier and more hopeful. His 2012 mixtape of the same name proved as much. And No More carries that further.

The music is dark and teeters on sinister, as on the title track, but Jeremih never gets too down. On “Dope,” he slips for a moment and admits, “these empty nights are lonely, that’s when I need you most,” before likening his and a girl’s time together to “perfect harmony.” He believes in the R&B tradition of making grand declarations of love and lust, in equal parts. The greatest example of this comes on my favorite track, “Bo Peep,” which sounds like a laser light show and sports a chorus of "Girl, I'm gon' do you right," and a bridge on which Jeremih sings, “when it’s just us two, there is no one that can say or do, anything to get between us.” It's a formula that's served him well, and hopefully, will continue to do so when he drops Late Nights: The Album later this fall. —Damien Scott

Trey Songz

Not Available Interstitial

For an R&B artist who has been in the industry for a little under a decade, Trey Songz's dedication to staying true to commercial R&B while sprinkling in the era's hottest producers are what makes his sixth album, Trigga, one of the most refreshing releases of the year, let alone in R&B. For an album that's 20 tracks in length, Trey's ability to captivate listeners with the same slick hooks, and melodic production over everything from “Mr. Steal Your Girl” standouts to odes to women like “Foreign” makes this a brisk sonic experience for diehard fans, and R&B aficionados. If you're looking for an album that plays to its strong suit and stays in its lane in almost perfect form, Trigga is that project.

With only a handful of features from Mila J, Ty Dolla $ign, Nicki Minaj, Justin Bieber, Juicy J—a set of almost usual suspects—it's the production that lends Trey's stunning vocals the perfect platform, something that sets him beyond a handful of up-and-comers like PARTYNEXTDOOR, Majid Jordan, Jeremih, and more. Dun Deal, DJ Mustard, C4, Da Internz all throw their hats into the ring, and Trey finds his stride with his solo love-making, and at times, heartbreaking, tracks. He occasionally sounds more vulnerable than his typical, lady-stealing stories, like on “Y.A.S.,” but balances it almost perfectly with the Bieber-featuring “Foreign” remix, where he croons about copping a woman as an object, a car, if you will. And while the finale tracks of Trigga are where Trey's able to get introspective, it's cuts like “Touchin, Lovin” with Nicki Minaj that are guaranteed to be his greatest hits, because who else raps about stealing your girl from your side in the club this well? —Lauren Nostro

Ty Dolla $ign

Not Available Interstitial

Ty Dolla $ign sings best about sex, and his most recent mixtape, $ign Language, contains some of his finest musings on the subject. The two-part “$tretch/$he Better” is a raunch opus that deplores inadequacy and loves imagination. “$tretch” celebrates inventive forms of pleasure and paying attention after a weak partner has come up short. “$he Better” is an ode to women who act like bosses and don’t have time for soon-to-be-broke assholes who “spend more money on clothes than their own kids.” The latter track is especially gorgeous, flush with multi-tracked vocals and complex harmonies that artists like the Weeknd largely eschew. Other highlights from the tape flip samples from electronic musician CFCF (“Mi$$ionary”) and Toro Y Moi’s house side-project, Les Sins (“I$$ue”). These leftfield sources, combined with the guest-heavy interludes that act as segues, make $ign Language just as surprising as it is cohesive and devised. It’s the tightest (and shortest) of Ty Dolla $ign’s recent mixtapes, and bodes well for his upcoming Taylor Gang debut album, Free TC. Considering how good January’s Beach House EP still sounds, “Work” being a masterpiece and all, 2014 is set to be the best year Ty Dolla $ign has given us yet. Lord knows the man has been thinking of new ways to give the world his love.

Ty Dolla $ign’s lyrics are frequently crass and misogynistic, but unlike some of his down-tempo R&B contemporaries, he seems to believe that pleasure is possible, worth both giving and receiving. That kind of optimism manifests itself in the music via the flourishes around the chorus of “$he Better,” and isn’t this a welcome change? Sex is pretty fun, remember? —Ross Scarano

Latest in Music