Changing of the guard: How Frank Ocean, Miguel and more helped R&B find its soul again

theGRIO REPORt - Looking at the landscape of today’s R&B scene, it’s easy to see that something strange is happening. It’s evolving...

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Looking at the landscape of today’s R&B scene, it’s easy to see that something strange is happening. It’s evolving. And while the genre has indeed gone through periods of change in the past, this transition is unique in the sense that the artists leading this charge don’t fit the typical mold of the R&B celebrity.

Led by a small circle of artists that include Miguel, Frank Ocean, Jhené Aiko and The Weeknd, over the last two years, the sound of R&B has slowly started to transform.

Pegged as “hipster,” “alternative” and even “emo” R&B, today’s new wave of soul vocalists offer more than your traditional love-making and dance records. This isn’t your pop-sounding rhythm and blues of the ‘00s and it’s certainly not your bump n’ grind, quiet storm R&B of the ‘90s. No, this is something different.

Take Miguel, for instance.

The 25-year-old crooner recently released his sophomore album, Kaleidoscope Dream, this week to rave reviews from both critics and fans alike. His latest single, “Adorn”, currently sits at No. 31 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and No. 1 on the R&B/Hip-Hop charts. And though “Adorn” is presently seeing mainstream success, the majority of his album is vacant of the traditional, commercial sound that artists like Chris Brown, Beyoncé and Usher have made their names off of.

With these new-wave artists, a lot of the production is echo-laden and lofty, often using a lot of synthesizers and filtered drums—sonically giving a nod to Prince’s vintage ‘80s sound. Additionally, for the most part, it doesn’t feel as if these artists are selling sex as their main entrée. Granted, they still sing about the topic, and in explicit detail, but it’s in equal proportion to drugs, spirituality and personal philosophies. You don’t get that same diversity in subject matter from the majority of modern R&B singers.

On the hook of Miguel’s next single, ‘Do You…’, he asks his love interest if she likes two things: Drugs and love.

 But do you like drugs? Do you like drugs? Yup? Well, me too. Well, me too. Me too. Me too.

Do you like love? Do you like love? Yup? Well, me too. Well, me too. It’s what we gonna do.

He sings the words so effortlessly; one would almost think the two subjects were always meant to be paired together in a love song. This changing of the guard in R&B, from the smooth, cool heartthrobs to these vulnerable, off-kilter personalities comes at such a fitting time. Thanks to social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, people are divulging their private thoughts to others and finding solace in the fact that there are others who can relate.

The same thing is happening in R&B.

The average person can’t relate to lyrics about popping bottles of expensive champagne and having sex with beautiful models they meet at nightclubs. That’s not what these progressive R&B acts are singing about, which is why people are appreciating their music. It’s relatable.

Earlier this year, singer Frank Ocean released his debut album, Channel Orange, with very little promotion from his label, Def Jam. Despite this lack of support, the album earned critical acclaim from publications like Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and Pitchfork while receiving praise from the who’s who of the music industry and Hollywood A-listers. There were no David Guetta-produced dance records nor any Trey Songz-esque panty droppers. He didn’t need them. Ocean earned his high ranks with innovation, a unique sound and emotional honesty. Go figure.

Sure, this “R&B Renaissance” could very well be a passing fad, similar to Disco in the ‘70s and the New Jack Swing era of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Only time will tell, but with Universal Republic set to release all three of The Weeknd’s 2011 projects (House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence) as a trilogy album next month and Jhené Aiko gearing up to make her major label debut on Def Jam, it seems as if label executives are sold on these avant-garde singers.

Darwin’s theory of evolution suggests that complex beings evolve from more simplistic predecessors over a period time. Considering how disappointing the majority of mainstream R&B releases have been over the last several years, it would seem that R&B’s theory of evolution works exactly the same way.

Brandon Neasman is a freelance writer who has penned articles for both national and regional publications, including and the Hard Rock Hotel’s Las Vegas magazine. A graduate from Florida A&M University, Brandon is an editor at and a graphic designer for the Gannett Company, Inc. You can follow him on Twitter at @Bnease.