Evolution of Passion: R&B Undersound

Jonah Yonker Undersound jyonker@ucsd.edu
Jonah Yonker
Undersound
[email protected]

Rhythm and blues began as a moniker for urban music aimed at African-Americans but quickly expanded to include elements of electric blues, gospel and soul. After Michael Jackson’s infusion of this style into the language of popular music, R&B has been something of a powerhouse ingredient, ruling the radio and recognized in the world for its flexibility and emotional resonance. It seems fitting then to explore a lesser-known side of this widespread genre and to give credit to those who continue to push for growth.

A/T/O/S – With very little information available about the duo’s origin or identity (names given as Amos and Truenoys), “A Taste of Struggle” is represented exclusively by a stark brand of R&B. Their work stretches itself out between the soft sway of backbeats in a wash of melody, drawing upon a wide spectrum of electronic and minimalist hip-hop to make its melancholy way. Vocalist Amos delivers a stunning performance, settling easily among the stops and starts. What really sets A/T/O/S apart is an innate love of subtlety and restraint; like leaning in for a whispered confession, quiet conviction holds a stunning power that we can often forget.
Tracks to Try: “Roses,” “Cosmos,” “Projects”

James Blake – In spite of appearing on critics’ lists year after year and winning a Barclaycard Mercury Prize for his latest album, London native James Blake is something of a hidden gem. With a stellar, soulful voice and a knack for earnest introspection, Blake has all the qualities of an R&B giant — but it’s his lush and eclectic composition that steals the show. Each track warps through dissonance and warmth, polyrhythmic percussion and blooming piano twist around to arrive at some truly spectacular melodies. Not all of it sits prettily, but it cuts such an angular mood that one can’t help but take note. At a time when most “stars” don’t even produce their own music, Blake makes his mark from the first chord.
Tracks to Try: “Life Round Here,” “The Wilhelm Scream,” “Retrograde”

SOHN – Making his home in Vienna, Austria, SOHN — also known as Christopher Taylor — is only just beginning his career in earnest. Where others build a somber and slow R&B, SOHN’s music is a busy thoroughfare of shimmering melody and rolling bass. The inherent spaces between each beat glow with ethereal vocal samples, and even the “blues” facet of the genre seems utterly charged with new life. This life is owed in no small part to a comfort with exploring and unfolding a synth line or swell. SOHN’s vocals mirror this perfectly, with an unassuming grace that lets each track rise behind him organically while demonstrating his impressive range. Where others would bring heaviness, SOHN only basks in the light.
Tracks to Try: “Artifice,” “Veto,” “The Wheel”

Evidently, this genre’s involvement in the homogenous influence of popular culture has done nothing to impede its evolution. With the growing following of artists like The Weeknd, we see to some extent a willingness to embrace these shifts in style. But to me, this speaks of what R&B is at its core: a passionate engagement with a vocalist and an ever-shifting palette of sound. It morphs so well because it is individual by nature, and that kind of singular attention is something to be respected.

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