TIDAL 10: R&B and the Interior Gaze

In R&B, the 2010s will go down as the decade when a new aesthetics of abstention took hold.


This article is part of the TIDAL 10, our end-of-decade essay series. For more essays covering a striking range of music, visit Read.Tidal.com. – Ed.

Hovering in the airspace over her mic at Radio City Music Hall in August 2017 — flanked by a couple of backup vocalists and a half-dozen instrumentalists, all moving in curt, choreographed gestures somewhere between a dance step and a struck pose — Solange sang the lyrics to “Weary,” from her masterpiece A Seat at the Table, which had come out the year before.

“I’m gonna look for my body, yeah/I’ll be back, like, real soon.”

As the words floated out, Solange held her arms at right angles to her body. She stepped in controlled lunges, then turned her head in solid, declaratory movements. Her hips hardly budged.

From 40 rows back, I sensed a parallel between what I was seeing and what I was hearing. Solange sings of self-love and reclamation, but musically she gives you nothing more than the bare essentials: a few sparse piano chords, an airy synth, the hint of a beat, a clinking guitar. On “Weary” and others from A Seat at the Table, the band leaves a lot of open space around her while Solange’s overdubbed voice harmonizes with itself, sounding like a ribbon spun from many threads, each a different shade of a single color.

If your assumption is that a so-called R&B singer’s job is to mount a display of outward passion, Solange will casually undo that for you. It’s not that she refuses to perform; it’s that she seems to be performing largely for herself. And she expects you’ll give her the space to do that.

Solange isn’t the only one. In the wide-open zone called R&B, the 2010s will go down as the decade when a new aesthetics of abstention took hold. It started to feel like a movement early in the decade, as the Weeknd and Frank Ocean caught on. They sang about untamed desire and distrust (of lovers; of themselves) over feathery digital synths and cloistered bedroom production.

The hazy textures and attitudes that hold together this loosely constellated style seem inseparable from the daily experience of living and loving online — where empowerment and loneliness often come as a package deal.

In 2011, the year streaming took off in the United States and Facebook hit 1 trillion pageviews, the Weeknd leapt into the limelight with the release of three album-length mixtapes full of soft dabs of Auto-Tune and almost absurdly licentious lyrics. On songs like “What You Need,” his boasts and promises to a lover felt like something other than your typical seduction. He was proclaiming himself worthy of admiration and attention (“I’m gon’ give you, girl, what you fiend/I’m the drug in your veins”), but the darkened, insular minor chords behind him — arriving in digital gusts over a roomy, almost half-hearted beat — made it hard to believe he was really trying to win anybody over. He seemed to be contouring a version of himself that you too could see, if only you agreed to experience him through the filter. Songs became a stream of selfies.

When one of those mixtapes, House of Balloons, blew up, I was surprised by the critical consensus that rose up around him. Here was a smoldering music, telling of acute desires and fate-tempting binges, but it sounded like some big piece of connective tissue had been cut out of it. Eventually I recognized that this very lack was what made the Weeknd feel so relatable.

Pondering the blend of explicit sex and crippling unknowability in the Weeknd’s music, the poet and critic Hanif Abdurraqib wrote that “the Weeknd, even with his faulty choirboy vocals, is at his best when planting an idea in the head of those who are watching him. It’s sexual inception: first leave nothing to the imagination, and then leave everything to the imagination.” This strikes me as a fabulous way of describing the act of sexting.

In 2013, Solange released Saint Heron, a 12-track mixtape announcing several young talents — Kelela, Jhené Aiko and Sampha among them — who’ve gone on to careers in the blue-lit spotlight. The collection organized the power of this new style, and gave it a geographical locus (Los Angeles) and an identity that reached into fashion and visual art. (Saint Heron is also the name of Solange’s artistic agency, which dabbles in those mediums.)

Saint Heron included two tracks featuring Kelela, whose music finds a common thread between the liberating anonymity of classic Chicago house and the fierce self-possession of Janet Jackson. In naming her recent mixtape Aquaphoria as one of his favorite albums of 2019, the Washington Post pop critic Chris Richards called Kelela’s songs “as familiar as they are alien.” Couldn’t you say the same thing about the versions of ourselves we create on social media, and then aspire to live up to in the real world?

And by the way, the distance between the love and unabashed desire in Kelela’s lyrics on one hand, and the emotional remove of her vocals on the other, is actually in line with a long tradition in R&B: that of meaning something quite adjacent to the words you’re singing.

If the Weeknd and Kelela make implacability sound sexy, the singer and producer Frank Ocean has etched his mark on the other side of the coin. His is an aesthetic of direct address; he tells autobiographical stories in illustrative detail, and he reaches out. On Blonde, which came out in 2016 and was Pitchfork’s choice for “album of the decade,” the plangent guitar strumming on tracks like “Seigfried” and his half-spoken, digitally altered voice on “Nikes” allowed the music to become a forcefield, a safer space, a blurred field of vision, even as he embraced his own vulnerability. But there is always the sense that he is falling just short of real connection with whomever he’s addressing. His hand, once outstretched, seems always about to go slack and fall to his side.

These days, celebrities no longer just endorse brands. As the Saint Heron agency attests, they now run them. This new R&B aesthetic — of the half-turned face, the interior gaze — allows figures like Solange to embrace their role as impresarios (curators, artists, models) without seeming to give too much away. As it turns out, when you’re in charge — of your money, your message or just your avatar — you can choose to put a little bit less of yourself out there.

Giovanni Russonello is a journalist and critic who covers jazz and politics for the New York Times. He is also the founding editor of CapitalBop, a nonprofit organization and website devoted to the Washington, D.C. jazz scene. Follow him on Twitter at @giorussonello.


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