Music, OldVenue

Sex, Race and Alternative R&B

When it comes to a clichéd soundtrack for the horizontal tango (hopefully not a new dance on Strictly), the 21st century’s answer to the slow jams of the 90s generally seems to be found in the type of music produced by The Weeknd, Beyonce, Frank Ocean and FKA twigs, who are tentatively grouped under the problematic title, ‘alternative R&B’. This moniker is occasionally exchanged for ‘PBR&B’, referring to Pabst Blue Ribbon beer – a staple of US hipsterdom and is generally characterised by a midnight-hour aesthetic, soulful vocals, ethereal synths, deep basslines and, perhaps most importantly, a brooding sexuality.
With songs that would sound a little out of place at a family summer barbecue, the reinvention of contemporary R&B has been popularised by the likes of Drake, often held up as the sensitive soul of hip-hop, and The Weeknd, but the latter’s sleek, soulful vocals and pleas to ‘let me motherfucking love you’, often disguise an age-old tendency to reduce women to sexual objects: “girl, strip it down, close your mouth…you gotta pay with your body.”
However, alt-R&B is generally viewed as a significantly more progressive and diverse genre than its chart counterpart thanks to the likes of Frank Ocean, one of the most prominent openly queer artists in R&B and hip-hop. It is also seen to be paving the way for female sexual liberation, most notably with lady of the hour and missing link between Prince and Grimes, FKA twigs. Her debut album LP1 oozes sensuality with each seductive wave of synth: there is a rare yet candid celebration of female masturbation in Kicks: “what do I do when you’re not here? I get my kicks like you” and then with the song Closer, twigs juxtaposes the associated innocence of high-register choral vocals with a frank discussion of sexual desire. But her most sultry number is also not her most graphic: it comes in her ode to comfortable relationships, Lights On, where she coos “when I trust you, we can do it with the lights on.”
This alternative platform for confident female sexuality is regarded highly in contrast to the potentially exploitative nature of over-sexualised mainstream pop, with Miley Cyrus and her ilk broadcasting their newfound sexuality with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer (sometimes using an actual sledgehammer), purely at the behest of the record company. But it is not a style of music just reserved for left-field artists. Even Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled album indicated a slight departure from her signature R&B balladry to explore darker beats and a more boldly sexual tone; perhaps best seen in Partition, which could not be more about sex unless it included the lyric: “he Monica Lewinsky’d all on my gown” (no wait, it already did that…) Beyoncé also explored and contributed to this branch of R&B’s perceived hypersexuality, producing videos that rival Game of Thrones in the ‘I would rather hug a cactus than watch this with my parents’ category.
But is the label of ‘alternative R&B’ erroneous and potentially racialised? FKA twigs, in a recent interview with The Guardian, suggested that her R&B categorisation was more down to her race than her sound: “when I first released music and no one knew what I looked like, I would read comments like: ‘I’ve never heard anything like this before, it’s not in a genre’… It’s like punk; fuck alternative R&B!” Whilst twigs was probably being somewhat glib in her references to punk, her sentiment is undoubtedly right: as tracks such as ‘Preface,’ which jump between time signatures and genres as though they’re non-existent, have as much in common with ‘R&B’ as the recent remix/butchering of ‘Bump & Grind’ that has regrettably found a home in the LCR.
While Jessie Ware and Frank Ocean’s music is driven by a contemporary form of R&B, constraining FKA twigs’ deeply experimental music in the same manner is, at the least, laziness, and a form of laziness that is arguably not used when categorising white artists making very similar music, such as Grimes. There is potential that her music’s highly sexual content is more what contributed to twigs’ definition, indubitably relating to the way that women of colour are sexualised and exoticised in an entirely unique and disturbing way by the music industry. There is undeniably a problem with music criticism’s obsessive need to categorise everything, particularly when contemporary music resists definition with the same fervour. But we need to reclassify this genre in particular and ask whether the music industry currently allows women of colour to be shamelessly sexual beings outside the realm of R&B?


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January 2022
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