The Shape of R&B That’s Come: Elijah Blake, Leon Bridges, Miguel, Kali Uchis, and a New-Old Sound in Four Parts
Leon Bridges was no fan of Sam Cooke. When he was 20 years old, the Fort Worth singer wrote one of his first songs, a soul-hymnal called “Lisa Sawyer,” named for his mother. With its girl group bop-bops and gentle roadhouse sax, the song would be at home on the B side of a Soul Stirrers single. But neither Cooke nor the gospel outfit from which he launched his career was a reference point for Bridges.
“A friend of mine asked me if Sam Cooke was one of my inspirations, and I felt bad because I had never really listened to him,” Bridges, who is now 25, told Noisey in May. “So after that I really started digging in and listening to Sam Cooke and the Temptations.”
Bridges’s interest was piqued by an ancient sound, but his pursuit was modern.
“I never went to no record store to buy a whole bunch of records. I was just looking it all up on Pandora and YouTube,” he said. “After listening to it I started to realize that is where I was meant to be. I started asking myself, why aren’t there any other young black men making this kind of music? I felt like I connected with it as a black man.”
Bridges — whose first album, Coming Home, was released this week — is an antiquated aspirant, an artist working not so much to revive a form of R&B, but to replicate it with a chilling artificial intelligence. It isn’t only the way his songs sound — worshipful, deadly rhythmic, almost too-expert — but how he presents himself, that might lead some to think Bridges is trapped by another time. In high-waisted trousers that could strangle an eel, two-toned derby shoes, and wide-collared bowling shirts, Bridges is a trim and totemic soul humanoid. Even the way he shimmies and gambols before the mic recalls a young David Ruffin — he’s like a crooning Ava from the film Ex Machina. At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in April, Bridges sang two songs in tribute to the ’50s pioneers “5” Royales. (He nailed them.) But before “Lisa Sawyer” and before he found Cooke — not to mention lesser-known artists like Cooke’s brother, L.C., who he now cites as inspirations — Bridges was a normal Texas teen.
“I was just a kid trying to fit in, but there was really no way for me to fit in. I didn’t have that classic look at all,” he said. “I was into contemporary art — Ginuwine, Usher — you know, watching One Tree Hill. I was a plain Jane high school kid.”
It’s easy to forget that Ginuwine was once as mainstream as a WB soap. Bridges has also cited R&B-pop staples like 112 and Dru Hill, ’90s artists at the commercial vanguard of the genre when it was more sexual, melodramatic, and physical than what he favors now. Discovering older music is a typically transformative experience, but it rarely calcifies a person’s taste. In Bridges’s case, his taste hasn’t vanished necessarily. That same inspirations playlist features new songs from contemporary artists like Migos, Drake, and Jessie Ware. But while Coming Home is an often wonderful and precise record, it portends exactly nothing for R&B. His songs are moving but insular. “Brown Skin Girl” is one of the album’s most unadorned and it has a contemporary power; there is no mistaking his specificity about race and love. But it’s still just a love song sung to a single girl in a polka dot dress.
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Bridges arrives at an interesting moment for the genre, which tends to spider out in more directions than most others. R&B is an invitation, gathering throwback experts alongside futurist dabblers, stripped-down savants next to godlike divas. There is Beyoncé and there is Kehlani and there is Charlie Wilson and there is PartyNextDoor. They’re all in it, together. Perhaps more than any other genre — even with its ungainly but not inaccurate nomenclature “rhythm and blues” — R&B is the one that can absorb virtually any sound and claim it as its own. It’s the one that birthed rock and roll. It’s the one that aligns Rihanna, Kanye West, and Paul McCartney. The one that has housed En Vogue and ’N Sync. The one for Sam Cooke and all those who sound like him. Bridges’s record may be an act of tribute, but it’s also a significant chapter in the revivalist ethic led by (often white) artists like Allen Stone, Nick Waterhouse, Fitz and the Tantrums, and Mayer Hawthorne. These artists have arrived at a conclusion that there are lessons in the past that we ought not forget. Not everyone is reaching so far back.
Elijah Blake is absorbing another lesson. The songwriter turned frontman is following the route that dozens before him — including Marvin Gaye, Babyface, Ne-Yo, and Bruno Mars — have traveled. Blake was 16 years old when he began workshopping songs in the studio with Trey Songz1 in 2009. He came to some acclaim when he cowrote the 2012 hit “Climax” for Usher. He was a songwriter of Rihanna album cuts and a fill-in guy singing the hooks on Rick Ross songs. Now signed to Artium Records, run by producer and Def Jam vice-president Ernest “No I.D.” Wilson, Blake isn’t quite the Frank Ocean-the Weeknd amalgam that’s been promised by some. His debut, Shadows & Diamonds, is out this week and it has more in common with the artists that Leon Bridges loved as a teen than Ocean or Abel Tesfaye, R&B’s alpha and omega of pleasurable pain. Shadows is dark and foreboding, but in a superficial way — like an extravagantly decorated Halloween party.
Blake recently came to some prominence with “I Just Wanna … ,” an irrepressible sliver of dance-pop seduction. With its leering chorus — “I just wanna get fucked up … with you” — the song is two parts Usher to one part Tucker Max. But it gliiides. I could feel the Bell Biv DeVoe percolating beneath the surface the first time I heard it. Blake, 22, presents himself as wide-eyed and genial — in the video for “I Just Wanna … ” he smiles when he dances. The video opens, charmingly, in a Foot Locker. Blake is a regular guy talking regular stuff to regular girls. Could be you — who knows? Where Bridges vouches fealty to a God-like iteration of the music, Blake is using it as a tool — for bad breakups, good hookups, and whatever comes in between.
Leon Bridges’s voice is round and resonant, with a Texas curl on his vowels — on “River” he could be a preacher or a busker. Blake’s keening register is more protected by the production on Shadows, filtered with echo, double-tracking, and Auto-Tune. He’s still an expressive vocalist, but too often he sounds like a hook man who got stuck with a raps-less album. Neither singer feels particularly contemporary, one bound by Stax and Chess, the other swimming back ceaselessly toward 1994. Neither quite make it home.
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Los Angeles is home for Miguel. More specifically, the working-class port community of San Pedro, where Miguel Pimentel grew up. Miguel, 29, started his career as a more functionally ordinary R&B up-and-comer, with a familiar story that’s as old as his hero James Brown — a striver signed to a tiny independent label writes a gem, “Sure Thing,” that draws notice from a major label. Said label attempts to extricate him from indie prison. After a legal imbroglio, he signs with the major but his album stalls, lapsing into A&R hell. After three years on Jive, Miguel’s debut, All I Want Is You, finally arrived in 2010.
I have a distinct memory of deleting the onslaught of emails from his publicist at the time. Must have been seven of them — “Sean! You have to hear this! Please email me back.” I didn’t, until I caught “All I Want Is You” on the radio; it’s a slippery little five minutes produced by Salaam Remi, who at the time was waiting for Amy Winehouse to resurface. (Imagine her voice singing over it.) Miguel’s performance on the song is not unlike Elijah Blake’s now — a desperate falsetto, a familiar cry, a trite phrase made intriguing. Miguel could have drowned in the slipstream after that, but his 2012 album, Kaleidoscope Dream, flashed new ambition — a little more self-consciously hippie, an inch more prog. The hit “Adorn” was a Prince rip that was actually worthy of Prince (or, at least, Ƭ̵̬̊), but the rest of the album keeps falling down Hendrixian rabbit holes and Bowiesque booby traps. Kaleidoscope was a modest success — more than 300,000 albums sold — but it appears to have emboldened Miguel, whose third album, Wildheart, will be released next week.
And if you’re seeking an artist aiming to use the past as a bailiwick for the future, Miguel is your coiffured man. Wildheart is a Dapper Dan tin full of chicken grease and artisanal KY. It is all so purposefully slinky and obsessed with signifiers: “the valley” is a sex-tape fantasy that name-checks the San Fernando porn mecca. “NWA” is a thudding West Coast rap sonnet that features Kurupt. “Hollywood Dreams” is the story of people obsessed with coming to Tinseltown to realize their fantasies of fame and glory as if it were the first time anyone had ever written about just such a thing. The affected lowercasing of many of the song titles should tell you all you need to know.
But Miguel, whose father is Mexican and mother is black, is also attentive to identity in admirably unsubtle ways. “what’s normal anyway” opens like this:
Too proper for the black kids
Too black for the Mexicans
Too square to be a hood n----
What’s normal anyway?
There’s no answer provided, nor one needed. But Miguel wants you to know he isn’t common. Wildheart, which Miguel produced, is a daring record that isn’t quite as daring as it wants to be. (The last song, “face the sun,” features Lenny Kravitz strumming Kravitz chords, which, well, it’s 2015.) Miguel says he identifies with Ocean, the Weeknd, Kanye, and other artists pushing R&B textures and visions of modern masculinity. But we’ve seen this before. Ten years ago, he might have been lumped in with Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, and the Soulquarian crew — and he’d have been more comfortable there. (Imagine the comfort of those caftans!) His sound isn’t new, just fresh soil on an earthy terrain.
Forget Earth, I can’t figure out what galaxy Kali Uchis came from. Born in Colombia and raised in Virginia, Uchis blends doo-wop, reggae, hip-hop, electro-pop, and all of the other genres to create a childlike agglomeration of R&B. Her voice is like a toy’s — she sounds the way you expect a Troll doll might if it could talk. Uchis’s songs are enrapturing swag lullabies — she’s often compared to Winehouse for her gentle nods toward ’50s songstresses and smoke-gets-in-your-eyes drama. But if Winehouse invigorated soul with rap attitude and jazz phrasing, Uchis is rethinking Peggy Lee and Doris Day with dreamlike singing and G-funk style. Call her Selena Del Rey.
Uchis — who has collaborated with and been supported by West Coast figures like Tyler, the Creator and Snoop Dogg — is part of a thrilling generation of female R&B stylists who are completely untethered to commercial self-consciousness. Syd Tha Kid’s the Internet, FKA twigs, Elle Varner, Willow Smith (!), and 18-year-old Alessia Cara — these are just a few of the young women who are bending and pulling at the edges of modern R&B. Some are inspired by Rihanna’s performatively sexual and empowered approach; others are drawn to the mysterious, elusive majesty of Sade. Some both. Some neither. It is an amazing time to be a woman making R&B. Even Janet Jackson wants back in.
Uchis is something I haven’t seen before — a hipster dream with a square’s set of influences. The songs may coo “Is That All There Is?” but her look is yelling something else. She wears knee-highs, swinging Carnaby Street dresses, long acrylic nails, oversize bombshell shades, and the smirk of someone who knows better. It’s feminine, clever, and archly sexual. Her music can have that effect, too — the wafting 2012 song “T.Y.W.I.G.” has swallowed me whole this week. It’s like a cloud filled with cotton candy — you’ll never find your way out, but it’s so sweet. Uchis isn’t after the same thing as Bridges, Blake, or Miguel. Her reference points explain her, but they don’t define her. Perhaps once she’s been moved through the major label machine, given some media lessons, a professional stylist, and a lyric sheet from Sia, then she will become one with the system. Until then, Uchis can keep dialing up the past.