LOOKING classic-casual in a summer blazer, gray fedora and matching silk scarf, Ne-Yo leaned over his laptop in a West Hollywood recording studio one mid- August afternoon, playing selections from “Year of the Gentleman,” his third solo album, out Sept. 16. “The thing that sticks out on this record is the drama,” said the 25-year-old singer-songwriter and soul ace as he pushed a button and the swirling ballad “Lie to Me” blasted out of the room’s stereo system. “You can almost see it.”
A Laserium-style synth effect meshed with the swells of a string section. Listening, Ne-Yo drifted into a daydream, marking each crescendo with an imaginary conductor’s baton. “This reaches back to when music made you feel something,” said Ne-Yo, who’s co-written smashes for the likes of Beyoncé (“Irreplaceable”) and Rihanna (“Take a Bow”), as well as for himself. “Nowadays, it’s either ‘I can dance to it’ or ‘I can’t.’ What happened to the songs that made you cry? Or reminded you of that ex-boyfriend that you can’t stand now, but you remember that stint of months where it was just heaven on earth? That’s what we try to do.”
A few days later, on the other side of Hollywood, Keri Hilson sat in a similar studio, previewing music from her upcoming solo debut, “In a Perfect World,” scheduled for release Oct. 7. The 26-year-old studio rat turned ingénue -- her credits include co-writing Britney Spears’ “Gimme More” and singing on “Hero” by rapper Nas -- projected contemporary chic from her angular bob to her multicolored sneakers. She busted dance moves in her chair, absorbed in the sleek beats crafted by producers Polow da Don, Cory Bold and her mentor Timbaland.
On songs such as “Where Did He Go?” and “Intuition,” Hilson’s tough-but-tender singing warmed up the expertly built tracks. “When Tim or another producer gives me a really futuristic sound, I go retro,” she said. “I hear synths, and it takes me back to Babyface and Quincy Jones, even George Michael. I try to tap into how I felt as a kid listening to music. I just try to reach back into time.”
Ne-Yo and Hilson are two bright lights in a quiet renaissance overtaking contemporary R&B. The genre has long been a source of pioneering artistry; its top producers translate high-tech studio magic into massively popular hooks and grooves, and its stars embody love and heartbreak for millions of fans. In recent years, as rock became more conservative and hip-hop suffered under a crisis of faith, R&B moved to the forefront without much critical fanfare. Its young titans -- including Alicia Keys, Rihanna and John Legend -- are striving to fulfill the legacy established by the greats of Motown, Stax and Philly soul.
This fall, R&B is more exciting than ever, with a bumper crop of major releases joining Ne-Yo’s and Hilson’s. September sees offerings from longtime players Raphael Saadiq and Eric Benet; hot younger properties Robin Thicke and Musiq Soulchild, and the long-awaited debut from Hollywood fave Jennifer Hudson. In October, Legend returns, along with Nikka Costa, newcomer Ryan Leslie and a reunited LaBelle. Commercial powerhouse T-Pain follows in November, as does Missy Elliott, who will issue her seventh album. There’ll also be a Christmas album from the Bay Area’s rising star Ledisi.
The creative explosion pushing R&B forward is rooted in two seemingly opposite, but complementary, approaches. One is the futuristic style defined by Timbaland and Elliott more than a decade ago. There’s a science-fiction edge to this sound, with highly manipulated rhythms that borrow from Bollywood and African music as well as from the skittish beats of house and techno.
Elliott’s semi-nonsensical raps and surreal videos helped connect sonic futurism to a playful vision that called to mind the link between black music and science fiction pioneered by Jimi Hendrix and Parliament-Funkadelic master George Clinton. The hip-hop duo OutKast took this style further in songs like “Hey Ya!” and the film project “Idlewild,” adding a self-described “time machine” element by costuming its space operas in 1960s bell bottoms or 1940s zoot suits.
Next came the genre-defying Gnarls Barkley, a group that deftly blends old-school influences with a psychedelic vibe. Today’s most intriguing young futurist is Janelle Monae, whose summer debut “The Chase” tells the story of a cyborg in love. But the style’s commercial king is T-Pain, the trickster whose auto-tuned vocals have become a radio staple, and whose work on “Thr33 Ringz” goes even further in using samples and effects to lend a cosmic tone to R&B’s staple themes of love and seduction.
At the other end of R&B’s spectrum is a more traditionalist approach -- you could even call it retro. Led by Thicke and Ne-Yo and such old-school songbirds as Ledisi, this historically minded mode’s most recent precursors were the neo-soul artists of the late 1990s: Jill Scott, Angie Stone and most of all D’Angelo, the cornrows-sporting genius whose career derailed after two astounding studio albums.
Outside the mainstream
OF COURSE, the official (if often disheveled) face of retro right now is Amy Winehouse, whose Motown-flavored costume dramas seduced the indie-pop underground before crossing into the Top 10. So far, the standouts in the retro-soul scene have come from beyond mainstream R&B.
Winehouse and her producer, Mark Ronson, are English, as are fellow retro phenoms Duffy, Adele and James Hunter. Louisianian Marc Broussard, whose Atlantic Records debut will be released this month, has connections to the jam band scene. Only a few black performers, notably Sharon Jones, have found fame in this arena, which tends to attract white fans too.
“I like Amy Winehouse,” said Hilson, adding that she’s more likely to cite electronica-oriented Scandinavians Robyn and Lykke Li as favorites. “I don’t know that her music influences me, but I do listen to her album. It’s my clean-the-house music.”
Though a few black R&B artists have returned recently to 1960s reference points -- the most accomplished is Saadiq, whose latest album, “The Way I See It,” comes out next week -- most have a different view of what retro stylings can offer.
“You don’t want to do something that’s completely outdated, but then again you don’t want to do something that’s so ‘now’ that there’s an expiration date on it,” said Ne-Yo, whose natty image plays up his interest in all things classic, but whose most recent single, “Closer,” has an almost techno edge. “It’s a matter of taking the great elements of the future and of the past and bringing them together to make something that becomes timeless.”
Call this philosophy retro-futurism. The term, which Wikipedia credits to experimental artist Lloyd Dunn, describes an artistic stance at least as old as the early days of science fiction. It’s an ongoing element in black American music -- Jonah Weiner recently traced its lineage in a Slate.com piece about “the Afronaut invasion” -- and can often be quite fanciful. For today’s R&B stars, however, retro-futurism is an undertone: a subtle approach to blending new studio technologies with old-school musical values.
“Every 20 to 30 years in a particular musical genre, there’s a reassessment, and people tend to look for something that feels either authentic or very distinguishable from the rest,” said Michael Howe, an A&R executive at Downtown Records, home to Gnarls Barkley. “Even in 1975, something like the Ramones, the most basic sort of straight-ahead rock band, was hearkening back to the Ronettes. You had that, or you had something extremely futuristic, like Gary Numan or Devo.”
In 2008, retro-futurism is a means for renewal in R&B. Recent interviews with several of its leading talents revealed an eagerness to answer the examples of the greats -- Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye were the most often cited -- tempered by a cautiousness about getting stuck in the past.
The fusion R&B retro-futurism represents begins in the studio, where artists and producers don’t shy away from the synthesizers and samplers at the heart of hip-hop but also seek the warmth and riskiness of live instrumentation.
“The reason my music sounds classic is that’s the last time people were recording live,” said Thicke, whose new album “Something Else” (available Sept. 30) should cement his place as one of soul’s current leading men, though he prefers not to classify himself within one genre. “If I did the exact same songs, and based them on cyberspace techno sounds, you’d say it was a good pop album. But I love the feel of live music. I love the imperfection.”
Yet Thicke, who’s collaborated with rappers including Lil Wayne and Busta Rhymes, counts hip-hop as a major influence. “That has to do with the point of view,” he said. “The music is coming after the hip-hop generation’s rise, so there’s a slice of it in there. If you can’t hear it, you can feel it. It has a bit more of that boom-bap.”
Ryan Leslie, who’s known for his synth-savvy production on songs like Cassie’s “Me & U” and his popular channel on YouTube, is leaning more toward live elements for his own upcoming self-titled release. “I like hearing the mallet of a grand piano, the sound of fingers sliding along a bass guitar,” he said. “The sound of sweating a little bit in the studio, that’s what’s missing in the electro age.”
For a singer like Hudson, studio trickery can seem like a betrayal of talent. Only a few tracks on her upcoming debut feature any vocal manipulation, though the Timbaland-produced “Pocketbook” and the gospel-tinged “We Gon’ Fight” have plenty of doctored beats. “I prefer to use my natural talent with nothing on it and let it be the feature,” said the former " American Idol” contestant about her eclectic new album, out Sept. 30. “Not that my producers and I couldn’t discuss it. It all came together on its own.”
Mixing old and new
THE CONSENSUS is that a blend of elements is more effective than an overcommitment to one or the other. Even Saadiq, who lovingly -- and almost eerily -- reproduces the Motown sound on “The Way I See It,” warns against putting too much stock in old keyboards and amps. “I used some vintage equipment, but that’s not the point,” he said. “I’ve got a vintage mind! It’s about copping a feel. Any musician will understand that.”
Saadiq speaks from experience; he’s been melding old and new sounds since the late 1980s, when his band Toni! Tony! Toné! forged a link between jump blues and hip-hop. Saadiq’s reemergence as a solo artist is particularly sweet now, when younger artists are testifying to his pioneering influence.
Saadiq is only 41, but his status as an elder reflects the more personal sense of inheritance R&B’s stars cultivate in their retro journeys. Sixties revivalists such as Winehouse go to the library for their look and sound; R&B retro-futurists mine their own childhood memories. Many are “ ‘80s babies” for whom the graspable past isn’t civil-rights era soul. It’s the New Wave and funk-influenced hybridism of Prince, Michael Jackson and New Jack Swing bands like Guy and Tony! Toni! Toné!
Asked about their influences Ne-Yo and Thicke cite Jackson as a childhood hero. Leslie welcomed comparisons to Teddy Riley, the Guy founder and influential producer largely credited for New Jack Swing. Hilson says her role model is Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, another New Jack Swing originator whose sound dominated R&B in the early 1990s. When a listener mentions her new music and 1980s queen Whitney Houston in the same breath, Hudson says, “I definitely take that as a huge compliment.”
“These artists grew up loving Teddy Riley and the other New Jack Swing artists,” said Michael Gonzales, a New York-based writer who’s been chronicling R&B for nearly three decades. “And especially Michael Jackson -- you talk to Timbaland or Missy, and they’ll tell you ‘Off the Wall’ is the foundation of what they do. People also say Prince, who was one of the most experimental black artists of that time. Prince was embracing Jackie Wilson as much as he embraced Kraftwerk.”
R&B in the 1980s was synthesizer-heavy and soulful. Then, as now, artists were going forward by looking back. Groundbreakers such as Prince and Jackson accomplished something else today’s artists ardently desire: They went beyond the traditional “urban” audience to defy genre classifications. Incorporating blazing guitar solos into songs such as “Purple Rain” and “Beat It,” they united fans of rock and soul. Their appeal defied racial and artistic stereotypes to become, to use one of Ne-Yo’s favorite words, “timeless.”
R&B is a genre in which disposable hits thrive right next to classics, with party anthems, sexpots and dance crazes sometimes pushing sincerity and depth out of the way. Retro-futurism provides a way for artists and producers to be both innovative and serious -- and, each hopes, to make music that will last longer than one season.
“Music is really getting back to its organic, about-the-music phase,” said Hilson. “I love that. For a minute there was a lot of emotion lacking; it was all about partying. Now people are telling the truth again in their songs.”