In the new R&B, the future is female. A closer look at artists re-igniting the genre

Singer-songwriter H.E.R. photographed in Brooklyn, New York on November 27, 2018.
(Michael Nagle / For The Times)

Hip-hop’s takeover of R&B over the past decade altered its sound as soul artists aggressively pulled away from the genre’s conventional boundaries and embraced rap.

Given the boys’ club culture of rap, male R&B vocalists adopting hip-hop were easily embraced.

Performers such as the Weeknd, Bryson Tiller, Ty Dolla Sign, Anderson .Paak, and more recently, 6lack, Brent Faiyaz and Jacquees led the way for rap-infused R&B, but the more interesting music from the genre came from women. H.E.R., Jhene Aiko, SZA, Kehlani, Nao and Chloe x Halle have all made waves with wildly different takes on R&B.

With R&B in the midst of a resurgence, there’s been an upswing of artists pushing the genre out of the shadows of hip-hop. And it’s the ladies who are doing the heavy lifting of getting R&B back to its soulful roots. From Queen Naija to Kiana Lede to VanJess to Amber Mark to Sabrina Claudino to Alina Baraz, there’s a breathtaking array of voices emerging and captivating listeners, seemingly by the minute.

“People are quoting my lyrics and telling me, ‘Oh, this is my diary,’ [and] have gotten them tattooed on their body and told me the music has gotten them though depression,” says H.E.R., who is up for five Grammys, including best new artist and album of the year. “This connection people have felt to my music is so special to me. I didn’t expect to do it. I’m very proud of that.”

Here are some of other the risk-takers pushing R&B into the future.

Dawn Richard

Dawn Richard
Dawn Richard. Robert Arnold

After flourishing in two different groups — Danity Kane and the hip-hop fusion project Diddy-Dirty Money — Richard’s solo career has seen the singer-songwriter morph into a serial disruptor. Her idiosyncratic approach to R&B — which she calls “genderless, colorless and genreless” — is about shapeshifting and coloring far outside the lines.

Richard doesn’t just break rules, she sets them ablaze. Her ambitious "Heart" trilogy of albums ripped apart the boundaries of soul as she made room for electronica and experimental art pop. Her upcoming project, “new breed,” sees the singer return to her native New Orleans both musically and spiritually as she leans on the city’s rich musical heritage and traditions to craft an album of layered soul and electronica.

“To walk out into the world as a woman of color and try to innovate in a world where there is no color at all is such a risk,” Richard says. “Black women are already ostracized and looked at negatively, so everything we do is a risk. If we decide we want to do pop music, that’s a risk. If we want to do electronic music, another risk. If we want to do alternative rock, dear God. If we want to do death metal, good luck. Every time we are counted against. That’s the hard part. It makes me proud to see so many black female artists that are unapologetic in who they are break out. Our voices have been stifled for too long.”

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Ella Mai

Ella Mai
Ella Mai Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times

A great deal of R&B’s resurgence over the past year can be attributed to the breakout success of Mai’s debut single “Boo’d Up,” a syrupy groove that conjured the brightness of ‘90s R&B that earned the young British R&B star the longest-running No. 1 on the R&B/hip-hop airplay for a woman. Mai went from singing Instagram covers to working with DJ Mustard, whose frosty minimalist beats anchor the singer’s sweet and sultry harmonies. Her commitment to the moods and textures that defined R&B during the ‘80s and ’90s is inherently clear in her self-titled debut, a collection of richly assured down-tempo jams and smooth grooves directly informed by the last three decades of R&B.

“I wanted to make music that was super relatable,” she says. “Hearing people say things like, ‘Oh my God, your song changed my life’ … it stays with you.”

Tarriona "Tank" Bell

Tarriona "Tank" Ball of Tank and the Bangas at Coachella on April 20, 2018. Christina House / Los Angeles Times

Tank comes from the great school of Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Joi and Leela James — vocalists who inhale soul and spit it back out with the power of every fiber in their body. She’s the frontwoman of Tank and the Bangas, a wildly adventurous collective that deftly fuses R&B, soul, hip-hop, funk, soul, jazz and slam poetry and is anchored by Tank’s ferocious voice. She’s as nimble a lyricist as she is a vocalist. One minute she’s unpacking sinewy couplets and rhymes with fury and the next she’s wailing like she's at a church revival. Though Tank and the Bangas’ infused R&B plays beautifully on record, the group’s live showing is an otherworldly experience that’s essential viewing.

“It’s like I’m painting,” she says of her performance style. “Lots of fun imagery comes to mind … We truly have a lot of fun, it’s like a recess — only on stage. [It’s] a peek into our world and how we are in everyday life … it’s colorful, vibrant, alive and fresh.”

Summer Walker

Summer Walker
Summer Walker performs on stage at Heaven in London, England. Burak Cingi / Redferns

“I just need it now, better swing my way … I just need some love,” Summer Walker sings on “Girls Need Love.” Her full command is unprintable here, but that’s the beauty of the raw, straightforward R&B from the Atlanta upstart. The merging of R&B and hip-hop has been distilled through the male gaze for so long that women like Jhene Aiko, SZA, Kehlani and, now, Walker dropping songs where they sing freely about their own sexual desires has felt like an overdue breath of fresh energy. Walker’s debut “Last Day of Summer” sizzles with a startling intensity as songs play like hushed conversations late at night.

Times staff writer Makeda Easter contributed to this report.

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