‘Alternative R&B’ falsely labels artists

By Copy Editor

Two months ago, British pop star FKA twigs cringed when a reporter from The Guardian asked her how she felt about being compared to other artists labeled as “alternative R&B.” Her response was brutally honest: “F–k alternative R&B!”

She went on to explain her frustration with the label: “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,’” FKA twigs said during the Aug. 8 interview. “And then my picture came out six months later, now she’s an R&B singer.… If I was white and blonde and said I went to church all the time, you’d be talking about the ‘choral aspect.’ But you’re not talking about that because I’m a mixed-race girl from [the] South [of] London.”

FKA twigs’ outrage not only takes a stand for her own emerging career but also rings true for musicians like Banks, Kelala and SZA, who are being put into the crippling “alt R&B” box by music publications and critics. It is a term that not only segregates the artists’ music but also their race, and FKA twigs’ outrage makes sense considering how her music was deemed unclassifiable long before anyone knew what color her skin was. If a music critic were to listen to FKA twigs’ music without any knowledge beforehand, what would it be called then?

The work these artists put out is demoted by the prefix “alternative” because it implies that while the R&B aspect of the music is neither intellectual nor innovative, there is still something there that is interesting. It is a word listeners used to express their opinion while still putting the music they are hearing under a shady tree of their own classification. It is a demotion that discourages any artist but is especially harsh when used early on in the careers of newer artists—like FKA twigs—who are trying to make their own groove in the modern music industry without restrictive labels.

Applying “alternative R&B” to musical works that have drastic differences in their style and sound is unfair to artists who are squeezed together under the same umbrella terms. Frank Ocean and Sampha have both fallen into the category, yet Ocean’s smooth pop sounds and catchy lyrics have little in common with Sampha’s soulful, heartfelt piano songs. Chicagoan Tom Krell of How To Dress Well orchestrates emotionally heavy songs that emphasize his soft vocals while the sounds off FKA twigs’ August debut album, LP1, have been cited by New Yorker writer Sasha Frere-Jones as spanning over “such a wide range that it’s hard to know what to call any of it.”

The difficulty of labeling any of these artists with layman’s terms addresses the problem: As of right now, “alternative R&B” has no solid definition. If there are works under a category that have few similarities, why continue to force those subjects into such a category for the sole convenience of providing labeling and familiarity for listeners?

The less harmful yet more powerful R&B aspect is the only anchor in the phrase that directly references a specific genre. Hundreds of artists today are taking inspiration from the 1940s era, specifically the sampling of R&B vocals by electronic musicians and producers. Kingdom, a Los Angeles-based DJ, owner of the record label Fade to Mind, knows the sampling ropes well and claims that many current electronic artists choose to sample safer, older vocals rather than exploring newer R&B artists.

“I think there’s something safe about retro to those guys that are afraid of R&B. They feel safe if it’s like a throwback, but the idea of actually being a fan and researching what’s actually going on with the artist now would be too much,” Kingdom said in a February interview at Thump, a Vice-sponsored U.K. channel. “It gives them a distance from it and allows them to package it in a certain way.”

This fear of the unknown pathetically highlights producers in all their uninventive glory, and producers like Cyril Hahn—whose fame rests on his software-testing experiment of re-editing “Touch My Body” by Mariah Carey and “Say My Name” by Destiny’s Child—who only add to the pitiful mess after he admitted that he did not listen to the ‘90s songs seriously, but that they were “more of a guilty pleasure.”

The perceived inferiority of R&B as a genre in the music world is wrong and unfair to all those adding onto and supporting the works that make it the rhythm and blues genre that it is. The term “alternative R&B” further depletes the lesser genre of R&B and gives little praise to the newbie musicians who pour all they have into their music only to be slapped in the face with a restricting label. Moreover, artists’ music needs to be equally recognized for what it is, not catalogued under a thoughtless subgenre based on race. FKA twigs has made it known that she wants “alternative R&B” to end, but it is the listeners’ perception of the music that can put the term to rest.