Five underground artists reshaping the future of R&B

From Corbin to Abra, these are the DIY musicians putting life back into the genre

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Corbin in the video for “Reason”
Corbin in the video for “Reason”via YouTube.com

Back in the day, the ‘R&B’ tag might conjure up images of slick, shiny beats, choreographed dance routines and perfectly shaped vocal runs. Even further back in the day, the genre applied to the soul-smattered grooves of Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, and even further back, the label was attached to the jazz-based, African American blues musicians of the 40s, 50s and 60s. These days, of course, that definition has mutated, saturated and become something else entirely. As we know, R&B doesn’t have to be generated in the studio, but in the bedroom too, and it often exists separately to pop’s polished landscape. From the weirdo singers you might discover at 2am on Soundcloud, to the twisted, forward-facing feels of artists like Kelela, FKA twigs and Tinashe, R&B has never been so rich, all-encompassing and full of creative fire. With that in mind, here are five emerging musicians ripping up old tropes and putting life back into the genre.

CORBIN

We’ve been obsessed with 17-year-old Minnesota oddball Corbin (the artist FKA Spooky Black) ever since he unleashed the beautifully weird “Without You”, a heavy-lidded R&B jam that showcased his distinctive, silky-smooth vocals alongside a video of him exploring the wilderness in a do-rag and turtleneck. This was followed up by the forlorn, heart-tugging “Reason” (below), a track that cemented the singer’s undeniable vocal and lyrical talents and had us pressing play on repeat. Last year, he released a collaborative EP with producer Bobby Raps (titled Couch Potato) and we’ve been keeping a keen eye on his musical movements ever since.

TA-HA

If you haven’t heard of French artist Ta-Ha yet, it’s time to sit up and pay attention. We first clocked her music when she released her exceptional Tuareg Shawty EP last year, a 7-song collection of languid, soulful jams that felt like they should be listened to amidst a thick cloud of weed smoke. With an aesthetic that looks like it could have fallen from the pages of DiS Magazine, and an ice-clear voice that cuts through the hazy, bleary-eyed production like a cold glass of water on a hot day, she’s the artist we can’t stop playing on repeat. Watch this space.

THEY.

It’s not often you hear the influence of early-00s emo bands like Taking Back Sunday or grunge icon Kurt Cobain being injected into an R&B creation, but Los Angeles duo THEY. have managed to craft a brooding, genre-blurring hybrid of sounds that makes you think the musical styles aren’t so opposing after all. After recently signing to independent label Mind of a Genius, the duo dropped their inimitable debut EP Nu Religion – the musical equivalent of a short, sweet shot. Speaking to Hypetrak about the release, they said: “Nu Religion is a new way of thinking. As individuals, the way we have approached life and the art of music has always been left of centre; even from youth. It’s been all about finding a way to incorporate that into a cohesive musical project that we are proud of and that people enjoy. We think we’ve done that.”

ROY WOOD$

Okay so 19-year-old singer/rapper Roy Wood$ might not qualify as “underground” anymore, especially since his talents were noticed and promptly utilised by none other than Drake (who else?) who signed him to his label OVO Sound, right before making an appearance on his dreamy, slicked-back track “Drama”. But even before that, we knew Wood$ had something special. With his distinct, monotone sing-rap style, sporadic Michael Jackson leanings and lo-fi aesthetic, the teen artist feels like a coedine-coated, 4am version of Drake, with a fresh, experimental twist. Having worked with everyone from DeJ Loaf to PARTYNEXTDOOR, Wood$’ success feels like it’s dangling on the edge of a cliff, just moments from popping off.

ABRA

Sitting somewhere between the glistening, dance-ready sounds of Sky Ferreira and Shura, and the offbeat DIY roots of cult label Awful Records (which she signed to early last year) Abra (or the “darkwave duchess” as she’s nicknamed) is the agenda-setting, future-facing icon we all needed this year. “It’s really hard being an R&B, pop-ish act in a group of all rappers,” the Atlanta artist told The Fader, adding: “Being in a lineup with them gave me so much anxiety, like, am I gonna croon to these people who are tryna turn up?” Luckily, that anxiety seems to have dissolved into confidence, with this year looking like it belongs to her. We can’t wait!

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