Spotify probably knows me better than I know myself. It could—and let’s be real, in this day and age, probably does—track my mood, sleeping patterns, exercise routine, and work schedule. And last December, I found that it scarily accurately gets my taste. After Spotify generated a playlist of new music for me based on my 2014 listening history, I was in auditory heaven. I quickly got very into Sylvan Esso, looked into lesser-known tracks from Hozier’s self-titled album, and still regularly jam to Mø’s ‘Say You Will Be There’ cover (the Spice Girls know how to hit home). But also, in summing up my year in review, Spotify told me my favorite genre, one I didn’t even know existed: R-Neg-B, otherwise known as PBR&B (I get such a kick out of this term, as was the intention by the critic who coined it, so I’ll continue with it; head over to Pitchfork to get the full story).
I actually had to research the genre to figure out what it was. What I found was controversy, and I’m still trying to sort out where I lie musically and philosophically within it all. Simply put, PBR&B is indie R&B. In reality, though, it’s not that simple. In truth no genre is because categorization is an attempt to boil down and box up a group of individual sounds. It doesn’t really work. And so, PBR&B can be defined as indie R&B or alternative R&B or hipster R&B or R&B for white people. Suddenly, things get complicated.
In order to sort out my feelings on this unofficial genre, I broke it down into a series of questions. Whether or not this helped me reach any level of clarity is still up in the air, but so it goes. Here are my conflicts with a genre that I genuinely enjoy:
Is the term degrading?
These artists produce under an ironic genre name, while the music they’re putting out is anything but. It’s something new, something exciting. It builds off of one historically rich genre and finds success in another popularly unpopular one. The matter of the fact is, no one wants to be the guy making music for privileged white kids. Ya just don’t. But at the same time, why should artists be restricted or judged or categorized by the audience they attract or even just a portion of the audience they attract? Of course, it does say something about the music, however it also says something about our society. That leads me into my next question.
Is it appropriation?
The fact that young white people are drawn to this music—and I’m not gonna lie; I’m a part of this demographic—begs a series of questions, starting with: why? I sincerely hope the answers are no, but I’m forced to ask the following questions. Is PBR&B the ABC Family version of hip-hop? Is it Sandra Bullock’s character in The Blind Side? Are white kids adopting this musical genre to identify as other than white and, in turn, feel good about themselves for doing so? This is where the genre becomes possibly problematic. Of course, I don’t believe this is the case for myself. I like this music because it never shies away from topic—be it heartbreak or addiction or racial inequality. It matches thematic intensity with instrumental force, beats unwavering and penetrating. And it empowers, through straight fuck-off tunes and chill, it-is-what-it-is jams. Still, I have to consider the next question.
How does it relate to race?
Does it blur race? So many genres are so clearly black and white (read: pop is slightly diverse, most hip-hop artists are people of color, everything else is heavily white-dominate). This one isn’t as clearcut. That simple fact then leads to another important question. Does the absence of a racial dominance help work towards resolving the many race issues our “land of the free” society undeniably has or does it ignorantly elude race issues? Songs within this genre don’t always trace to as easily racially identifiable artists as in other genres; it really is a mixed bag. And this removal of race could be good thing. Or it could be a market’s thoughtless disregard for identity. Upon analyzing lyrics, artists often can be set apart. White artists tend to address love while artists of color tend to address a wider variety of social issues.
So I’ve come to a not-entirely-decisive conclusion something along the lines of this: PBR&B is a somewhat segregated genre, but it’s also an authentically mixed one. No, I cannot determine the majority motive behind audiences’ listening. But I can say that these listeners are subjecting themselves to a myriad of voices, all with worthy messages. Yes, artists of color are fighting a fight and taking a risk that white artists are not, and—at least on my front—that does not go unnoticed. But it does enrich this genre. It’s brave and it’s provocative.
Maybe I’m silly for thinking this, but beneath this belittled genre I’ve found hope. There’s every bit of personal hope that comes from these insightful songs—the reassurance that maybe you’re not the only one who’s fucked up or been fucked over. But on top of that there’s also a mix of voices, hitting on a range of topics—a diversity our society so sorely needs. And, damn, that makes me happy on a hell of a lot of levels.
Chet Faker – Talk is Cheap
His sound is just so damn sexy. On top of that, he slays me lyrically. Instead of tackling the topic of insecurity with empty empowerment slogans, Chet Faker is real with his listener(s). There’s nothing he can say or sing to change a self-conscious mind. But he can do something that—as he points out—may actually have a greater positive impact. He makes music that isn’t only wicked chill, but also is near impossible not to seductively sway to, or as he puts it “make you move with confidence”. Chet Faker’s songs are sexy and make you feel sexy; what more could you want?
Jack Garratt – The Love You’re Given
Jack Garratt somehow musically captures that tipsy moment when you start feeling feels and things can only go one of two ways: pillage and conquer or deteriorate into a mess of emotions. He carries you through the song, wavering on the brink. And, no, he doesn’t leave you with some optimistic, you-can-overcome line. But he does offer a tune that gets you so well, you know that, if he’s singing these words to you, there must be a light at the end of the tunnel.
Gil Scott-Heron – The Bottle
The 1970’s version of Swimming Pools (Drank), which certainly has its own place within this genre. Every now and then, you have to pay respects to the greats who’re responsible for movements such as this one and Gil Scott-Heron is one of those legends. Kendrick’s new album actually sounds heavily influenced by Gil Scott-Heron what with his integration of spoken word and funky rhythms. Those rhythms are what secure The Bottle as one of my favorite songs, making it irresistible to groove to while never undermining the seriousness of the lyrics.
Childish Gambino – Hold You Down
James Franco is the white Donald Glover, if even that. Dude acts, kills it with his stand up (our favorite), and is a beautiful beast with a beat and his mic. This is one of those songs that every single person in America ought to give a listen. In one song, he takes on a whole series of issues he faced growing up in this society and points out how little has changed. Despite all the fear, he sure is courageous. Just try to hold him down; I dare ya.
Ella Eyre – If I Go
Ella Eyre’s soulfully raspy voice belts all the vulnerabilities you’re too afraid to say yourself. Hit the road, crank the volume, and just go for it. Each of her songs serves up a different level of sass so that she can be there for you no matter the mood. Plenty of fear, but no bullshit; Ella’s got you covered.
Sabella – Loving Like This
Do as Sabella says; lay down on your bedroom floor—maybe add some candles and red wine—and contemplate your love life to this song. Perhaps Sabella is too young have fallen as deeply in love as she has, but she shows no shame. Instead, she openly mourns with a reverberating bass and catchy chorus. As her simple lyrics sink in and echo throughout your memories, imagine the moody, passionate ballads to come from this new voice.
Jamie xx – Loud Places
The line, “I go to loud places to search for someone to be quite with”, captures exactly what I love some much about this genre. Get a beat going, match it with a gentle voice that digs deeper than you may actually be comfortable with, and escape into the piercing abyss.
Låpsley – Falling Short
Låpsley masters the drifting tunes. Her songs send you off into a slow, floating consciousness. Just as you’re about to totally zone out, she reels you back in by switching a to sudden beat or hitting a striking note. By doing so, she never loses you while soothing you into a lovely zen. It’s the perfect mix of poignant and chill. This song should leave you sluggish and doubtful, but instead it provides you with that moment of reflection you never realized that you desperately needed.
Emile Haynie, Charlotte Gainsboug, Sampha, Devonte Hynes – A Kiss Goodbye
Sampha sings “Did it ever occur that you forgave yourself before I did?” and all you can do is bow down.