The-Dream had just gotten through stamping out the last embers of a Twitter-fueled “beef” with Toronto troubadour the Weeknd when he offered up a bit of advice for any scrappy promoters watching our 4 p.m. live stream. “They actually should be having an R&B [concert] right now,” he said, his drawl dripping with sarcasm. “They should be trying to think of how they can get 10 people on the stage at the same time.”
And who could blame him for thinking R&B desperately needed a good look? It still was only June, after all: The most revelatory album credits ever written were still sitting on Frank Ocean‘s MacBook, Abel Tesfaye (b.k.a. the Weeknd) had yet to cap an NYC run with a triumphant performance in the BX, and R&B titan The-Dream was guesting on a show called “RapFix Live.” In other words, rhythm and blues was still just that thing Drake did when he was in his feelings, and the genre known to some detractors as Ribs & Barbecue was still on the ropes.
On the ropes … but not down for the count it turned out, thanks largely to a trio of prize-fighters who jumped in the ring with a few game-changing combinations. Channel Orange, Kaleidoscope Dream and Trilogy rescued the art form from the monotony of “baby, baby please,” as Ocean, Miguel and Weeknd casually re-created it in their own images. Proving you could sing about dreams and drugs, make songs for women and men, and as long as it rang true, they would come. For their mighty efforts, we’ve crowned R&B the Comeback Genre of the Year.
Though Ocean, Miguel and Weeknd see through different musical lenses, they’re united by a few key characteristics: all in their 20s, the three men are acclaimed singer/songwriters who write for themselves and others, from Beyoncé to Brandy. They boast airtight rap co-signs as with Ocean’s Odd Future origins, Weeknd’s close collaborations with hometown hero Drake and Miguel’s go-to status for everyone from Wale to J. Cole to Joey Crack. Oh, and it’s no accident that two of their standout projects were lifted mostly from earlier mixtapes — in the Tumblr era, crooners spit bars and drop tapes.
More telling, each artist has strayed from the lyrical playbook that alternately fueled and then felled the genre. So while the Pied Piper of R&B was ostensibly the first to sing about being “Trapped in the Closet”, New Orleans-bred Ocean took the idea to new realms, liberating his male leads from behind closed doors and changing the rules about what we thought was taboo, in 2012, with the Grammy-nominated Channel Orange. By July, he was onstage, his head wrapped in that ever-present bandana, nodding and looking pleasantly surprised as co-ed crowds sang along to his yearning “you run my mind, boy”s.
It took Miguel’s second project for him to learn what Frank had already begun to discover on his self-propelled 2011 project, Nostalgia, Ultra, namely that it’s always best to do like that old Fleetwood Mac song says, and go your own way. The Los Angeles native made good on that lesson with sonically eclectic tracks like the inescapable, Marvin Gaye-chasing “Adorn” and “The Thrill.” The comparably reclusive Weeknd may not have been quick with a sound bite but his raw, emotional collection dared you not to connect. From “Wicked Games” to “Rolling Stone,” the enigmatic singer wrote like an MC but could sing like D’Angelo.
Let’s hear it for the boys.