Remember the ‘90s! (Or the ‘00s, that’s cool too!) It’s a hash tag, it’s the command of every chipper listicle about Lisa Frank, Sassy and Gak, and it’s become the obsession of today’s R&B. Rihanna is riding Ginuwine’s “Pony” down the lonely dubstep track. Brandy and Monica are back and together again, except this time, it’s the boy’s MacBook that’s theirs. Aaliyah is back — posthumous and zombified by the presence of Drake and the Weeknd, but back! Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, who taught a generation to expect “dog chow” before every R&B track, never went away, but now he’s back too, EDM-enhanced but on pop crossovers again. Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes sort of went away, if you count the number of times you’ve thought about “the Neptunes” this decade, but he’s back as a surprisingly prolific — and promising — name in the credits. Timbaland did go away, if you count his descent into the circles of Shock Value hell as going away, but he’s back working with Missy Elliott — who is also back, and not just on a terrible Katy Perry remix.
Much has been written this year about the resurgence of R&B, on the coattails of critically adored albums by Frank Ocean, Miguel, the Weeknd and others. Most of this gets called “alt–R&B” (or other, more embarrassing names) and gets dated back to 2011, but it didn’t start then; the movement was brewing long before Abel Tesfaye went incognito or How to Dress Well demonstrated how to brand well. The late Aaliyah, after her death, became something of a talisman for underground producers and was covered, sampled, chopped and screwed and praised countless times even before Drake exhumed her vault. The same happened to the similarly wispy-voiced Cassie, who scored one hit with “Me & U” then disappeared from the charts into a SoundCloud cult; one fan recently compiled three albums’ worth of her released and unreleased material, giving them Weeknd-aping cover art, which is in a way like those Wuthering Heights reprints with gloomy Twilight covers but sledgehammers its point. Solange Knowles went eclectic. So did Janelle Monae on The Arch-Android. So did Dawn Richard and Kalenna Harper, a Making the Band castmate and jobbing songwriter recruited by Diddy for expansive-and-expensive Last Train to Paris. If the pump’s gushing now, it’s because it was primed before.
“The further you go down the alt-R&B rabbit hole, the more feels like browsing a museum of stamp designs or trespassing through an Angelfire site on Sega manuals: lavishly curated, yet painfully niche, playing to an audience ever more insular.”
But though the alt-R&B tag is useful enough, if reductive, it glosses over one sobering caveat: it’s “alt” because it’s forced to be. R&B may have returned to the zeitgeist, but it’s not bigger than ever; in fact, urban music’s in commercial free fall. Crossovers are rare. The R&B / Hip-Hop charts are a world apart from Top 40 — or at least they were before Billboard changed the rules for those and other charts to favor digital sales and streaming as much as dedicated genre airplay, resulting in things like Rihanna’s decidedly un-R&B “Diamonds” and K-pop goof Psy’s “Gangnam Style” topping the R&B and rap charts, respectively. While Ocean and Miguel managed to chart, before and after becoming alt-R&B figureheads, only Ocean even comes close to the monoculture dominance the genre enjoyed in the past. The further you go down the alt-R&B rabbit hole, the more feels like browsing a museum of stamp designs or trespassing through an Angelfire site on Sega manuals: lavishly curated, yet painfully niche, playing to an audience ever more insular.
Things weren’t always like this. It’s telling that at the forefront of this movement is Aaliyah, because “Try Again” and “Are You That Somebody” are part of a group of turn-of-the-century R&B tracks that also includes things like “Buga Boo,” or “Caught Out There,” or “Oops (OhMy),” or “Foolish”: all hits, all crossovers, and all jaw-dropping: lavishly produced and hemorrhaging sonic creativity. From about 1998 to 2003, basically everything sounded like this. Its revival was inevitable if you’ve read your Retromania or believe in the cyclical resurgence of musical decades; once music at large revived, killed then revived again the ‘80s, and after commercial R&B started remembering new jack swing, the millennial stuff was next in line. “Music-geeks in my age range, born in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, came of age during something of a heyday for commercial R&B, when producers like Timbaland, Darkchild and the Neptunes were creating the most interesting, innovative [music] that one could find on Top 40 radio and MTV,” wrote blogger Michelle Myers (whose attached Spotify playlist is an indispensable primer).
There’s one more thing those hits have in common. While Brandon Soderberg wrote in an otherwise excellent Spin piece that alt-R&B is “predominantly… a male phenomenon,” and while the alt-R&B figureheads are all guys, the best golden-age hitmakers were women. Yes, their writers and producers were mostly men, but not all; even ignoring the fact that most big-name producers in any genre are men, millennial artists generally wrote far more of their material than people assume (arguably the biggest millennial album, The Writing’s on the Wall, has Destiny’s Child co-writes on just about everything), and sharing album space with the Timbalands and She’kspheres are people like Tamara Savage and Kandi Burruss, who before plunging into the Real Housewives sinkhole was among the genre’s most prolific writers and producers, as well as a solo artist with the excellent “Don’t Think I’m Not.”