Last month, DJBooth launched R&B Radar, a new recurring column wherein I, resident R&B lover and all around appreciator of good things, kicked off my monthly pledge to trek through the oppressive music landscape on your behalf in order to pinpoint five of the most exciting, young artists making R&B music today. If you’re interested in reading a more formal introduction to this column, feel free to check out last month’s inaugural edition.
Before I jump directly into this month’s list of spotlighted artists, I want to make a quick programming note about my selections. Aside from the fact that all of these artists make great music, it’s unlikely that you’ll notice a ton of overlap between them. This is by design. Given the ever-evolving nature of R&B, it would be a missed opportunity to use this space to highlight five indistinguishable artists, all of whom sound like wannabe Bryson Tillers or generic brand SZAs. By selecting five dissimilar artists each month, I hope to be able to appeal to a wide bandwidth of tastes, expand the palettes of a few listeners, and showcase the full range of variety the genre has to offer.
Now, having sufficiently put all of this additional pressure on myself, let’s get into it!
From: San Antonio, Texas
The Frank Ocean comparisons that seem to be popping up so frequently these days—rearing their heads in nearly every write-up about buzzing artists like Choker, Leon Thomas, and Lucky Daye—are almost never fair to the young artists who are forced to bear them. Frequently reductive, often overblown, and sometimes daunting, it’s beyond conceivable that the artists who are forced to endure the brunt of these comparisons will eventually go on to resent the way they undercut their ability to establish a unique artistic identity. With that said, personal experience has taught me that every time I’m introduced to an artist via this comparison, I inevitably end up clicking on their music.
Considering the value of this selling point, then, I’d be remiss not to mention that Jay Wile does indeed sound uncannily similar to Frank Ocean. Overwhelmingly, the similitude between these two artists is a product of the striking resemblance of their respective vocal tones, but where this likeness starts to feel particularly eerie is during the select moments of Wile’s 2017 EP, Blue Patio, where he opts to sing over the types of minimalist canvasses that Ocean has become so well known for employing in recent years. “Numb,” with its single instrument backdrop, nimble vibrato, and softly spoken adlibs is perhaps the best example of this peculiar sensation, inspiring comments on its music video, like “so y’all telling me this ain’t frank ocean? ” and “we know it's you on the vocals, Frank. Try harder, bro.”
In the instances where Wile departs from this shadow, he does so with a comparatively unpretentious, yet surprisingly effective approach towards lyricism, and—particularly on his three most recent singles—a seeming enthusiasm for more upbeat production that connotes possible mainstream aspirations. Of these three singles, “Help Myself” is arguably the most widely appealing, featuring a groove that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the last Calvin Harris album, a chorus enhanced by Wile’s controlled falsetto, and a gradual build towards a memorable bridge that offers the type of neat resolution that is so essential to good pop music. It’s certainly not lost on me that Frank Ocean was also featured on the last Calvin Harris album, but let’s not get caught up in the technicalities here. Even if the two ultimately end up being compared for years to come, in the grand scheme of things, there are much worse artists one could be compared to.
From: San Francisco/Bay Area, California
Listening to the playful melodies on “Shy Girl,” the thing I’m most struck by is how reliably Samaria’s music manages to invoke this particular adjective. Imagine the types of melodies you might hear on a Kehlani record—supple and honey dipped, almost to the point of saccharine—but then filter these through the unique sensibilities of an artist who is slightly less preoccupied with coating her music in a thick layer of gloss, and the resulting product might describe Samaria.
Standing out as one of the most engaging parts of her artistry, the area where Samaria’s intentional lack of polish is most noticeable is in her vocal phrasing. In much of her catalog, Samaria makes effective use of miniature vocal runs to navigate around a song’s correct note, moment to moment, very briefly subverting the ear’s expectations, before eventually sticking the landing. It’s a clever device that has the effect of creating pockets of immediate accessibility within more ambitious compositions, allowing them to unravel slowly over the course of several listens.
These shrewd little flourishes are on display all across Adventures of Lovergirl (Part 1), Samaria’s most recent project—which was released just this past Valentine’s Day. At just eight tracks, the EP is a compact listen marked by narratively intricate songwriting and spacious production, all of which come together elegantly to pique listeners’ interests for the next installment in the Lovergirl series, presumably arriving later this year.
From: San Francisco/Bay Area, California
Polo Perks Is Building a Future From Pieces of the Past
We talk to the Surf Gang artist about microdosing alternative music in his raps.
Whereas it’s easy to get bamboozled by the types of R&B artists who attempt to cover up their lack of songwriting chops with booming voices and theatrical frills, history has shown us that many of the genre’s most enduring voices are those whose work scans as effortless rather than technically dazzling. Falling into this latter camp is Christian Kuria, a young artist from the Bay Area, who utilizes his gift for the guitar and his strikingly unaffected singing voice to craft the type of timeless music that you could conceivably envision serving as the perfect backdrop to a dedicated day of spring cleaning, a Sunday brunch with friends, a snowy day indoors, and myriad other settings.
In trying to determine what it is about Kuria’s music that makes it so broadly appealing, there’s an argument to be made that its greatest strength is how disarmingly unassuming it is. The music has this tendency to blend seamlessly into the background the moment you stop actively listening, but it’s also deceptively catchy, bypassing immediate detection as it burrows subtle earworms into your subconscious. Anecdotally speaking, “Vain” is the Kuria song where I observed this phenomenon most prominently. Three days after I listened to it for the first time, I woke up humming the song’s chorus.
To be clear, this isn’t to say that Kuria doesn’t also have a knack for crafting the type of music that grips listeners immediately—look no further than his sporadic collaborations with house and EDM producers for proof of his adaptability—but he’s clearly at his best when he’s singing over his own gentle guitar compositions, making the type of music that I’d feel comfortable playing in the car with my parents. Here’s to hoping that 2018’s steady trickle of singles, most of which matched this description, suggest that Kuria’s debut album is on its way soon.
From: Atlanta, Georgia
Defying easy categorization, Demo Taped is an artist who exists at the precise intersection of several genres at once, serving as the perfect metaphor for the way R&B has widened its scope in recent years to accommodate different influences. His 2018 EP, Momentary—while consisting of just five tracks—calls to mind the work of Jai Paul, SiR, Francis and the Lights, Toro y Moi, James Blake, Daft Punk, Blood Orange, and various other artists, somehow distilling this wide array of influences into a cohesive package.
Taking stock of this list of comparisons, it raises the question: if an artist can simultaneously be compared to so many disparate artists at once, then how true can any one of these comparisons possibly ring? In this regard, it’s worth noting that Demo Taped isn’t just a product of his muses, he’s undeniably his own artist, reconciling a number of distinct stylistic elements to write music that is singular to his own sensibilities.
Above all else, this manifests itself in the form of songs that are transcendently infectious, featuring the type of textured production that builds pockets of tension, and massive choruses that relieve this tension by swelling with huge bursts of melodic instrumentation. To reiterate, whether it’s the gospel-inspired harmonies on “Insecure” or the EDM breakdown of “Own It,” it sounds like I’m describing a paint by numbers approach to music that really shouldn’t work, but fortunately, Demo Taped is the rare songwriter with the type of clairvoyant vision to seamlessly fuse all of this together.
Although last year’s Momentary didn’t quite accumulate the buzz of his past releases, Demo Taped is currently signed to 300 Entertainment, has toured with more established artists, like Nao, and has gained coverage publications like Pigeons & Planes and Noisey, suggesting that he currently has all the ingredients assembled for a breakout year.
From: London, United Kingdom
Traditionally, when you think of a jam band, you picture hobbyists; the type of people who practice in basements with terrible acoustics and aspire to play gigs at local bars filled with disinterested patrons. Luckily, this perception has begun to take a turn for the better in recent years, bolstered by the quality output of groups like The Internet, Hiatus Kaiyote, Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals, and various others. The success of these collectives has served as a necessary reminder that jam sessions shouldn't exclusively be maligned as some sort of unproductive pastime for bored amateurs, but rather, they should be celebrated as the creative processes that often yield the most organic compositions.
Incidentally, this change in the tide of opinions happens to coincide with the emergence of Radiant Children—individually: Fabienne Holloway, Tyler Accord, and Marco Bernardis—who first launched their collaborative project after being encouraged by the results of a 15-hour jam session they inadvertently found themselves in three years ago.
Their debut EP TRYIN’, released towards the end of last year, is chock-full of the types of songs that conjure images of the studio sessions that birthed them; instruments littered around the room, lyric fragments written on whiteboards, sleep-deprived artists fueled by overflowing inspiration, etc.
Stylistically, the music on this EP is a mix of female-fronted neo-soul, funk, and jazz—falling somewhere on the spectrum between The Internet, Hiatus Kaiyote, and Janelle Monae—that could best be described as “feel-good.” A cheerful ethos underscores much of their music, even when they’re singing about how “life’s a bitch” on the song of the same name, or talking about charting their own path on “Go Left.”
In an interview with HighSnobiety, the group recounted their reaction to finding out that their EP had been promoted on Spotify’s billboard in Times Square upon its release. “Somebody at Spotify was just a fan,” Tyler said. “We definitely thought it’d been photoshopped,” Marco followed-up. With fans in such high places, it’ll only be a matter of time before you start to see their name start to pop up more frequently.