Contemporary British R&B & soul exists today as an umbrella term housing many diverse off-shoots; the conventions that defined the wider genre a decade ago becoming ever murkier and less distinguishable. The alternative British R&B scene has suffered as a result of the plurality, side-lined in favor of more pop-centered musicians who feature on any track for clout, which means localized artists are unable to garner the sort of buzz that’s afforded to their chart-driven contemporaries.
However, it seems the tides are changing. Self-made acts plugging away in the peripheries of the industry are becoming ever more accessible in the streaming era, where a premium subscription on Spotify affords you a curated list of musicians to plough through. Furthermore, the likes of James Blake, Nao, and Jorja Smith have galvanized and reenergized the genre, putting British R&B on the map as a viable competitor to its American counterpart. In the last two years alone, British R&B artists have skewed the parameters of what it means to be a “progressive artist” and their iridescent style has been adopted en masse by mainstream musicians internationally.
Today, alternative British R&B and all its myriad strands has never felt more vital and more alive. While the below breakdown is only a representative snapshot of incipient musicians bubbling under the radar, Highsnobiety has rounded up seven acts we believe are emblematic of the renaissance. Each one has cultivated a distinct artistic imprint indifferent to the ‘game’ and fame by association, creating an auditory experience that is a testament to the forward-thinking projection of R&B and soul today.
ELIZA isn’t new to the game, and her inclusion on this list is a testament to her artistic reinvention. She first came on the scene in 2010 under the moniker Eliza Doolittle, producing surface-level pop gems with dangerously addictive melodies. Now, having ditched the twee literature references, ELIZA has undergone somewhat of a transformation, she is an artist emboldened.
She released her opus, A Real Romantic, at the tail end of last year. The LP is an adult-contemporary, stripped-to-the-core experience, exploring the contours of downtempo Nu-Soul – grown and sexy music for nocturnal animals. Comprising of 9 beautifully written, evocative tracks that showcase an exponential growth in the art of song craft, ELIZA unravels over lush live instrumentation, exploring the boundaries of her own sexuality with a brazen vulnerability.
It’s all in the name – Greentea Peng. Two component parts of an artist on the brink of a breakthrough. The ‘green,’ nature-abiding part of Peng’s persona enhanced by the remedial, lullaby-like quality she induces through songs which lull and effervesce like a strong cup of Chai. ‘Peng’ is a common colloquial hyperbole used predominantly by teens in the UK to describe anything above average. As a describer of Greentea Peng’s music, it’s more than apt.
From Bermondsey, in Southeast London, Peng’s debut EP Sensi is an honest reflection of the cosmopolitan culture clash that defines a gentrified London. All of this seeps into the production, a moody smorgasbord of distortion and scattered beats – a paean to house, funk and underground electronica. Peng doesn’t operate in HD. Her intentional mode of craft is lo-fi and deconstructed, favoring kinks in audio over the sheen of a polished studio version, and this only enhances her appeal as an artist playing the long game.
Hailing from Leeds, England and setting up base in London, Jamilah Barry has quietly been a mover in the Nu-R&B tradition for a few years now, establishing herself as an underground act with a finger on the pulse of modern soul. With 2015’s doo wop “Silly Q’s” and 2017’s synthy stunner of a track “Dance Moves,” Barry introduced herself as a poet expounding the experience of desire and cosmopolitan love above the usual boy-meets-girl-in-a-club trope that often defines R&B songs.
There’s a warmth to Barry’s songs heightened by her soothing voice. She’s able to extricate emotion from inner conflict in a way that’s relatable and refreshing, the perfect soundtrack for the melancholy of a grey Sunday. When you press play on her minimalist slow burners it’s easy to get lost in her reverie.
Miles from Kinshasa
Vivien Kongolo’s stage name pays homage to his birthplace in the Democratic Republic of Congo and he creates self-stylized music known as “Rumba-pop” – an amalgam of Rumba Lingala, a popular genre of dance music in Congo, with a lattice of propulsive 80s synth patterns. The resulting effect is something quietly sophisticated, and if we had to draw a comparison, think Blood Orange meets Wildheart-era Miguel.
The South-Londoner released his mini-album LIMBO in 2017, exploring themes of disaffection and existential crises, framed through the loss of innocence as one moves through adulthood. It’s refreshingly devoid of the type of preachy politicking blighting ‘woke’ records which in turn diminish the auditory experience, and Kongolo chooses to offset exposition by serene and hazy vignettes that leaves the listener floating in their own trance – remedial and ethereal.
Ojerime’s music elicits the reminiscence of MTV-era SVW, one where every other R&B/Hip-Hop song came loaded with a Hype Williams visual. The songstress takes the best tropes of classic American R&B – carnal desire, lust, the sway of a hard, programmed beat and of course, the vocals – and repackages them through a prism of low-res, underground realness. Her songs are never caricatures of pre-existing trends, and she honors her upbringing by collaborating with movers and shakers in the Brit underground scene. Her boldness and grit is brewed from a South-London melting pot that means when you press play on a track like “Handle” you get a confluence of sounds that feels both referential and innovative.
Her biggest release to date is her EP 4U, and trust us, nary a dud blights the project (which could easily have been a fully-fledged debut record had she added a track or two more). It’s a miscellaneous listen, incorporating elements of trap, garage and drum’n’bass, ’80s synths and a full spectrum of deconstructed R&B, all threaded by Ojerime’s husky cadence which, amid the snares and sirens, remains the focal point. Citing Faith Evans and Brandy as her vocal stimuli, Ojerime serves up sumptuous riffs and runs, vocals we need in an increasingly homogenous scene that promotes whisper singers and mumble rappers over actual vocalists.
The alacrity to blend genres through a churner is part of the lure of listening to artists who do this with a deftness of touch that feels and sounds effortless. One such artist is Skinny Pelembe, a polymath in every sense of the word. A singer-songwriter, MC, and multi-instrumentalist, Pelembe’s brand of afro-infused synthetic soul is grounded by cherry-picked samples and a chopped/screwed manipulation not so easily replicated.
Born in Johannesburg, raised in Doncaster and now based in London, Pelembe has a voracious appetite for acquiring sounds from his nomadic existence that he injects into his own abstract creations, which began back in 2016 with his song “Mindset Is Fear” – a Massive Attack-esque noirish number, whom Pelembe evokes through reverberating rap-sung chants and metallic dreamscapes.
Tirzah comprises the creative synergy of childhood friends – producer Mica “Mikachu” Levi and vocalist Tirzah Mastin. Tirzah’s past offerings – the EPs I’m Not Dancing and No Romance – didn’t necessarily prescribe to one particular genre, delving into the loosely-formed, fractured sonic underground built for trendy East London hotspots. Soon after that, Mastin featured on a handful of tracks with trip-hop pioneer Tricky and nothing much came afterwards.
Evidently the duo was hidden away concocting their staggeringly good debut LP Devotion, which garnered universal acclaim late last year. Devotion features 11 post-R&B vignettes of modern love – asymmetric and immersive, it’s as if you’ve stumbled across the private and intimate diary entries of your best friend. Mastin sings as if no one is listening, only Mica Levi is a witness to her inner monologues, dressing them in swirls of synthetic loops, pitch shifts and fractured glitch-effects. Together, they have created something utterly esoteric and distinctive, an archetype for sound design that will leave an indelible mark through all of 2019.