Love vs. Money: The Weeknd, Frank Ocean, and R&B's Future Shock

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As the Weeknd says, "XO till we overdose.."
Two days ago, r&b changed again. On Sunday night, a Canadian collective called the Weeknd released their nine-song mixtape, House of Balloons, on their web site. Though they were quick to deny the direct involvement of Drake's sonic architect, Noah "40" Shebib, the apparitions in The Weeknd--no official members have yet come forward--have been heavily co-signed by the Toronto star. Why? Because they are Canadian countrymen? Because the Weeknd's spacious, moody r&b deconstruction further cements Drake and 40's reinvention of the genre? Is it just pure aesthetic appreciation? They're all probably true. What is irrefutable is the calculation that has thus far gone into this project.

House of Balloons is impressive. It's patient, often gorgeous, and consistently louche--sex, drugs and drink seem to be the raison d'etre--with the sort of blown-out underbelly and echo-laden crooning that has already made Drake's less-than-a-year-old Thank Me Later such an influential guidepost. The cover, a photo of a nude woman in a bathtub, her face obscured by black and white balloons, is pure Purple Diary. There is a Tumblr, a Twitter account, a Facebook link. In this post at Blatant Ineptitude, Matthew Gardner calls it, "a Master's course in building an engaging presence for the cool kids" and likens it to Odd Future's cooptation of these platforms.

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Odd Future member Frank Ocean, infamously signed and stored away by Def Jam, forced his identity on the world just a few weeks ago with Nostalgia, Ultra, the free album he shared on his Tumblr. Ocean sings over songs by Coldplay, MGMT, Mr. Hudson, and, yup, goddamn "Hotel California" on Ultra, but he's an intuitive r&b stylist, with a firm sense of song structure (he's written for Justin Bieber and Beyoncé) and a conversational talk-singing voice that is as indebted to Justin Timberlake and Pharrell as it is to R. Kelly. He's also a bit of a goofball. He opens "Nature Feels," his reinterpretation of MGMT's "Electric Feel," with the lyric, "I've been meaning to fuck you in the garden." He also questions the veracity of the moon landing on "We All Try." But on that same song, he obliquely announces his support of a woman's right to choose and gay marriage. Hardly typical r&b tropes. Ocean is a more openly fun character in the world than the so-far self-serious Weeknd project. But they share a tone and a vaguely secretive but accessible sensibility.

SOTC buddy and writer Eric Harvey, while aligning Ocean and the Weeknd with Tom Krell's cracked R&B strip-down How To Dress Well, cheekily dubbed this movement "PBR&B," the implication being that this is rhythm and blues by or for hipsters. Which is sort of true, but only in the way it's been presented. How To Dress Well trafficked in a similarly mysterious style for a time last year, but when fans witnessed his shaky, amateurish live readings, the sanctity of that experiment vanished. Ocean, for all his orange Beamer '80s fetishism and progressive politics, is a fairly standard singer-songwriter. His picture is now available and his work behind-the-scenes for major artists continues to reveal itself. Likewise the seediness of the Weeknd's Ace Hotel jams--this is pro music, made by pros.

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So where does this leave good ole commercial r&b? Not at a crisis point, but certainly a curious one. Yesterday Chris Brown, he of the unforgivable anger issues, released F.A.M.E., his fourth album, and it's got the feel of a big, fat hit. Last year, Trey Songz, after many years of waiting and praying, distinguished himself as an ascendant superstar by leaning as hard into his ballads as he had into his uptempo songs. His delicate throwback "Love Faces" sits at no. 3 on Billboard's r&b/hip-hop chart right now, months after release. But there have been struggles. Usher abandoned the genre for pop glory(?). Ne-Yo's latest album, Libra Scale, debuted at no. 9 last November, selling 112,000 copies, but it spawned no hit singles and left few dents in the genre consciousness. Women have fared worse. Keri Hilson, though riding a pop wave with "Pretty Girl Rock," shifted her identity from relatable girl to grinding diva with lamentable results. Jennifer Hudson released an album just yesterday but her stormy mid-tempo ballad "Where You At" is stiff and flat--a fussed-over product of an old world mentality. After her latest fiasco, Ciara's career as a formidable r&b artist is over. Former Floetry member Marsha Ambrosius had surprising success coming in at no. 2 last week with her new album, Late Nights & Early Mornings, but wait, what's that? Oh, she covered Portishead on the thing. Damn hipsters. Even The-Dream, the patron saint of aggressively lush, counterintuitive r&b had a tough 2010, releasing his worst selling album, Love King, while also divorcing his wife, Christina Milian. Still no word on who retained custody of those riding boots.

So from Drake to Nicki Minaj's naked bid for pop&b success to Wiz Khalifa, whose forthcoming Rolling Papers features four songs produced by Norwegian r&b technicians Stargate, hip-hop has again informed the sound and attitude of soul. The Weeknd--the group is anonymous so far, though it appears that musicians Hyghly Alleyne, Omari Shakir, Doc Mckinney, and Illangelo are involved (update from the Weeknd: "just to make things clear Production duties were headed up by Doc Mckinney and Illangelo")--don't even seem like r&b artists, even though one listen reveals as much. Likewise Frank Ocean, whose singing amidst a riot of rampaging, swag-chanting kids is a dead giveaway, is otherwise operating inside the industry in a simple, but fascinating way. The mode is the same but the language and delivery are changing. At the moment, Ocean and the Weeknd feel like revolutionaries. They'll be gobbled up and reprocessed soon.

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34 comments
Mike Wolf
Mike Wolf

agree totally, except about mainstream swallowing them up - not too sure about the weeknd, but franky seems to be a genuine fellow.....while we're speaking of real underground R&B talent also check out vincent wizard - kid is doing big tings and very underground....

thea garcia
thea garcia

You should feature this band "OakStreetBlues" in your future posts. Check out the last single "Stars" from OakStreetBlues. This would be a great addition to your site.

E.m
E.m

The Weeknd is just one person

annie-oakley
annie-oakley

it's interesting to me that there's video game audio in the background of "house of balloons" since the song is basically about games people play in relationships.

Baltimore Nightlife
Baltimore Nightlife

R&B began to focus more on solo artists rather than groups, asmooth, lush style of vocal arrangement.

Nano John
Nano John

The Weekend, Bei Maejor and Frank Ocean  both have beautifuuuuuuuuuuuuul voices. They're gettin up there woop woop

Middle C
Middle C

I think I would have to respectfully disagree with you. I don't think the "gobbling and reprocessing" will happen. These new artists (the good ones), represent a generational gap, that labels just seem to be noticing. The music is evolving by a younger generation who simply see things a little bit differently I believe. I LOVE Frank Ocean's "nostalgia,ULTRA", it is fresh, new, and simply a bit "different" than the crooners of even 5 years ago. He is talented in multiple aspects of the buisness, whereas the people he surrounds himself with have no talent whatsoever and I still don't understand why he doesn't realize they may be hurting him as well. I'm off topic: My point is that I believe that instead of labels creating there steriotypical "robot's", thanks to The Wkend and Frank Ocean, it's the record companies that need to make the change to accomadate the fresher style since R&B numbers in in the dumps.

Sajjadakbar
Sajjadakbar

If all of you guys like Frank Ocean as much as I do, I suggest you check out his mixtape called The Lonny Breaux Collection, pretty amazing if you ask me. It was released on DatPiff early April. http://www.datpiff.com/Frank-O...

Mommywarbucks.com
Mommywarbucks.com

You should also check out Steven A. Clark. He has been compared to both The Weeknd & Frank Ocean on numerous occasions. The New Wave of R&B music.

piltmode
piltmode

Good mixes...but yeah I still look for talented singer songwriters with a little more soul like Bilal and Dwele (who is majorly slept on)....and (gulp) D'angelo????

Hakeem
Hakeem

Very true, this could be the beginning of a new movement in R&B. Another one to look out for is Steven A. Clark, his project "Stripes" came out at the beginning of March and has a similar vibe, I think he's the underdog being that he doesn't seem to have any apparent co-sign or label backing, etc...

Yo
Yo

808s & Hrtbrk was the start of all of this.

Yakim Todd
Yakim Todd

I think it's dope that R&B is expanding and become far more experimental sound wise. However, I still hope that we can have artists in the vein of an En Vogue, Musiq Soulchild, or Jill Scott i.e real singers who sing real soul music.

As far as Frank Ocean, the OF connection he has could be helpful or could hurt him as an R&B artist. I, among others, was very hesistant to listen to him because I expected some "Odd Future" shit not real music.

pschase
pschase

my, thats a very cynical closer, homie. Probably true, but we should talk about why...Even if it's PBRnB , hearing nostalgia, Ultra a few weeks back was an ear opener - it felt dynamic, twisted, and honest at least to his personal character. Would that have been the same album if it came out on Def Jam?

Casey|Cassandra
Casey|Cassandra

dope. was just thinking about how these two tapes were changing the game. i haven't listened to much else since they dropped.

Get Right Music
Get Right Music

Definitely a big month for R&B mixtape releases. These artists are utilizing the best method of promotion and getting their music out there and heard. Both of these mixtapes are must listens. Nice write up about the whole movement!

dalatu
dalatu

DJ Drama played FO on his radio show last weekend, I bet he will actually be on radio across the country within a year, while Weeknd is amassed into Drake and mainstream R&B will get weird as the lines between Underground and Mainstream blur into near non-existence.

Robert Noel
Robert Noel

I listened to him... great voice but too jazzy

L
L

I agree... listen to Steven A. Clark Stripes at www.FreeLve.com ... it's a new movement coming out of Miami

No
No

youre a fucking idiot.

Baltimore Nightlife
Baltimore Nightlife

R&B began to focus more on solo artists rather than groups, asmooth, lush style of vocal arrangement. R&B is a music genre thatcombines elements of hip hop, soul, R&B and funk.

Lezx
Lezx

Ofwg is the best so don't mess nigga

Kellys12play
Kellys12play

Really? The author connects the dots on something that has been going on for years. Yes Frank Ocean and the Weeknd have adapted well to the new media regime but the story is the same: underground goes mainstream.

Eden253
Eden253

have the weeknd and ocean gone mainstream. though? look at them ten months later, still a genius mystery.or is mainstream leaning towards them?

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