Diving Into the PBR&B Rabbit Hole

Genres of music are being broken down into very specific, micro classifications due to the tags that taste makers, music bloggers, and critics fabricate to identify a certain styling that has yet to be labeled. At times, it can be difficult to keep up with but, at the same time, they are very fun to explore. Each week, I will explore a different sub-genre and try to explain the stains left on my shirt after climbing out of each tedious rabbit hole of musical stylings.

PBR&B (also known as indie R&B, alternative R&B, or, yikes, urban contemporary) is a relatively new sub-genre that was slapped with this distinction around the time that artists like Frank Ocean, Miguel, How to Dress Well and Theophilus London started to drop material. The sound of PBR&B is more or less defined by an exchange of ideas from several other genres such as EDM, hip-hop, rock and soul. It draws greatly upon the influence of R&B from generations past and filters it through a modern lens. The best examples of this are Ocean’s Channel Orange and How to Dress Well’s Total Loss. The former utilizes a lot of the same style techniques from legends like Marvin Gaye, Al Green in a lush, hip-hop oriented soundscape, while the latter feels more like a Ralph Tresvant record set to Gregorian chants. The artists that represent the sub-genre also diverge from the common theme that dominates the narratives of its standard bearers.

The greater genre of R&B is dominated by a slew of artists who are seen, from the outset, as cool, calm, and confident. They are the “Mr. Steal Yo Girls” of music. The guys who walk (or dance) in a room and sweep every woman off their feet. The Ushers, the Chris Browns, the Ne-Yos. Yet, their material lacks vulnerability aside from a few tracks that are set to precipitation heavy videos. Artists representing this new divergence are much more complex with narratives surrounding their awkward sexual encounters, bouts with unrequited love, battles with emotional loss, and not always getting the girl. They are not pick-up artists; they are more like Robert Smith of The Cure.

The women of the sub-genre are a little bit more of a mixed bag. Lana Del Rey has a very breathy approach to her records which feature very meandering instrumentation (and lyrics) that leave you feel like you’re covered in sap. If you’re you like stronger, tighter vocals, Jessie Ware has the presence of a DFA Records kick drum with a sound that draw on a big influence from Sade. Janelle Monae has music draped in retro futuristic themes with a voice that can occupy the warehouse where Kanye recorded Yeezus. 

More interesting artists are starting to emerge amid the critical and commercial successes of the sub-genre’s vanguard. Rhye, the brain child of Quadron member Robin Hannibal and Mike Milosh, features Milosh’s gender bending voice and production that is very smooth and low key. There is also Dornik, a touring drummer with Jessie Ware, who recently released his single, “Something About You.” The song relies heavily on electro which makes it sound like a blast of cool air on a hot, summer day in Los Angeles.

The main criticism with PBR&B is the argument of cultural appropriation and whether or not this mostly white sub-genre is taking the “blackness out of R&B”. Some of these same issues were debated during the rise of “blue eyed soul” with artists like Bonnie Raitt, Michael McDonald, Bobby Caldwell and Simply Red. It’s become a sub-genre that can be polarizing with a lot of backlash surrounding it’s association to “hipster subculture” and how you feel about said subculture. There is evidence of ignorance on the part of some but there are also others who are very self-aware of the implication of their music.

Aside from some of the problematic  items at its core, PBR&B is very enjoyable with a roster of talent being categorized there on an almost daily basis. It’s a refreshed, refined take on a genre that started to grew moldy and stale as the pop machine of the record industry pumped out cookie cutter acts like Jason DeRulo. It continues to expand seemingly each day and this makes it exciting. So go on and look at the featured songs below so you can check out that rabbit hole of hipster subculture:

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