Record Radar: the PBR&B issue

MOVE Columnist Kennedy Simone reviews new releases from Kelela and Bryson Tiller.

By Kennedy Simone | Oct. 29, 2015

Tags: Music Reviews


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“Okay, so out of the nascent PBR&B thing of Weeknd, How to Dress Well, Frank Ocean, it's not even a question that Ocean is the best, right?”

This was the tweet written by Pitchfork contributor Eric Harvey in 2011 that led to “PBR&B” becoming the hilarious, semi-offensive and somewhat brilliant pseudo-subgenre in music that it is today. I’ve used the term in my previous reviews, but after referencing it to almost anyone I know—co-workers, editors, my roommates...I’ve reached a consensus.

Most people have no idea what PBR&B is. And to complicate things even further, the definition of the term is so subjective even the people who reference it have no idea what it is.

In 2013, Harvey took the time to clear the air on the unintentional monster he created in a Pitchfork op-ed piece saying, “In more modern terms, it’s music rooted in African-American traditions that…well, to put it bluntly, might sell to young white people for whom other types of more rhythm-focused or bluesy modern R&B might not.”

In my personalized definition of PBR&B, I leave race out of the conversation and just let the “P” stand for “progressive.” Using it when referencing some of my favorite artists such as FKA twigs, PARTYNEXTDOOR and Chet Faker, PBR&B uses influences from a limitless number of genres to create a style of R&B that’s uniquely new wave.

Now that we’ve reached an understanding once and for all, let’s get to the reviews.

First up we have Kelela. With the recent release of her much-anticipated “Hallucinogen” EP, Kelela is a leading artist in the early PBR&B movement. Her 2013 debut album “Cut 4 Me” made waves immediately upon its release. After listening to “Hallucinogen,” it’s clear that Kelela is here to stay.

First track “A Message” is dauntingly atmospheric. The singer’s blunt but soulful layered vocals are a key force in building up the track to the almost acapella hook “If I was your ex...girlfriend.” Accompanied by the assistance of a few kick drums, the track is a perfect opener. Complex enough to package the EP’s independent sound as a whole, but simple enough to leave you craving more.

Next on the album comes “Rewind.” A stylistic revamp of Kelela’s previous work, “Rewind” manages to maintain a presence uniquely its own. Drum machines, synths, late ‘80s hip-hop beats and ultra-dainty singing...this is all familiar. It’s toward the lower half of the song that impresses me. The modulated melody and distorted vocals take over, transforming the track into a heavy-hitting trap beat. “Rewind” is a dance track with a bit of discretion, but a lot of appeal.

Our next contestant? Bryson Tiller. His debut album “T R A P S O U L” leans a tad more on the traditional hip-hop side of the PBR&B scale, but as he says in the album’s second track “Let ‘Em Know”: “If it ain’t broken, then don’t fix it.”

Having heard a few songs from the album prior to its releases, I started with the ninth track “Rambo.” First unveiling itself with a horror-film worthy piano melody and a rowdy Carribean combat sample, this track is a bold warning to Tiller’s opponents to take him for the chart-topping threat that he’s determined to become. Its grittiness even got Tiller a (shoutout)[] from the original “Rambo” lead actor Sylvester Stallone on Twitter. Even without the shoutout, the track’s originality easily makes it an album highlight.

The second listen was “The Sequence.” Featuring a double-time beat heavy enough to resemble an amplified heartbeat, this song is all lyrical. Pleading for a second chance from his assumed ex, the honesty in Tiller’s words is what makes the track so alluring. Is it great? Nope. However, taking the “less is more” route definitely plays in Tiller’s favor in this case, making it undeniably catchy and a subconscious choice for album replays.

I wish this week’s issue of Record Radar had an obvious winner, as both contestants Kelela and Tiller had respectable releases. Although “Hallucinogen” and “T R A P S O U L” both lie within similar genres, the audiences they appeal to are very different. If you’re looking for a more original sound, Kelela is definitely your pick. Looking for something with a more early 2000s bedroom R&B vibe? Tiller is your man. Regardless of your predetermined preference, I urge you to give the two albums a listen and allow yourself the opportunity to fall in love with both. Why choose when you can have your cake and eat it, too?

Bonus Play Song: I Know Artist: Tyus

This is a song you play at full-volume, submerging yourself into the sound. Listen too closely and all you’ll be able to hear is a “PARTYNEXTDOOR TWO” rip-off. The perfectly placed gun cock sound effect, the looming DJ air horns, the shifty and all-consuming bass...regardless of where you’ve heard it before, PBR&B newcomer Tyus executes his sound well enough to the extent where you couldn’t care less who produced what sound first. “I Know” is explicit and overtly obnoxious in the sexiest way possible. I’m giving this song 50 fire emojis.

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