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R&B’s New Rhetoric

With the recent release of The Weeknd’s Trilogy, this year’s pleasant aberrations in R&B have gathered enough momentum affect a sea change in the genre. The release brings Weeknd into the same echelon as Frank Ocean, who earlier this year chalked up a game changing, commercial and critical hit with his debut record, channelORANGE. Even if, in Weeknd’s case, the “critical” portion of that success threatens to overshadow the “commercial,” he and Ocean still have the opportunity to chart a new stylistic course for R&B.

Without a strong sense of their own aesthetics, Weeknd and Ocean couldn’t have come up with the albums that they did. It’s remarkable, however, that even with such distinct voices, the pair still boasts an uncanny amount of similarities.

Both Ocean and Weeknd employ a melancholy lyrical mode and spend most of their time discussing the unkempt aftermaths of drug-damaged romances. They make morning-after music for mornings that probably begin in the afternoon and whose defining characteristics are regret, shame and hungover exhaustion.

The loving detail with which both artists render these scenarios implies that they would perhaps like to have their debaucherous cake and eat it too. R&B artists perfected the art of cloaking their desires in melodrama back in the genre’s Pleistocene era, and the tendencies of both Ocean and Weeknd to use this rhetorical mode connects them with their forebears.

When looking for an example of R&B’s traditional themes, one could do much worse than Chris Brown, whose Fortune, from earlier this year, provided an abundance of sexually aggressive maneuvers disguised as love-struck swooning. Usher, R&B’s other reigning scion, partakes regularly in this rhetorical mode as well.

The interactions that R&B fans have with these superstars imply that they know full well of the ruse, and are willing participants in it. By placing their sexual intentions within a framework of love-hurt submission, Brown, Usher and company remove some of the “teeth” from sexual conquest.

In this same manner, Weeknd and Ocean lionize the dissipated lifestyle of Los Angeles socialites, while simultaneously shaking their heads at the tragedy of those misspent youths.

Again, I think it’s fair to say that Weeknd and Ocean’s fans are in on the swindle. The appeal of both artists hinges somewhat on their close association with glamour and the fact that they, like their fans, cast themselves as outsiders in that world, adding greatly to their relate-ability.

More so than with their predecessors, both songwriters seem to harbor a greater interest in storytelling, even if that storytelling still conforms to R&B’s dissimulating mold. When combined with their willingness to push the sonic envelope to equally ambitious distances, Ocean and Weeknd’s unique take on R&B’s principal themes allows them to remake the genre from the inside out.


About the Author


Shane Danaher's affection for pop music has peppered his adult life with a variety of aesthetically rewarding and financially disastrous decisions. After moving to Portland, Oregon for college (because that's where he heard Modest Mouse was from) Shane has wound up participating in the music world in roles ranging from 'drummer' to 'promoter' to 'bathroom floor scrubber.' He has toured without money, written about almost every band ever to have come out of the Pacific Northwest, and one time traveled all the way to Los Angeles just to see a catch hip-hop show. He currently resides in Portland, where he writes about hip-hop, pop and rock music for a variety of publications. He still plays drums. He wants to meet Kanye West.

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