Alternative R&B. PBR&B (Pabst Blue Ribbon/Rhythm & Blues). Hipster R&B. R-Neg-B. Indie R&B. Urban contemporary.
Alternative R&B, also referred to as PBR&B, indie R&B, and hipster R&B, is a term used by music journalists to describe an emerging, stylistic alternative to contemporary R&B. [Good old Wikipedia]
I’m sure you’ve heard of at least one of these terms floating around the music sphere more and more over recent times. But what actually is it? And PBRNB – why is the name so cryptic? Why does it sound less like a genre of music and more like some kind of coding you’re more likely to see in a HTML script…
I came across some of these terms a couple of years ago when I was trying to think of an umbrella term /subgenre for some of my favourite artists coming up at the time with the hopes of writing a blog post about this ‘new wave’ of musicians. I named the post something like R&B; Generation-Y (this was before people started to replace this generation tag with Millennials so excuse me if it now sounds a bit off-key).
With reference to PBR&B, the concept is seemingly quite easy to grasp and there are definitely artists that spring to mind when you’ve got your head around its definition; SZA, Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, Bryson Tiller, Alexandria, Tinashe, Jeremih etc. Think of an R&B artist that don’t sound like your traditional R&B heavyweights (Mary J, Lauryn, Boyz, Whitney etc) and they have probably been lumped into this category. Characterised by computerised synths and lo fi production techniques (influenced by electronically produced music), it has a distinctly new and innovative sound when paired with lyrics that are very now. And it’s not trying to be timeless (heartbreak, wifi codes, social media all play a part in their subject matter).
I do, however find the term a little problematic/find myself questioning why it is referred to in this way. For me, ‘alternative’ provokes thoughts of otherness. Difference. Difference to a true form or even inferiority to its original form. So does this mean that PBR&B isn’t as good as traditional R&B? R&B has been continually developing from its conception, but didn’t it always retain its original genre moniker? These artists are on the rise and have an increasing prominence on the wider music scene, so to call them ‘alternative’ when they’re being seen more and more in ‘mainstream’ media seems contrary – no?
The discussion of genre itself is a tricky one anyway since trying to assign an artist/track by specific characteristics to a certain group will always have exceptions and there’s not one blanket rule that we can categorise by. I can imagine that a lot of artists find being assigned a specific genre very assuming, limiting and downright annoying/incorrect when they’re put into groups they would not typically associate themselves with – ABRA and FKA have commented on their frustration of critics critiquing their music as R&B (probably because of what they look like) when its closer to something different ie classical or pop.
Essentially, genres are a tough thing. We need them, but they can do more harm or cause more confusion than good. We like their ability to group ‘types’ of creative media, however it becomes a catch 22 when we get caught up in making everything fit an order, especially when that media doesn’t seem to easily fit anywhere.
What do you call it? (urban…garage…2 step)