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The New R. & B. Is Here, Reflecting Confused Modern

Bathed in icy turquoise, purple, and red hues, the R. & B. singer Jacquees took the stage at Irving Plaza on Sunday night with the confidence of a seasoned veteran and a reception fit for a champion. The singer, just months ago, had set social media alight with debate when he proclaimed himself the “King of R. & B.” for his generation, but there was no disagreement among the sold-out crowd. In fact, the declaration—which is essentially part of his brand now, right down to the merch with the phrase emblazoned on it that was on sale in the lobby—was met with affirmative cheers every time that Jacquees or his d.j. shouted it.

Jacquees knows his audience, and he has capitalized on a moment when it seems increasingly rare that an R. & B. song isn’t basically hip-hop, or over-sanitized as pop, or some vaporous combination thereof. He has leaned into the qualities that people love about the serenades of the nineties and early two-thousands—a time of baby-faced artists singing convincingly about their carnal impulses and wrecked hearts—and repackaged them for a new era, right down to the male dancers choreographed for sexual suggestion. His acts seems to be working: women in the audience on Sunday shredded their vocal cords every time he held eye contact, or flashed his smile, or hit a falsetto.

With such an evident affinity for R. & B.’s bygone time, it’s no coincidence that Jacquees’s breakout single, “B.E.D.,” from 2016, annexes Avant’s 2003 hit “Read Your Mind,” a tactic that is very much in vogue right now. There are those who see his interpolations and his covers of other people’s songs (deemed “Quemixes”) as uncreative and cheap gimmickry, but, when executed in more subtle fashion—the nod to Keith Sweat’s “Get Up On It” on the standout track “You Belong to Somebody Else,” or to Usher’s “Nice and Slow” on the single “Inside”—they seem like reverence and proof of an artistic DNA. (Jacquees’s début album, “4275,” featured stars from several periods, including Trey Songz, Jagged Edge, Donell Jones, and LaTocha Scott, from the nineties girl group Xscape.)

Snarky jokes about Jacquees’s nobility may have been abundant online, but the fans piled into Irving Plaza were very much real. And the show wasn’t just the fruits of his tenacity, the years of Quemixes, and an astute ability to assume a throwback posture; it was also evidence of a renewed and growing interest in R. & B. as a genre that exists on its own terms. Last year was a watershed moment for the newest generation of R. & B., and included the débuts of such promising acts as VanJess, Summer Walker, Pink Sweat$, and Marco McKinnis. And, keeping with the momentum, the Jacquees concert capped a particularly strong week for new R. & B. recordings—last week, the Atlanta-based crooner Elhae and the California artists Eric Bellinger and Kehlani all released new projects.

Elhae’s “Trouble in Paradise” is undeniably contemporary, though still firmly rooted in R. & B. conventions. It’s a concept album about a relationship’s unravelling and the potential for reconciliation. One standout, “I.D.B.I.L.,” captures the loss of faith in love; Elhae’s phrasing imbues the song with a sense of measured reflection and melancholy. Another track, “Sanctuary,” summons the spirit of the nineties quartet Jodeci—church boys who traded in their choir robes for bare chests and leather jackets, and then transformed, through song, the bedroom into a holy place. Here, we find Elhae, who was raised in his mother’s choir, likening the curves of a woman’s body to a temple in which he is baptized. In this moment, he’s playing with the very element that keeps some older R. & B. fans from embracing the new school: the gospel.

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