The limits of genres: thoughts on Frank Ocean and The Weeknd

For the last month, two of the most buzzed about artists have been Frank Ocean and The Weeknd. Both are previously-unknown musicians who released free mixtapes to quick critical praise: Nostalgia, Ultra and House of Balloons, respectively. Both are associated with fan favorites, as well: Frank Ocean with OFWGKTA and The Weeknd with Drake.

But in an unfortunate turn, both artists have been pigeonholed as “hipster R&B” or the more derisive “PBR&B.” The incessant need to tag nascent sounds with quirky genre names is nothing new (see: witch house, chillwave), but with this particular sound and name, it’s even more controversial than ever. Some have called it offensive, as Jozen Cummings did in The Awl, suggesting that:

Calling it “hipster R&B” is a nice way of saying it’s R&B that white people like (black hipsters notwithstanding), and here’s my problem with that: It’s myopic, lazy, and it sounds to me like a form of musical segregation that’s not entirely based on genre.

This is a similar issue to one I’ve thought about for some time (and wrote about when reviewing Janelle Monae): the inability or unwillingness of the music industry to classify and market black artists who don’t fit comfortably in the hip hop and R&B pigeonholes. For Cummings and others, the problem is calling Frank Ocean and The Weeknd R&B solely because they’re black, while white artists who mix the same influences are not.

In this case, I’m not totally sure that’s the problem. I hear R&B influences, however diffused, in the work of Frank Ocean and The Weeknd, in the same way I hear them in The XX and James Blake. However, I agree with Cummings’ conclusion, even if we are on different sides of the issue:

If we want to have a real discussion about R&B—where it’s at, where it’s going, who is doing it right, who is doing it weird, and who is really not doing it at all no matter what the critics say—let’s talk about all of these artists.

For some (I think Cummings included), the problem is that there is more traditional R&B being passed over in favor of these genre-defiers. My main problem with “hipster R&B” and “PBR&B” is that they denigrate the music without actually describing the sound. “Hipsters” and “PB&R” give a mise en scène separate from the music, and as limiting as genre classifications can be, shouldn’t they at least focus on the music?

Frank Ocean’s Nostalgia, Ultra is brash and inventive, in an entirely different way than the rest of the Odd Future crew. Apart from the “Hotel California” and “Electric Feel” samples (“American Wedding,” “Nature Feel”), the compositions are original and run the gamut from sweeping ballads (“Strawberry Swing”) to soulful throwbacks (“Lovecrimes”).

From The Weeknd (the mysterious Abel Tesfaye) comes House of Balloons, which owes as much to xx as it does to So Far Gone. The downtempo mixtape finds Tesfaye crooning about hip hop trappings in a way that feels more natural than when done by emo rappers. The weeping guitar line and punchy drum and bass combo of “The Morning” are representative, but one hopes Tesfaye has another “What You Need” up his sleeve: whatever you call it, music needs songs that dark and sexy.

Download: Frank Ocean – Nostalgia, Ultra
Download: The Weeknd – House of Balloons

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