The British R&B/soul scene has grown exponentially in the last few years, as is evident in the annual lists of emerging talent. These artists slowly took over the music scene through the course of 2020 with their retro-futuristic soul that seamlessly fuses elements of Jazz, Funk, Blues, Afrobeat, Electro, R&B, and Hip Hop. It is essentially modern-day soul music, drawing on contemporary attitudes and sensibilities.
This new wave of rappers and singers – Cleo sol, Bel Cobain, Kofi stone, Nix Northwest, p-rallel, Celeste – are the mouthpiece of a generation; unpolished, minimally produced and voicing the conflicts of British youth culture. This previously underground, grass-roots genre is a refreshing alternative to the slick, hollow production of chart artists. These past few years have seen the inception of community collaborative efforts such as the ‘The Silhouettes Project’, established in February 2020, as a result of a communal frustration that the ‘current music scene in the UK only had structures in place to support talent of a certain genre whilst overlooking a buzzing alternative Hip-Hop culture,’ according to its founders Asher Korner (aka Kosher) and Jaden Osei-Bonsu (Eerf Evil).
The true rise of neo-soul began in the 1990s and can be attributed to artists like Lauryn Hill, her 1998 debut album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill – although strongly influenced by earlier Hip-Hop traditions – now the stuff of lore and arguably one of the few near-perfect albums of any genre. It paved a way for a new female face of hip-hop and permitted a new-found vulnerability, tackling issues of love, distrust, pregnancy and self-actualization; perhaps a reflection of the tumultuous relationships with the other members of the Fugees.
In late 2017 we were greeted with our generations’ answer to a gritty female icon in the form of Jorja Smith. Smith began as a feature artist in collaboration with Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Kali Uchis, but her debut album Lost and Found proved her status as a stand-out artist. Some influences of Lost and Found are explicit – she is a self-confessed Amy Winehouse fan – while others are subtle, intangible consequences of the interconnectedness of the music industry. Despite being unique, Smith’s records feel familiar in that they echo the honesty, intimacy and gutting vulnerability of other female R&B artists. From its birth in the early 90s R&B has been an avenue for emotional expression, with a history of powerful women within the genre speaking about sex, relationships, and radically, themselves.
An off-shoot of 90s R&B is early neo-soul; Lianne La Havas, Hiatus Kaiyote, Solange, a soulful jazz inspired Hip-Hop. It is these artists who paved the way for a fusion with the stripped-back down-tempo grime that has emerged in the past year in North London, the likes of Fin Foxell and Lausse the Cat.
The genre is now saturated with exceptional female artists at the top of their game; Greentea Peng, Lava la Rue and Pip Millet all spearheading the London R&B scene. Their image is colourful, urban and raw – their flaws and weaknesses weaponised. These singers, predominantly of working class, minority backgrounds, have used their growing platforms to tackle pertinent issues of racism, gentrification, mental health and sexuality.
This anti-establishment genre is still growing at a record pace. Given the current climate of resentment towards the elite reflected in bursts of violent protest across the south, most recently in Bristol, these artists are not going anywhere quickly.