What happened to R&B in 2012? At some point, the genre evolved from stodgy and predictable to exciting and fresh. It didn't happen overnight: None of the most talked-about artists made their debuts this year, nor did the trends that percolated. Yet the music we heard was so good that it awakened us to the possibilities of soul and R&B in a way that hasn't happened in years.
No, this isn't another Frank Ocean/Miguel/The Weeknd appreciation post. It's clear that the ambient electronic introspection of alternative R&B has had a major impact. You can hear it in recordings as disparate as Brandy's Two Eleven and certain tracks on Alicia Keys' Girl on Fire. The current fascination with R&B idioms has spread to electronic and indie pop via How to Dress Well (Total Loss) and the xx (Coexist), and to the fashion-obsessed U.K. scene with AlunaGeorge ("You Know You Like It"), Daley (Alone Together EP) and Jai Paul ("Jasmine"). Then there's an ongoing appreciation of 1990s R&B -- perhaps the last great period for vocal groups like Blaque (rest in peace Natina Reed), TLC, Blackstreet and others -- and classics by the late Aaliyah, R. Kelly, Faith Evans, Mary J Blige, and Beyoncé.
In particular, Solange symbolizes how retro soul no longer represents the bleeding edge. Her 2008 album, Sol-Angel and the Hadley Street Dreams, was Motown-flavored pop; her True EP, produced by Lightspeed Champion, is sinuously synthesized soul. At the very least, her influences -- which once seemed to date mostly from the 1960s -- are now the 1980s and the age of boogie funk, an era when black artists experimented with electronics en masse.
That's not to say that old-school retro mania has run out of gas. Michael Kiwanuka's Home Again pays homage to early '70s singer-songwriters and folk-soul balladeers like Bill Withers and Terry Callier, and Kendra Morris' Concrete Waves mixes the brassy, cinematic soundtracks of Shirley Bassey and Dionne Warwick with gutsy vocals reminiscent of Keyshia Cole.
As was the case in 2011, the surest way to crossover radio for black artists was to hop on the EDM-pop bandwagon. However, Usher suffered a backlash from his fans for going too pop on Looking 4 Myself, as did Ne-Yo for R.E.D. Oddly, Rihanna and Chris Brown escaped criticism for their dance hits, if not their increasingly embarrassing private lives. Throughout her career, Rihanna has straddled the line between urban and pop, so it's no surprise that she now veers closer to the latter. And Chris Brown can seemingly do no wrong with his fans. They think he's a martyr sacrificed on the altar of TMZ.com.
Yes, the EDM-pop fad has become quite annoying and tedious. But it introduced an element of unpredictability to contemporary R&B. Ne-Yo's R.E.D. is a great example: On first listen, we don't know whether he's going to dive into another bedroom ballad like "Stress Reliever," or go crazy in the club over another progressive house masher like "Let Me Love You (Until You Learn to Love Yourself)." (It's a good thing for the most part.)
Other highlights of the EDM-pop/R&B fusion include Ne-Yo's collaboration with Calvin Harris, "Let's Go"; Brown's "Don't Wake Me Up"; and Rihanna's "Where Have You Been." On "Climax," Usher and Diplo rebuilt the former's patented babymaker formula with rapturous keyboard builds and echoing drum machine percussion. And on her Armor On mini-album, Dawn Richard used trance-pop melodies reminiscent of Morgan Page and Kaskade to create a deeply personal work of love and self-determination. She proved that the electronic scene's influence on R&B production has greater artistic payoffs than just Electric Daisy Carnival-inspired molly anthems.
In recent interviews, Trey Songz has complimented himself for making "real" R&B in an era when so many artists aspire to go pop. Arguably, that contrast makes it easier to appreciate his Chapter V. It's not as if he has broken new territory: Like other young male singers, he experiments with rapping, though mostly in the Big Sean "I got money and women" school of rap, and his songs are drenched in sexual escapades. But it harbored strong singles like "Heart Attack" and "Dive In." He benefits when he represents diversity, even when he's only different because he stayed "true to himself," as he told Billboard.com. Before, he was just a symbol of the industry's reliance on toned, shirtless cookie-cutter men and bland sex music.
No single trend is responsible for the revival of soul music. Every stylistic quirk yielded abundant rewards, from promising young songwriter Elle Varner's Perfectly Imperfect to neo-soul innovators Jesse Boykins III and MeLo-X's Zulu Guru. As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats, and the frenzied development among R&B's creative class led to one of the best years in the genre in recent history.