5 More Alt-R&B Women Who Are About To Pop

Carl Williott | July 31, 2015 7:00 am
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The cool thing to say now is that the whole idea of alt-R&B is played out. This is also a bullshit thing to say. Sure, scene godfather The Weeknd is making pop moves, Miguel delved into psych-soul and people have generally tired of the moody, druggy, sparse thing. But it’s still a useful categorization as long as we have artists making a strain of electronic alternative music that stretches the limits of R&B like marijuana taffy.

So, following our 2013 list of the emerging women of alt-R&B, which included singers like BANKS, SZA and LIZ, we’ve got another batch of up-and-coming R&B experimenters. And just as FKA twigs was left off that initial list because there was just no way I was putting her electro-ambient whisper-wave under the R&B umbrella (a decision twigs would agree with), some buzzy names like Alessia Cara and Kehlani have been passed over because they just don’t belong here (whoooa, here).

After all, these labels gotta mean something, otherwise we might as well say this list is “5 Women Making Music.” So call this micro-genre what you wanna call it, just make sure you listen to these five artists who are currently defining it.

1. Nao

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Elevator Pitch: AlunaGeorge, with George swapped out and a general warmth swapped in. 

Nao might be the artist on this list most primed to break on a massive scale, and that’s because she’s featured on Disclosure‘s forthcoming album Caracal (on “Superego”). The British singer has a striking voice that frequently settles on a reedy helium-coo similar to that of AlunaGeorge‘s Aluna Francis — who, coincidentally, was featured on Disclosure’s first album. But Nao’s voice has more of an elasticity that mimics the expansion and contraction of her favored future-soul arrangements.

2. Kelela

kelela a message facebook

Elevator Pitch: Kelis’ dystopian beat fetish, updated for millennials.

Kelela is more of a known entity than most of the others included here — her breakout Cut 4 Me mixtape dropped in 2013 and led to co-signs from Solange and frigging Björk — but with a debut LP in the works, she’s about to reach a lot more listeners. Part of her appeal is that no two Kelela songs sound alike, since she’s constantly evolving and seeking out boundary-pushing producers like Nguzunguzu and Arca. But her voice is both strong enough to serve as a stabilizing factor and silky enough to serve as a pure hook machine, so it centers you amongst all the shiny objects vying for your attention.

3. Bosco

bosco boy ep

Elevator Pitch: Aaliyah splitting time between the trap and the cloud.

Another Solange co-sign, Atlanta singer/songwriter Bosco caught the ear of A-Trak and earlier this year released her Boy EP on Fool’s Gold. Her airy vocals commingle with vaporous atmospherics, as blunt Southern percussion punches through the mist, giving the EP an off-kilter juxtaposition of textures.

4. Espa

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CREDIT: Charlotte Rutherford

Elevator Pitch: ’90s dance diva flexing meets the tasteful restraint of Jessie Ware.

Espa’s got a husky gospel power to her voice that you’d be shocked to know comes from London and not the American South. The British singer could’ve gone a more traditional route with pipes like these, but instead she chose a spacey, clubby direction, more akin to the ’90s dance belters like La Bouche or Robin S. So whether she’s mining UK garage or wavey sex jams, Espa’s voice soars on her just-released LG60 EP.

5. Abra

abra facebook 2015

Elevator Pitch: If Awful Records is Atlanta’s Odd Future, and Father is their Tyler, The Creator, then Abra is their Frank Ocean x Syd hybrid, I guess?

Hidden among Awful’s minimalist, tongue-in-cheek ATL bizarro-trappers is Abra, who has constructed a hamlet of feathery bedroom pop. She operates in a melancholy world of lo-fi R&B, and her Rose mixtape, which she self-produced, feels like some lost cassette of confessionals set to chintzy ’80s digital technology. It all gives some insight into why she refers to herself as the Darkwave Duchess, but the moodiness never gets in the way of melody. And her voice has a raw, “I’m still discovering the full power of this thing” quality to it that’s reminiscent of Willow Smith.

Which emerging alt-R&B singer is on your radar? Let us know your thoughts below, or by hitting us up on Twitter and Facebook.

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