From Beyonc and Frank Ocean to Dawn Richard and Laura Mvula, there was a sense that artists saw success as a means to an end, whether that was speaking out or pushing boundaries
After the deaths of David Bowie and Prince, a slightly depressing theory started to gain traction. Itsuggested that their departures represented not only the passing of two uniquely talented artists, but also of an entire era: the era of pop. Nobody now could hope to have the kind of impact that Bowie or Prince did, because pop music was no longer the great driving force of youth culture. Fordecades, it had been, in the writer Jon Savages lovely phrase, the teenage news, the primary means by which everything from fashion to politics had been mediated to a mass audience. Now, that role was played by social media. Itdidnt mean that people werent making great albums or selling millions of singles or doing groundbreaking, thrilling things, but that people cared less about it: pop was no longer driving the conversation inthe way it once had.
Then, two days after Prince died, Beyonc released Lemonade. It was, by anyones standards, a hugely accomplished and timely album: on a musical level, it demonstrated her mastery of pretty much every genre to which she chose to turn her hand, from country to hard rock to high-drama balladry built out of abstract electronica. Moreover, its release genuinely felt like an event. Lemonades 45-minute meditation on infidelity, race and female empowerment and its accompanying film provoked reams of newsprint, umpteen blogs, endless comment and argument on social media. You didnt have to believe, as some people seemed to, that Lemonade wasnt so much an R&B album as a latterday cross between The Female Eunuch and Malcolm X Speaks to realise that, with its release, pop music was at least temporarily driving the conversation once more.
You couldnt wish for a more potent example of R&Bs ongoing imperiousness, although there were plenty of others in 2016. It was a year in which more artists responded to the miserable chain of police brutality that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement; the sense of albums driven by a desire to speak out, to use the platform to say something, was unmistakable. It was a year marked by the genres biggest artists pushing at the boundaries of public expectation, from Rihannas sprawling, exploratory and opaque Anti to the frequently drumless drift of Frank Oceans Blonde to John Legends troubled, off-kilter Darkness and Light. You were struck by the sense of artists fired up with the sense of possibility, who saw their success as a means to an end, rather than something to be clung on to at all costs.
It was the same story slightly further out of the limelight. Dawn Richard put out the third album in her Heart trilogy, Redemption. Like its predecessors Goldheart and Blackheart, it offered a dazzling, genre-busting array of styles: it is hard to think of anyone else in pop who has managed the transition from reality-show star to critically revered, musically adventurous auteur with such deftness, but in truth it is hard to think of anyone else who has managed it.
Five years after their first single, the LA trio King self-released their debut album, WeAre King, a flawless, hypnotic melding of smooth 80s soul and weightless ambience. Vocalist/rapper/producer Anderson .Paaks Malibu saw him graduate from Dr Dre protege to something approaching mainstream success in his own right, via a warm-but-tough meld of everything from Doobie Brothers-ish yacht rock to trap to 90s hiphop. In the UK, there was Naos All We Know and Laura Mvulas The Dreaming Room, the latter an astonishingly inventive and idiosyncratic work that barely qualifies as R&B at all: it made the listener boggle that Mvula had ever been touted as the new Adele.
Theres an argument that this state of affairs is exactly as it should be. Ever since the term rhythm and blues was coined, 75years ago, the genre has been way out ahead, with the rest of popular music operating under the sway of its innovations. Consider the impact of Arthur Crudup, Wynonie Harris et al on Elvis Presley; the Beatles and the Rolling Stones covers of Motown and Chess; the lush Philly soul orchestrations that begat the omnivorous genre of disco; the way that Drake and the Weeknds solipsistic melancholy has become the default emotional preset of thecharts in 2016, a year in which you couldnt move for singles moaning about being drunk, on drugs, in nightclubs, at parties or with friends.
Even so, we seem to be in the middle of a golden age of R&B. You probably have to look back to the early 70sto find an era when it was quite this potent, driven, engaged and groundbreaking.