Ten Cult & Brilliantly Confounding Post-genre Artists Beloved In R&B, Hip Hop & Beyond

2 February 2019 | 11:48 am | Cyclone Wehner

"R&B and hip hop artists are more fluid than ever."

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In 2019, R&B and hip hop are not only the dominant forms of pop music, but they're also in constant flux. It's the digital age of post-rappers, rapper/singers, wild experimentation, indie turns, hyper-hybridisation, high art concepts and transgressive possibilities.

Some observers have rightfully questioned the very notion of 'alternative R&B', since it has always been innovative. Indeed, Stevie Wonder introduced synths on 1973's Innervisions, winning the Grammy for Album Of The Year. In the '80s, Prince, the ultimate boundary-breaker, created future R&B with When Doves Cry – featuring guitar, synths and drum machine, but no bassline. Then, in the '90s, the trip hop Tricky – interchangeably positioned as an alt-rock and rap act – augured urban music's new interiority, sublimation and atmospherics. 

Yet, demonstrably, contemporary urban is closer to electronica, utilising similar modes of production. Importantly, its artfulness is asserted and amplified – a political as much as a cultural manoeuvre. Refusing to be boxed in, constrained or marginalised, R&B and hip hop artists are more fluid than ever – leading to unprecedented cross-exchange with the indie and electronic realms (curiously, in recent years Derrick May has rebranded the radical Detroit techno he pioneered 'high-tech soul'). For urban acts, traversing parameters may be a way of defying historic co-option of their music – and any problematic ironising by hipster indie blogs. So avant 'n' B and art rap belong to a continuum, responding to, rather than rupturing with, the past. And, just as 'indie' is now a mere signifier, alt-urban pervades the mainstream. 

Timbaland ushered in a new era of electronic R&B in the late '90s. He and Missy Elliott experimented sonically with Aaliyah, today's most influential pop stylist and star. Bjork, a perennial neoteric, collaborated with Timbaland (and his apprentice, Danja) on her 2007 album, Volta, which cracked the US Top 10. The tribal banger Earth Intruders still sounds like nothing else the three have recorded independently.

That postmodern individualist Kanye West flipped Daft Punk's Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger for his 2007 single Stronger. Six years on, the French house robots contributed to Ye's electro-punk album Yeezus. Daft Punk subsequently worked on The Weeknd's Starboy, sleek disco. But, even in the early 2000s, the Parisians were vibing with R&B and hip hop acts. Their compilation Daft Club had remixes from Slum Village and The Neptunes (Pharrell Williams eventually singing Get Lucky). 

Meanwhile, West became enamoured of Bon Iver's Auto-Tuned folk tune Woods and solicited singer/songwriter Justin Vernon for his opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Tame Impala's Kevin Parker, too, has emerged as an indie fave in the urban scene, his neo-psychedelia complementing cloud rap, art trap and avant 'n' B. Starting at home, the Perthian guided local hip hop group Koi Child. But he's likewise remixed Miguel's Waves and participated in projects from Ye, Travis Scott and Kali Uchis. Rihanna transformed Tame Impala's New Person, Same Old Mistakes into shoegaze soul on ANTI

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Nevertheless, FKA twigs (aka Tahliah Barnett) has pushed back against the 'alternative R&B' classification, deeming it a limitation. In 2014 the Brit told The Guardian, "It's just because I'm mixed race. When I first released music and no one knew what I looked like, I would read comments like: 'I've never heard anything like this before, it's not in a genre.' And then my picture came out six months later, now she's an R&B singer." Barnett maintained that her erotic, and empowered, LP1 was shaped by choral music, punk and techno. She last aired Good To Love – spectral pop balladry she co-produced with Lana Del Rey's regular studio partner Rick Nowels – three years ago. However, Barnett had a much-hyped cameo on A$AP Rocky's TESTING cut Fukk Sleep – vocalising operatically. She might be a successor to Neneh Cherry, who, in addition to fronting the '80s punk band Rip Rig + Panic, has disseminated everything from hip hop soul to trip hop to techno-jazz. 

Here, OG Flavas selects 10 cult, and brilliantly confounding, post-genre artists, beloved in R&B, hip hop and beyond.

James Blake

Originally, James Blake was identified with the UK's post-dubstep movement – specifically the soulful nightbus sub-genre. Now he's in-demand as a writer, producer and pliable singer in R&B and hip hop, exceptionally contributing to Beyonce's avant LEMONADE. In 2018 alone, Blake was involved in the Kendrick Lamar-curated Black Panther The Album and Travis Scott's ASTROWORLD – not to forget Andre 3000's lowkey jazz excursion, Look Ma No Hands.

Blake's own albums follow an arc that becomes more apparent with his latest, Assume Form. The Londoner's eponymous debut was laden with metaphysical hymns to loneliness. Next, Overgrown emitted the euphoria of first love with a latent dread. Then, on The Colour In Anything, Blake shadowed his experiences with anxiety and depression in song. In contrast, Assume Form is expository and sanguine, Blake having relocated to California with his girlfriend Jameela Jamil and achieved clarity. 

On the single Don't Miss It, Blake sings of his old inclination towards seclusion. But when Pitchfork described it as "sad boy music", Blake protested on Twitter, arguing that such a loaded idiom stigmatises male emotional expression. While Assume Form's opener, and title track, quotes Rage Almighty's spoken word Depression, the tone is resolutionary. Blake has composed his most structured pop, R&B and soul numbers with maximalist arrangements – including strings. He's expanded his repertoire. Still, Blake hasn't instituted conventional production techniques – the manipulated vocals, looping and effects ever-present. His forte remains outre. 

Assume Form revels in romance – and reciprocation. Blake has never worked as communally. The Brit vibes off Scott on the avant-trap Mile High, co-produced by Future cohort Metro Boomin. He is sensually, swoonfully soulful on Barefoot In The Park, a duet with Spain's nuevo flamenco star ROSALIA. Can't Believe The Way We Flow, which bounces off a looped Manhattans classic, is glitchy doo-wop. And Blake finally goes fully hip hop on Where's The Catch?, which, featuring Andre, recalls the Wu-Tang Clan with its piano chords.

Princess Nokia

The New York auteur Princess Nokia (Destiny Frasqueri) made the news when she accused Ariana Grande of appropriating her 1992 mixtape song Mine for 7 rings. Frasqueri's catalog deserves greater recognition. Initially, the rapper, singer and songwriter aired music as Wavy Spice, switching to 'Princess Nokia' ahead of 2014's Metallic Butterfly album. Frasqueri explored rave, jungle and trip hop through the prism of NY hip hop. The drum 'n' bass jam Dragons – Frasqueri enthralled by the passionate love story of Khal Drogo and Daenerys Targaryen in Game Of Thrones – still beguiles.

In 2017, Frasqueri signed to Rough Trade and the label has reissued her cult projects, bringing them to major streaming platforms. Coincidentally, an expanded edition of Metallic Butterfly materialised in December. It contains a triptych of previously unheard tracks from the same period – like the post-dubstep Anomaly. Also last year, Frasqueri dropped a riveting 'emo' EP, A Girl Cried Red. Plus she blessed Kelela's boss remix, LMK_WHAT'S REALLY GOOD REMIX_, with Junglepussy, cupcakKe and Ms Boogie.

Tierra Whack

Philadelphia's Tierra Whack is revolutionising industry formats in a way that those other gamechangers Drake and Kanye West should admire, with their retrospective playlists and micro-albums. Last May, the expressive MC/singer – aligned with Interscope – unveiled an imaginative audio-visual enterprise, Whack World, comprising 15 songs, each a minute long and accompanied by a video. Whack defies genre distinctions, segueing between hip hop, R&B and pop. Her eccentric comedy is subversive, too. The self-affirmation Fruit Salad was ostensibly inspired by… The Wiggles. Whack has been commended for Whack World's sly commentary on social media and decreasing attention spans – the album represented well in 'Best Of 2018' lists. As it happens, Whack is up for a Grammy in the Best Music Video field with an earlier single, MUMBO JUMBO – conceivably a satire of mumble rap. She's reportedly now working with Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover).

Wicca Phase Springs Eternal

Adam McIlwee may be familiar to indie kids as the frontman of Philadelphian band Tigers Jaw. He quit in 2013 to focus on a solo project, Wicca Phase Springs Eternal (WPSE), immersing himself in emo, witch house and trap. In the process, McIlwee founded GOTHBOICLIQUE, both a digital subculture and a collective – among its famed members Lil Tracy (the son of Shabazz Palaces' Ishmael Butler and SWV's Coko!) and the late Lil Peep. In 2016, McIlwee released his debut, Secret Boy. He's now signed to Tigers Jaw's former label, Run For Cover Records.

Last year the industrious McIlwee discharged collabs with his labelmate Georgia Maq of Camp Cope, OG cloud rapper Lil B, and Clams Casino. Come 15 February, he'll present a sophomore, Suffer On – his most singular vision. McIlwee further develops what he freely refers to as the WPSE "aesthetic", part of an American gothic tradition. Though James Blake has rejected the 'sad boy' descriptor, McIlwee cultivates it as a mutable trope (cue: Lana Del Rey with her 'sad girl' persona). His is the art of solitude, existentialism and doom. In the emblematic single Just One Thing, McIlwee – his voice a hypnotic drone over low-slung beats and electronics – rues an overwhelming sense of disconnection. Suffer On encompasses angsty acoustica (Together, with epic climax), ominous beatscapes (I Wake Up In Pain), and something akin to Porter Robinson's neo-trance incarnation Virtual Self (Put Me In Graves). Born to brood.

Little Simz

London's Little Simz (Simbi Ajikawo) emanated as a grime artist. But the determinedly independent MC, singer and musician has transcended the urban underground with her literary flair and countercultural experimentation. In 2015 Ajikawo debuted with the conceptual A Curious Tale Of Trials + Persons, the gothic single Dead Body especially memorable. Late the next year, she surprise-released the phantasmagorical Stillness In Wonderland – with Jamaican reggae star Chronixx a guest. Ajikawo donned a guitar during live shows. In March, King Simz will return with GREY Area. The singles circulated so far have been disparate: Offence verging on industrial, and the new Selfish a smooth, piano-led hip hop soul groove elevated by the R&B Cleo Sol (which fans of Ajikawo's 2018 collab with Mahalia, Proud Of Me, will dig).


Spain's Rosalia Vila Tobella, or just ROSALIA, has been rapturously praised for advancing a futuristic flamenco – fusing the music with R&B and electronica amid a Latin trap boom. The academically-trained Catalonian premiered with the traditionalist LP Los Angeles. But she finds her niche with 2018's acclaimed El Mal Querer – her co-producer the Spanish polymath El Guincho. A modern reinterpretation of an anonymously-authored medieval Occitan novel, The Romance Of Flamenca, El Mal Querer centres on a dysfunctional relationship. Tobella has relished a global hit with MALAMENTE (Cap.1: Augurio). The performer does have her haters – crucially, flamenco purists – but she's unfazed. Tobella has appeared on the Colombian reggaeton idol J Balvin's Vibras and James Blake's Assume Form. Currently, she's collaborating furtively with Pharrell. In April, she'll play Coachella.


Frankie Knuckles, the godfather of house, claimed African-American gospel for the LGBTQIA+ community with his 2000s' Motivation mixes. And the R&B evangelist serpentwithfeet (Josiah Wise) is intersecting queer culture and gospel in a bold electro-soul paradigm. Wise grew up in a devout family in Baltimore, his father running a Christian bookshop. Wise sang in the church choir. Later, he studied vocal performance at college in Philadelphia, with classical aspirations. Moving to NY, Wise uploaded his music onto SoundCloud. He issued 2016's EP blisters via the Tri Angle label. Last June he delivered a revelatory debut, soil, recorded with Paul Epworth (who's scored multiple Grammys for his work alongside Adele), Clams Casino and IDM-types. Wise's voice is supple and celestial, evoking '80s Terence Trent D'Arby and Jeff Buckley. On soil, he revisits his churchy roots, reconciling himself with an unliberated past as a gay youth. The first single, bless ur heart, is a quavering piano ballad. Bjork is a serpentwithfeet fan – and he graces a remix of her Blissing Me from Utopia.

Blood Orange

Devonte Hynes can profess a winding career, albeit one defined by instinctive evolution over calculated reinvention. Hailing from the UK's working-class Essex, he began as an instrumentalist in the indie-dance band Test Icicles, before going solo with the folk Lightspeed Champion. Hynes cameoed on Basement Jaxx's Scars, as did Yoko Ono. In 2011, he progressed to his most enduring guise, Blood Orange – hybridising soul, funk and synth-pop. But Hynes also has clout as a writer, producer and collaborator. And he's been prolific in urban music. 

Hynes teamed with Solange on her indie EP, True, hatching the viral hit Losing You. He was briefly on board with the Sugababes' reboot as Mutya Keisha Siobhan (MKS). He even played guitar on Tinashe's killer Bet. In 2018, Hynes was credited as a producer on A$AP Rocky's TESTING (the 2Pac-sampling ambi-hop Hun43rd) and, awesomely, turned up on Mariah Carey's Giving Me Life with the legendary MC Slick Rick.

These creative endeavours have impacted on Hynes' own output, with him taking an increasingly interactive and thematic approach to Blood Orange's albums. Last year, he followed 2016's Freetown Sound, mapping his heritage with Negro Swan. Negro Swan is Hynes' rumination on black depression arising from personal and intergenerational trauma – and the anxieties experienced by queer people of colour. The album's feel is lo-fi, textural and filmy. Negro Swan has cool guests – the unexpected Diddy, Georgia Anne Muldrow and The Internet's Steve Lacy – yet they seemingly float into Hynes' world. Janet Mock – writer, presenter and transgender rights activist – berths the LP by sharing her testimonials. The single Chewing Gum, diaphanous trap with A$AP Rocky and Memphis' Project Pat, manifests the fatigue of rage.

Theophilus London

Pre-Frank Ocean, Theophilus London presaged the bohemian indie R&B epoch with his genre fluidity. Early on, the Trinidadian rapper, singer, musician and style icon underscored a love for The Smiths with his This Charming Mixtape. He worked with Devonte Hynes and Solange on the bop Flying Overseas. London generated sufficient buzz with 2011's debut, Timez Are Weird These Days, to support Big Boi in Australia. He then cut Vibes! with the Marvin Gaye associate Leon Ware – Kanye West serving as nominal executive producer. Alas, London was poorly promoted by Warner. In 2015 he toured Australia as a vocalist in Mark Ronson's Uptown Special supergroup, bonding with Kevin Parker. Now he's resurfaced as an independent artist, granting a candid and moving interview to Billboard about his career challenges. In August London dropped the dancehall Bebey, an alternative version featuring Giggs. Intriguingly, London has also been collaborating (and gigging) with Parker, the so-called 'Theo Impala' duo just unleashing the disco-funk Whiplash.

Rex Orange County

Rex Orange County (Alex O'Connor) is all about the steady rise. The Brit indie bedroom soulster (and multi-instrumentalist) had already aired two albums – the most recent 2017's Apricot Princess – when he placed second in the BBC Music Sound Of 2018 poll, after Sigrid. In fact, his earliest champion was Tyler, The Creator, who recruited him to croon on Flower Boy – notably the single Boredom, together with Anna Of The North's Anna Lotterud. Welcomingly, O'Connor is more like King Krule or our own Ruel than Ed Sheeran. O'Connor toured for much of 2018, even playing Tyler's curated Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival. He's now touring Australia for the first time with Laneway.