Two years ago, in the spring of 2011, I read two essays on a genre of music that we now know (begrudgingly for me) as PBR&B, aka “hipster-R&B,” bka “ nappy-headed pop.” Not that this needs explaining anymore, but Pabst Blue Ribbon became a commoditized symbol of the hipster movement a few years ago. Around this time, two young, black artists – Frank Ocean and The Weeknd – dropped critically acclaimed EPs (nostalgia.ultra and House of Balloons, respectively) that resonated with the Pitchfork set, given the mélange of alternative musical styles each album featured. What to make of, say, a black man covering MGMT?
At any rate, back in March of 2011, writing for Village Voice, Sean Fennessy had this to say:
“Writer Eric Harvey, while aligning Ocean and the Weeknd with Tom Krell's cracked R&B strip-down How To Dress Well, cheekily dubbed this movement "PBR&B," the implication being that this is rhythm and blues by or for hipsters. Which is sort of true, but only in the way it's been presented. How To Dress Well trafficked in a similarly mysterious style for a time last year, but when fans witnessed his shaky, amateurish live readings, the sanctity of that experiment vanished. Ocean, for all his orange Beamer '80s fetishism and progressive politics, is a fairly standard singer-songwriter. His picture is now available and his work behind-the-scenes for major artists continues to reveal itself. Likewise the seediness of the Weeknd's Ace Hotel jams--this is pro music, made by pros.”
Around the same time, writing for The Awl, friend of TSL Jozen Cummings had a different take:
“All this automatic categorization of black artists who sing harkens back to the social roots of the R&B genre. Before R&B was even called R&B, the record industry and magazines like Billboard categorized it as "race music," shorthand for any black artists who sang with a backbeat behind them. For years, white artists who made similar music never had to worry about being designated as "race music" until 1958, when Billboard began using "R&B" instead. The switch made it possible for acts like the late, great Teena Marie and current artists like Robin Thicke to chart in the R&B category. Unfortunately, many critics still referred (and refer) to those artists with the term "blue-eyed soul," which is a nice way of saying they're white singers that black people like. Equally hackneyed is calling black singers who white people like "hipster R&B"—or, for that matter, "nappy-headed pop."
In the two years since, Frank Ocean and Adele have had their moments dominating the zeitgeist, no matter how you classify their music. Robin Thicke is having his moment now.
With the release of his debut studio album Kiss Land, could this be The Weeknd’s moment? Doubtful. This is not to say anything disparaging about The Weeknd as an artist or the continued ascendance of “blue-eyed soul” and leveling of “PBR&B.” But it is to say something about the marketplace. Kiss Land is a fiercely ambitious album, no matter what you think of its execution. I call these “rabbit-hole albums” and I say that with a great deal of respect. (Note: I’ve never been the biggest fan of The Weeknd’s music, but I have been an admirer.) For all of the experiments found on Channel Orange, Ocean had some straight-ahead joints ready-made for a wide swath of palettes. You don’t have to have the most discerning ear to dig “Super Rich Kids.” It would surprise me, however, if Kiss Land sets off a music consumer feeding frenzy. The Weeknd’s predecessor artistically is The Dream (remember their beef?) and given the commercial thud you heard when IV Play hit the market, Kiss Land might not fair much better.
That, of course, is not the barometer for these types of albums (well, surely not Kiss Land, although The Dream has a different record of smash success that I’m sure he measures all of his projects by). Kiss Land is likely to end up on a lot of year-end lists, given its sonic lushness and the titular nature of the songwriting. Several years after critics struggled to come up with a way to categorize the new music coming from these black men singin’, a fully-developed album like Kiss Land gives the impression that this new lane isn’t ending anytime soon.