Five Artists Who Prove London R&B Is Having a Moment
The kids who grew up on 90s and 00s R&B are reaching adulthood, bringing with them an ability to meld UK and US influences.
Lylo Gold (L) and Jvck James (Photo by Ashley Verse via PR)
When Jvck James was about 17, he levelled up. The young Londoner had been toying with the idea of pursuing music, and thought, ‘alright, I’m going to make this happen myself.’ “I used to do covers,” of the R&B stars he looked up to, he tells me, “and recreate beats using a laptop, and a USB-cord mic. I always knew I wanted to do music, and to do it all myself,” so did just that. Now 19 (he turns 20 next month), Jvck is one of a wave of British artists bringing the spirit of the 90s and early 2000s – when some of these musicians were probably still stumbling into their first steps – into songwriting that runs against the current of the major trends in the UK. From Mahalia, Jacob Banks and Malika to Ella Mai’s summer of “Boo’d Up” love in the US, it feels like a particular energy is rippling through the places where melody, “real” instrumentation and love/lust songs collide.
Obviously, this is nothing new. UK artists have been pulling from black American traditions for years – and not just in a ‘Rolling Stones aping blues, then making it a bit less soulful’ way. Pop artists in Britain, from Amy Winehouse to Jorja Smith to, yes, even Sam Smith have plucked threads from the fabrics of blues, soul and jazz at various points and woven them into new material. But, as 20-year-old performer Dayo Bello tells me now, “back in the day, of course, we had Craig David and Lemar. But since then I haven’t really had that many people to look up to, in that sense.” Speaking over the phone, he’s clear to point out that he means that it’s felt as though the British mainstream hasn’t always made that much room for local talent mining the depths of vocals-led soul and R&B, with nods to sonic textures from new jack swing to early 00s neo-soul. “I’ve never seen them gain that level of attention without going down the very… pop route, and having to do a feature – And I’m not knocking that at all!”
Instead, both Dayo and Jvck touch on a similar idea, independently of one another: that their time, and that of their peers with similar taste, has come. Though UK R&B or soul (or whatever you’d want to call this sort of melody-driven black music) has precedent, artists born from the early 90s onwards have been able to shape their own sound using two simultaneous pools of inspiration. Like previous generations, they’ve grown up with both people of their own age to look up to, from across the pond. But on top of that, they’re the first to consider people like Lauryn Hill, SWV, Usher and so on as canon. They’re young enough for those to have been artists they’ve just always been aware of, to have been standards.
And that doesn’t mean that every one of these British musicians leaped out of the womb humming late 90s Monica album cuts. “When I started listening to music, I actually didn’t really like R&B initially,” says Lylo Gold, a 25-year-old singer and songwriter who last week released her debut EP Heartache & Wray. “I liked what was popular: the Spice Girls, catchiness – I grew up in the 90s when it was all about that.” But over time, the blend of her home life (her father sang Lovers rock reggae) and a move to study music at college led her to realise, “‘ohh, I just love vocals.’ And when I got old enough to make my own stuff, I wanted to create music using live instruments that was infused with those R&B vocals, and loads of harmonies – tone and harmony, those are my things.”
A few months ago, when I watched Jvck James play to a thankfully air-conditioned basement bar during London’s heatwave, his music sparked a similar feeling in me. Looking around the room, where squealing women filmed his stripped-back performance, and others in the crowd sang along at his urging, it felt like a moment. One where yet more UK talent could shine, on top of all the brilliant and more chart-focused work coming from the west African and Caribbean diaspora. “Even now, the craze in the UK is afropop; everyone’s on that hype,” Jvck says, a smile in his voice. “It’s coming back around, though. You now have rappers incorporating melodies in their raps; everyone’s bringing back the chords and the stuff that makes you want to sing along. R&B’s definitely coming back.” Here are a few of the artists making that clear right now, with loads more besides.
Okay, who? Honestly, Tiana’s more on a jazz level than this, but she harks back to a time when Erykah Badu showed younger fans that they could step into those sounds – the wonky chords, woozy time-keeping – without being Strictly Jazz.
What do they sound like? Her voice has a thickness, that sometimes recalls an Anita Baker more than an Amerie, for example – but her music has a cosmic and sparkly touch to it. She achieves that through combining her head voice, skittering drums and the sort of guitar that guys in boring lounge bands usually play when they ought to be backing power vocalists.
What should I start with? “Mr Mysterious” is outrageous – it shimmies along with handclap samples and a twanging guitar line that sounds like an Alicia Keys Songs in A Minor deep cut.
Okay, who? You ever go to a gig, in a little underground space, and even though you only know a couple of the artist’s songs, they have you singing along within minutes? That’s what Jvck’s capable of. He’s a self-taught engineer of his own stuff (“I just went on YouTube, you know?”) and has so far put out a handful singles since 2017, from pure heart-eyes (and Mario-invoking) “Extroverted Lovers” to August’s “Wine.” He’s currently touring the UK with R&B-pop singer Mahalia.
What do they sound like? Like the last bite of a lamb stew that’s been on the slow cooker for 15 hours. Vegans and vegetarians: like the smoothest nut butter that you can’t normally afford, but shelled out for cos winter’s coming. His voice propels warm, romantic songs along with self-aware, at times winking, lyrics. The guy can sing.
What should I start with? Falsetto-rich “Fears.”
Okay, who? He’s a BRIT School kid, but once he arrived there he realised he was a relative late bloomer. “I saw people beside me who’d been recording their own music before I ever was.” Some had home studios, and resources. They were rich and well-connected. “I would see that and be like, ‘yo, what’s happening with me?’ Cos honestly, my family never had money like that. Some other students were quite well off.” When he graduated, he decided to channel his nervous energy into his own stuff, motivated by seeing classmates like Rex Orange County, Jay Bird and Indigo and Husk doing well.
What do they sound like? As Dayo said himself, he doesn’t consider himself a strict R&B artist so much as one he pulls from different black contemporary music traditions. So, he folds soulful keys into R&B innuendo, but can dip into gospel and jazz sonics too.
What should I start with? “Something to You” – it’s heartfelt, led by a tight drums, guitar and multi-layered vocals track. D’Angelo fans are likely to find something they like in here.
Okay, who? There’s been talk of Lylo’s Heartache EP in journalists’ inboxes for the past year. She started writing music as a pre-teen, and now juggles performing and recording with a day job as a youth engagement officer. You can tell she’s smart as hell, because she talks and thinks about music like someone who’s ready to both study and practice it for the rest of her life. The most important thing about her, though, is how she wields her voice as an instrument.
What do they sound like? Somehow 32 songbirds all perfectly harmonising with one another, like a Disney opening scene on turbo. She says herself that she makes nods to Brandy, who’s always been about adding layer after layer of vocals onto a single track (see also: Ariana Grande on Sweetener).
What should I start with? “Blocked” off the EP is the prettiest eye-roll I’ve heard in years. Single “Who’s Gonna,” featuring rapper Kaniva, shows off her vocal harmonising too.
Okay, who? Jaz leans more in a soul than R&B direction, citing her inspirations as Amy Winehouse and Alicia Keys. So far, so young millennial – but her spark really derives from her live performance, which is both intense and dynamic. Full disclosure: Jaz played the Noisey party at this year’s Great Escape festival in Brighton, in May.
What do they sound like? Like someone who smoked a couple too many the night before, broke a heart somewhere before dinner, then wrote a few songs about it.
What should I start with? “Petty Lover,” for its title alone.
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