In 1982, a male English trio named Imagination released In the Heat of the Night. Produced by Tony Swain and Steven Jolley, who’d soon work with Bananarama, In the Heat of the Night was the lightest of R&B albums. It shimmered; it was the sort of record that left colored sparkles as it gently thumped, with the lightest of bottoms, toward a PG-rated closer. Listening to the record is like frenching a stuffed kitten (again, they were English). Connecting the so-called “New Pop” of Culture Club and late Roxy Music hits like “Dance Away” with the electro syncopations of Raise!-era Earth Wind & Fire, Night sounded like both a fresh new start and an endpoint. Americans took to “Just an Illusion,” whose beaded curtain of a synthesizer and mild ooh-ooh-ooh-ahs helped make it a favorite at New York’s Paradise Garage disco and a minor hit on the Billboard Black Singles chart. Recording this music while dressed on the album sleeve as rent boys at Studio 54—talk about an illusion.
I wrote “endpoint” because for years “Just an Illusion” was loved but held under strict guard; like the Ark of the Covenant, it was a treasure whose discovery might flatten the landscape. When Destiny’s Child gave it a go in 1997 they were nervous enough to hire Pras and Wyclef Jean in an attempt to make this epochal track as boring and normal as possible, which is easy with Pras interjecting with what sound like burps.
This year, the Los Angeles trio KING’s debut album opened this lockbox: a dozen sweet takes on Imagination’s sweet evanescence. On track after track, the twin Strother sisters Paris and Amber and mate Anita Bias wove delicate keyboard textures over their cotton-fresh closely mic’d harmonies; an extra breath and these soufflés collapse. We Are KING is an emollient in search of a patient.
KING’s refurbishment of quiet storm strikes me as the distinguishing sonic characteristic of R&B in 2016. Not Sade quiet—Maxwell has already made febrile use of that band’s guitarist/architect Stuart Matthewman, shaping the tracks on 2001’s Now, his best album to date. Reconsider Stevie Wonder collaborator Syreeta Wright and good ol’ Bill Withers—arrangements as a kind of aural wash, with a ruminative core. To be sure, recent years have produced antecedents: Tinashe and Jhené Aiko in 2014 alone, although Tinashe’s fealty to the big beat may disqualify her. In a sense, the world has caught up to one steadfast trooper. The Strothers wrote and produced a few tracks for Corinne Bailey Rae’s The Heart Speaks in Whispers, three albums into the singer-songwriter’s estimable career, which so far has impressed Grammy voters with amiable and often somnolent plaints. Beholden to an idea of strummed confessional form, Rae distrusts rhythm, or at least is trying to make her peace with it. She’s often boring—boring in the way Grammy voters conceive of R&B. Nevertheless, gentle numbers like “Green Aphrodisiac” and “Been to the Moon” describe a grown-up delirium that requires lovers attentive to detail and unserious about power games—both conveyed by the Strothers’ arrangements. Another highlight is Tweet’s first album since the Bush II years: a modernizing of Minnie Ripperton’s mid-‘70s evocations of domestic bliss, set to Timbaland’s gentle electronic pulsings.
It’s hard to write about R&B in 2016 without mentioning the Knowles sisters, both of whom scored No. 1 albums with vastly different music. Fêted by critics for stretching conceptually, Solange tries to summon cohesion from melodic vapors; little on A Seat at the Table made sense to me beyond the peeved, well-named “Don’t Touch My Hair.” Multi-platform generalist Beyonce, one of the few artists who’s gotten more interesting as she’s gotten louder, released the stronger album. But she wasn’t the only artist who recorded breakups-to-makeups. Since the turn of the decade, Kimberly Michelle Pate, a.k.a. K. Michelle, has released the most transparent anthems in R&B. Michelle doesn’t peek from behind musical veils: Loud, declarative, and with no fucks to give, More Issues Than Vogue is the Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta star’s third straight killer. Suffering exquisitely while asserting her right to ravish and be ravished, Michelle is all diva. She’s at her best on “Not a Little Bit,” the sturdy piano hook mirroring her determination to get over it; and on “If It Ain’t You” she blasts a man who accuses her of being complicated—“You can take it,” she assures him.
A couple of barn-voiced singers also released fine R&B albums. Since her American Idol days, Fantasia Barrino has shown an admirable consistency as a recording artist, peaking with 2013’s astonishing Side Effects of You, as good as any album by Sky Ferreira, Vampire Weekend, and, right, Beyonce. Released in August, The Definition Of… deepens Fantasia’s emotional range. Cragged, weathered, a silty base keeping its high end from dissipating, her voice humanizes the humdrums. A similar talent animates British artist NAO, who sounds like Macy Gray cloudbusting with Kate Bush. Her debut full-length, For All We Know, rides dust-covered grooves and precisely deployed staccato vocals—Aaliyah given a 2010s spritz (“In the Morning” even alludes to Bush’s R&B touchstone “This Woman’s Work”).
Where these artists will go or, hell, whether they’ll go further depends on the usual market exigencies. K. Michelle, and Fantasia remain confined to adult R&B where even proven pop-crossover expert Mary J. Blige has dwelled for years. Whenever I play KING’s lulling “Native Land,” which is often, I wonder how many others are as beguiled as I am. Better to celebrate these women’s achievements and reward them with a stream or purchase—regard the expenditure as passage to a world within a world.