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A style that lasts

As rock grew conservative and hip-hop lost confidence, R&B moved ahead behind pioneering artists who look forward and backward.

September 07, 2008|Ann Powers | Times Pop Music Critic

Looking classic-casual in a summer blazer, Ne-Yo leaned over his laptop in a West Hollywood recording studio one mid-August afternoon, playing selections from "Year of the Gentleman," his third solo album, out Sept. 16. "The thing that sticks out on this record is the drama," said the 25-year-old singer-songwriter as he pushed a button and the swirling ballad "Lie to Me" blasted out of the room's stereo system. "You can almost see it."

A Laserium-style synth effect meshed with the swells of a string section. Listening, Ne-Yo drifted into a daydream, marking each crescendo with an imaginary conductor's baton. "This reaches back to when music made you feel something," said Ne-Yo, who's co-written smashes for the likes of Beyonce ("Irreplaceable") and Rihanna ("Take a Bow"), as well as for himself. "Nowadays, it's either 'I can dance to it' or 'I can't.' What happened to the songs that made you cry? Or reminded you of that ex-boyfriend that you can't stand now, but you remember that stint of months where it was just heaven on earth? That's what we try to do."

A few days later, on the other side of Hollywood, Keri Hilson sat in a similar studio, previewing music from her upcoming solo debut, "In a Perfect World," scheduled for release Oct. 7. The 26-year-old studio rat turned ingenue -- her credits include co-writing Britney Spears' "Gimme More" -- busted dance moves in her chair, absorbed in the sleek beats crafted by producers Polow da Don, Cory Bold and her mentor Timbaland.

On songs such as "Where Did He Go?" and "Intuition," Hilson's tough-but-tender singing warmed up the expertly built tracks. "When Tim or another producer gives me a really futuristic sound, I go retro," she said. "I hear synths, and it takes me back to Babyface and Quincy Jones, even George Michael. I try to tap into how I felt as a kid listening to music. I just try to reach back into time."

Ne-Yo and Hilson are two bright lights in a quiet renaissance overtaking contemporary R&B. The genre has long been a source of pioneering artistry; its top producers translate high-tech studio magic into massively popular hooks and grooves, and its stars embody love and heartbreak for millions of fans. In recent years, as rock became more conservative and hip-hop suffered under a crisis of faith, R&B moved to the forefront. Its young titans -- including Alicia Keys, Rihanna and John Legend -- are striving to fulfill the legacy established by the greats of Motown, Stax and Philly soul.

This fall, R&B is more exciting than ever, with a bumper crop of major releases joining Ne-Yo and Hilson's. September sees offerings from longtime players Raphael Saadiq and Eric Benet; younger properties Robin Thicke and Musiq Soulchild, and the long-awaited debut from Jennifer Hudson. In October, Legend returns, along with Nikka Costa, newcomer Ryan Leslie and a reunited LaBelle. Commercial powerhouse T-Pain follows in November, as does Missy Elliott, who will issue her seventh album. There'll also be a Christmas album from the Bay Area's rising star Ledisi.

The creative explosion pushing R&B forward is rooted in two seemingly opposite, but complementary, approaches. One is the futuristic style defined by Timbaland and Elliott more than a decade ago. There's a science-fiction edge to this sound, with highly manipulated rhythms that borrow from Bollywood and African music as well as from the skittish beats of house and techno.

Jennifer Hudson adding a self-described "time machine" element by costuming its space operas in 1960s bell bottoms or 1940s zoot suits.

Next came the genre-defying Gnarls BarkleyToday's most intriguing young futurist is Janelle Monae, whose summer debut "The Chase" tells the story of a cyborg in love. But the style's commercial king is T-Pain, whose auto-tuned vocals have become a radio staple, and whose work on "Thr33 Ringz" goes even further in using samples and effects to lend a cosmic tone to R&B's staple themes of love and seduction.

At the other end of R&B's spectrum is a more traditionalist approach -- you could even call it retro. Led by Thicke and Ne-Yo and such old-school songbirds as Ledisi, this historically minded mode's most recent precursors were the neo-soul artists of the late 1990s: Jill Scott, Angie Stone and most of all D'Angelo, the genius whose career derailed after two astounding studio albums.

Outside the mainstream

Of COURSE, the official (if disheveled) face of retro right now is Amy Winehouse, whose Motown-flavored costume dramas seduced the indie-pop underground before crossing into the Top 10. So far, the standouts in the retro-soul scene have come from beyond mainstream R&B.

Winehouse and her producer, Mark Ronson, are English, as are fellow retro phenoms Duffy, Adele and James Hunter. Louisianian Marc Broussard has connections to the jam band scene. Only a few black performers, notably Sharon Jones, have found fame in this arena, which tends to attract white fans too.

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