Everyone who has listened to music in the past 30 years knows about R&B. However, if you do not listen to the genre, you likely do not know what alternative R&B or alternative soul is. Alternative R&B became popular in the 2010s among people who were looking for a sound that was different from contemporary R&B. Alternative R&B seeks to differentiate itself by being airier, psychedelic, darker, and deeper than contemporary R&B by tackling today’s biggest topics. There are lots of artists who are not afraid to experiment with and even thrive within this new sound. It is the artists who have thrived in this new space and sound that we will be focusing on below.
Frank Ocean is arguably the most successful alternative R&B artist in the world. He started off writing for other people while working 11 jobs in various fast-food joints. With songs on albums by John Legend and Justin Bieber, Frank Ocean was already a force within the music industry before he started putting out his own music.
His career took off when he signed a contract with Def Jam in 2010. In several interviews, Frank says that Def Jam did not provide him any resources to produce or create an album and so he self-funded his first mixtape. The album did well in the underground scene and the intrigue surrounding him helped land him gigs with Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Kanye West.
With Def Jam behind him after seeing what he could do, Frank Ocean released his next project “Channel Orange” which was successful enough to help him sidestep the stereotype of being a gay singer. In many ways he shaped the alternative R&B and music landscape, paving ways for the likes of Lil Nas X and Billie Eilish.
His music is characterized by emotional lyrics, tight composition, and meticulous production. Many people admire him because he has not been swept up in the industry hype and instead seems to want to only put out good music.
Solange entered the music scene in the early 2000s, with her music at the time having elements of contemporary R&B and pop, and was characterized by its Motown influences. Many people hold the view that Solange was held back as she was usually in the background of Destiny’s Child, her sister Beyoncé’s group. She emerged from this background and has broken through commercially as a singer, producer, and songwriter.
Her first album, admittedly a pop-R&B album, hit the airwaves in 2003 and would go on to debut in the Top 50 of the Billboard 2000. Her second album Sol-Angel & the Hadley St. Dreams, which was released in 2018, gave her the creative breakthrough she needed and was more commercially successful than her first album. Since then, her albums such as Seat at the Table released in 2016, and When I Get Home released in 2019 have cemented her place as one of the people who have to be mentioned in any alternative R&B conversation.
Having worked with emerging artists in the alternative R&B space like Kelela and Sampha and having a successful career herself, Solange has played a significant role in the rise of alternative R&B as discussed by Pirate.com. Pirate is not only the home of artist collaboration and music exploration, as it also has some of the best recording and rehearsal studios in the world. The music community Pirate has created, plus the availability of all the instruments and recording equipment new and seasoned artists would need, makes it the perfect platform for any type of artist.
Jamila Woods is much more than an R&B artist as she is also a poet and activist. She was born in Chicago and raised in the South Side. As a songwriter and a singer, she has produced both Neo-soul and hip-hop music. Her melodic voice and powerful lyrics always come through in all her songs. Her music leans heavily on an alternative R&B style that sounds more like soul but that is wholly modern.
A lot of people had already heard of her music as she used to perform in church and was also part of the duo Milo & Otis. Their music did well enough and she was signed to Closed Sessions, a studio in Chicago where she released her first single. “Blk Girl Soldier” was viewed by many as a song released to honor black women. The single’s video, which is available on YouTube, celebrates historically important black women in addition to black girlhood.
Her first album, HEAVN, would come in 2016 and was highly anticipated as a lot of people knew what she was capable of and her first solo singles were already a success. Her solo career would climb to new heights when she released the extended version of her debut album. Since there was already an audience for her music, the album and its expanded versions did very well and earned her a large fandom. Many people also appreciated hearing her as a solo artist instead of part of a duo or as part of other artists’ projects.
In addition to her partner in the duo, Woods has collaborated with Chance the Rapper, Macklemore, and Noname.
She released her second album LEGACY! LEGACY! in 2019 and the album also did very well. She had lots of success and continues working with other groups such as the Young Chicago Authors nonprofit. In a bid to ensure people of color have some part in her second album, she used inspiration from people of color for the songs, with each one titled after a black figure in history.
The most successful alternative R&B stars are successful in different ways. Many of them come to the genre because of how liberating it is for them to express what they want to say. Whether it is Frank Ocean helping pave the way for queer artists or other alt R&B artists putting out their social messages, this genre is for everyone looking for something different.