Set To Soar: Exploring UK Alt-R&B And Soul
The Alternative R&B scene in the UK, when compared to the US, is often (speciously) labelled as embryonic or underdeveloped, lacking a firm infrastructure that would guarantee its longevity: in the constellation of algorithms and playlists, it becomes ever more difficult to sift through regional talent breaking new ground. They’re there, however, and you don’t have venture beyond our borders to unearth them.
These homegrown artists may have a nucleus that draws from the R&B and soul traditions but they bend and subvert the conventions of genre, reforming it in their own image. Whether it’s ambient R&B, lo-fi and textural, or disco-tinged neo soul drawing from the historic cache of past Greats, today, the cross-pollination of R&B, soul and jazz has never been more dynamic.
Clash has rounded up 10 UK acts we believe typify this Renaissance. They are the new vanguard leaving their mark through 2021 and beyond. Remember their names…
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Hailing from North West London, Chloe Bodur was brought up on the evergreen soul and jazz of Billie Holiday. Her early stimuli was harnessed studying music at university, where she was exposed to the experimental Jazz scene burgeoning in and around London.
Her song ‘Lovely Lonely’, released at the height of Lockdown 1.0, saw her calve her own singular path, conveying the effects of crippling solitude through dark and gloomy evocations. However, true love was on the horizon, informing Bodur’s recent EP ‘Panties & Loafers’: a rich and resonant sun- kissed confection hit playing out her very own Roman Holiday; Bodur’s state of saudade on the song ‘Nothing New’, capturing the rapture of love as a heady intoxicant.
Decadent vintage fare, Bodur fused bossa nova with low-res, underground R&B, produced alongside her cousin, artist JD. Reid. With new music expected this year, Bodur is merely scratching the surface: “I’m focusing on expanding my artistry beyond just the records. I’m now wanting to use my ability as a film director and performer to elevate my music. My sound will always remain golden but it’s evolving.”
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Rasharn Powell’s early musical leanings were shaped by his Grandfather, who introduced him to the world of dubplates and dancehall, but it was poetry and literature that afforded him the outlet to express himself.
Arriving on the scene in ‘2019’ with singles ‘Warm In Those Blue Jeans’ and ‘Hiroshima’, an electro-tinged detour into a dystopia awash with synths and snares, Powell lyrically dovetailed the calling of the high life with his upbringing. Shifting the sonic topography in 2020 with a trio of singles, including ‘Smithereens’ - a coming-of-age soundtrack to summer bike rides and romances – his sound served as a welcome distraction from the profligate repetition that can so often blight Transatlantic R&B.
Powell’s appeal lies in his youthful charisma and curiosity, multi-octave range, and his ability to play around with mood and tempo. At the tail end of 2020, Powell released the buoyant, samba- flavoured ‘Freedom’, an overture to a new era, freeing himself from the shackles of doubt and expectation, surrendering himself to the natural ebbs and flows of life: “This year has taught me a lot and forced me inwards. I rediscovered the youthful freedom we too often lose in adolescence. I’m comfortable in the chaos and I guess that’s my new freedom.”
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Demae, born and bred in North-West London, makes idiosyncratic Nu Soul for the ages. Having released music in the past as Bubblerap and as one third of Hawk House, Demae is somewhat of an industry vet: she plied her craft with edits and reworks on SoundCloud, making a name for herself on the Avant-Jazz scene alongside Fatima and Ego Ella May.
Her debut project as Demae, ‘Life Work Outs…Usually’, signalled the arrival of an artist fully-formed and in complete command of her powers. A coming-of-age story, Demae centred the Black British experience, spurred on after a two-year sojourn living and growing. Featuring appearances from Fatima, Joe Armon-Jones, Ego Ella May and Nala Sinephro, Demae is a part of the South London- based musical enclave, Touching Bass, shifting the parameters contemporary soul and jazz.
Demae’s songs suspend time and place, a dusky parallel universe where late-night basement parties never end, music wafts in and out of rooms brimming with dancers; it’s a quietly astonishing mix of intimacy, silky elegance and suite-like majesty. A few weeks ago, Demae received the COLORS Studio co-sign, performing her affirmation-filled hit ‘Use It’. A Star was Born.
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London-based, Irish-Indian singer-songwriter Shivum Sharma filters melancholia through the prism of psychedelic soul. Introduced to the world in 2014, with the Kwes-produced ‘Flicker’, Sharma explored teen angst and restiveness. Originally, he was hyped as another bruised vocalist in the vein of James Blake, and whilst Sharma is a master of mood manipulation, his sound is comparably more direct, in keeping with the modern soul tradition.
Taking time away to refine his musical acumen, Sharma returned last year with the EP ‘Diamond’, retaining the downtempo, soporific feel of his debut, but through an adult contemporary lens. No longer the doe-eyed innocent, Sharma freed himself from the cuffs of toxic relationships: on ‘Waiting Room’ he explored aching despondency, an ambient trip playing out a cautionary tale of middle grounds and mixed signals.
Over gossamer instrumentals, Sharma’s wraith-like voice soars. Sharma invokes the vocal stylings of his influences Minnie Ripperton and Elizabeth Frazer, oscillating from a softer register to a resounding falsetto, his intricate vocal production a highlight. Sharma promises new music this year, hoping it will coincide with a long-awaited return to the stage, where he’s been expanding his repertoire as a DJ.
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Since 2014, John Alone had released music under different aliases, but the Nigerian-born, London- based singer-songwriter eventually found his calling with a self-styled moniker combining his steely sense of self-preservation, parsimony and ability to acclimate to the changing tides of the industry. This rebirth led to two prolific releases in 2020: ‘Babel! (AKA Johnny Social’s Collectivist Manifesto)’ and ‘Spanish Blue’, variant sides probing the enigma that is John Alone.
‘Babel!..’ invoked SoundCloud-era Rap luminaries like early Tyler the Creator with its moody undercurrents: narcotic, nihilistic and packed full of rap acolytes from the UK underground scene. On ‘Spanish Blue’, John Alone’s vaporwave bedroom jams, ripe with fractured internal monologues, tackled the minefield of hypermillenial relationships. “(The album) deconstructed the highs and lows of a romantic relationship, focusing on bitter, broken love juxtaposed by youth and carefree living,” John says.
John Alone’s rap-sung cadence recalls stateside alt-R&B stars like Brent Faiyaz; every word sung or slurred, equal parts repentant and reverent. John Alone encapsulates the modern expression of insular R&B, and in 2021, the crooner promises more real, raw and relatable wordplay, coaxing you further into his vortex of wounded rhymes.
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Haich Ber Na
The word polymath is bandied about often to denote the age of “the multi-disciplinarian”. Peterborough-born, London-based Haich Ber Na actually permits the placement of the noun next to his name: he’s a self-taught musician, producer, mixer and visual artist. Beginning his musical journey as a producer for UK rap up-and-comers, Haich Ber Na stepped into the light with EPs ‘Unbalanced’ and ‘Everywhere’s Home’, which luxuriated in tessellated electronica.
Haich Ber Na churns out sounds through a synthetic blender with deft precision, reappraising opposing genres of pop-affected R&B and grunge. In another artist’s hands the results would be catastrophic, but melody and rhythm are tempered with just the right dose of distortion. His upcoming project ‘From Then ‘Til Now’ is a tour-de-force: the whimsical shoegaze of ‘Think About It’ and the industrial funk of ‘0594 Help’ tackle ennui and deep unabating malaise; ‘Both Ways’, a propulsive house number with an earworm “You and Me” aims for the dancefloor.
Haich Ber Na’s feathery falsetto centres the subterranean disposition of his music, calling to mind Sampha and Jai Paul, who injected soulful pathos to soundscapes that reached for the extremities. Pinpoint Haich Ber Na at your own peril.
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In 2012, Dublin-raised, London-based Cassia O’Reilly concluded her first spell in the industry with mixtape ‘R.I.P. Bonzai’, effectively saying goodbye to the pseudonym. At the age of 22, she rebranded as Cosha, reconciling her past and present. Last year, Cosha unveiled the singles ‘No Kink In The Wire’ and ‘Berlin Air’, which revelled in a sun-dappled, elemental sound with mantra-like words; a departure from the punk-pop sensibility of the ‘Bonzai’ era.
Cosha is an artist awakened, disrupting traditional themes that epitomise mainstream sounds: examining sexual fluidity and preaching self-care with songs that bask in the splendour of hard-won sisterhood and community. Her new single ‘Lapdance From Asia’ featuring fellow musical anarchist Shygirl, was conceived after a very real lapdance was performed at a strip club while on tour in Brisbane, enthusing the cat and mouse power-play teased throughout the song.
Produced with Mura Masa, ‘Lapdance...’ is a weightless, airy paean to liberation, paralleling Cosha’s joyful but freewheeling spirit. With a full-length project expected this Spring, expect a more expansive, holistic theme; indeed, this is what transformation sounds like.
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Inspired by his older sister who took up music from a young age, Brighton’s Karl Benjamin forged his own path, taking his time honing a sound that would stand the test of time. Citing Frank Ocean and Smino as musical influences, its clear innovation and an iridescent visual style is at the core of his creativity.
The model-turned-musician has only released one song thus far, but the sepia-tinged ‘Apricot Sky’ is a stellar introduction to his world; reverberating choral chants and a synth-laden backdrop converging in a seamless profusion of traditional soul, gospel and G-funk. "To me, ‘Apricot Sky’ is the realisation that someone or even something around you can change your life almost completely. This is usually something you couldn’t/haven’t seen or experienced before,” Benjamin says.
There is dark and light to ‘Apricot Sky’, the accompanying video depicting the slumber-like stasis of our lives today, the cavernous need for human connection never more prescient. Describing his sound as “relatable, honest and pretty, but in an unconventional way”, Benjamin is only getting started.
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George Riley is the West Londoner, of Black and Jewish heritage, merging polyrhythms with polemics. Her 2019 debut single ‘Herstory’, produced with regular collaborator Oliver Palfreyman, saw her deep dive into trove of historic black female figures, reimagining herself in the vision of her ancestors. Don’t expect run-of-the-mill numbers extracted from the terrain of mass homogeneity: Riley prefers the grey area of underground bass culture, her intentional mode of design is esoteric, favouring kinks in audio over lustre.
Riley’s sound sits somewhere between Lafawndah and Kelela; distorted R&B for the outliers and outsiders. But it’s not just the smattering of beats that sets her apart, but Riley’s nifty penmanship. ‘TRIXXX’, released last year, critiqued our incessant need for a social media fix, and the enervating experience of clone warfare bred by a generation of influencers; ‘Move’, was an invocation to check our performative activism and “wokeness” in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. With a new 10-track project coming in Spring, George Riley foresees a new club order - come and join her rhythmic rebellion.
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“I ran out of credit; I’ve used up my minutes…” is the kind of dialled-in relatability you can expect from Birmingham’s Jaydonclover. Delivered through muted insouciance, the droll use of argot on ‘Call Me’, her first release of the year, belies her feelings; the need for reciprocation threatening to pierce the veil of faux resignation. In the accompanying video, she plays a fidgety paramour clutching her many phones, drinking alone in her bedroom from her SportsDirect mug. With a keen eye for nostalgic iconography and a reverence for MTV-era R&B, Jaydonclover bridges the past and future with finesse.
Inspired by the likes of Erykah Badu and Jhené Aiko, Jaydonclover first came on the scene with her sleepy debut project, ‘Recovering Lover’. Featuring 10 post-R&B tales of modern romance – always immersive and sentient, it’s as if you’ve stumbled across the private journals of your best friend, suspended in a dreamlike state of her own making. With syrupy riffs and runs, programmed beats, and an undiluted Midlands inflection, Jaydonclover is the chanteuse honouring her origins.
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Words: Shahzaib Hussain
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