What R&B taught me in 2020


With end-of-year music lists, personalised Spotify statistics and an AI app that literally tells you how embarrassing your taste in music is, I started to think about R&B songs from 2020 that were significant to me at different stages of the year.

2020 saw life stand still for many, but even though tours were cancelled, music consumption remained consistent. Artists were still releasing regularly, and because I had no distractions, I was listening to more music than I ever had before.

Ranging from how sampling changes meaning, why R&B still has something new to say, all whilst listing some artists that you should be listening to if you aren’t already – I discuss a few things I learnt about R&B music in 2020.

‘When I’m in Your Arms’ – Cleo Sol

Soul music birthed R&B; they rely on each other for growth and longevity. Cleo Sol’s use of both explores the beauty of this co-dependent relationship. 

Developments on neo-soul are not over, (despite it arguably peaking a long time ago) and Cleo Sol exemplifies this. Her music is a combination of all the different variants of this genre; a discography and historiography of all it has been and where it is heading. Her debut album, Rose in the Dark is both classically inclined and strikingly new, using past interpretations as building blocks to evolve the genre. 

The simple Lauryn Hill-esque sentiments scattered throughout the album may set the tone, but if this song must be compared to anything else, it would be a meticulous Roy Ayers and Erykah Badu slow jam. It is everything you’d expect from neo-soul but more hypnotising, as the song takes you down winding paths with repeated mantras and entrancing strings. By finding solace in its hallucinatory state, Cleo Sol carves a safe and familiar route in its chaos; capturing the characteristic components of the genre. 

The best part of ‘When I’m in Your Arms’ arrives when her tone switches, as she inquires “Are you gonna ride with me? Hold me down, will you listen, never lie to me?”. Everything about her whispery tone and melody heralds early-2000’s R&B, like an Ashanti hook on a Ja Rule song that never came to be. Cleo Sol marks a shift in space and time with this song, as she makes her way through various configurations of past soul and present R&B, never ceasing to sound boring or played out. 

‘Rapper Weed’ SiR featuring BOOGIE

SiR is signed to one of, if not the most respected rap label of 2010’s – Top Dawg Entertainment. They made their name through Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q, but they have been finding increasingly more space for R&B, in the form of artists like SZA and SiR. 

Of course, SiR hasn’t made his name like the aforementioned, but he is definitely making his way there. His 2019 album Chasing Summer was a blissful end to the season – and ‘Rapper Weed’, his first release after this, marked the start of the next one. 

It’s release time in April was the calm before the storm; mere weeks before protests erupted globally and the conditions of our national lockdown were still very temperamental. He departs from the neo-soul of his last project, and opts for bass-heavy bravado on ‘Rapper Weed’, stating that he is “Listenin’ to old Kanye, feelin’ like new Kanye”. 

The best thing about SiR’s music is that he always sounds at peace with the world. Even when crooning about heartbreak and sorrow, he is warm and serene. With ‘Rapper Weed’ he stays in this lane, but with a newfound confidence, tempered by soft operatic vocals above deep 808s. 

For me, ‘Rapper Weed’ was a shred of optimism in these unprecedented times. When SiR starts with “Clear skies, white walls, Sunset in my rearview as the night falls”, I could pretend I was not stress-writing my dissertation locked in my student house; but I was in SiR’s world – a place where deadlines didn’t exist, because it was the peak of summer in the middle of spring. R&B has always been a comfort to me, a sound I’ve known practically since birth – and in an odd way, ‘Rapper Weed’ reminded me of this fact. It was a much needed glimpse into a happier and more recognisable future that was almost impossible to envisage at the time.

‘Slow Down’ – VanJess

VanJess consists of Nigerian-American sisters called Ivana and Jessica Nwokike. Starting their path with popular YouTube covers, they graduated to innovative production with their underappreciated album Silk Canvas in 2018; and now have some amazing collaborations under their belt. Even finding a trusty partner in producer Kaytranada; whose remixes show his clear affinity with R&B.

Slow Down’ has a very prominent isolated sample of a saxophone throughout, one that is used very frequently in hip-hop. Although its most famous reworking is Wreckx-N-Effects ‘Rump Shaker’, I instantly recognised it from Jay-Z’s post-retirement song ‘Show Me What You Got’. Both ‘Rump Shaker’ and ‘Show Me What You Got’ vocalise the tired tropes of hyper-sexualisation, male egotism and voyeurism that patriarchy enables; but on ‘Slow Down’, Van Jess reimagines these horns into an intimate love letter. 

They list the reasons why their partners are deserved of adoration way beyond superficiality. They are thoughtful in their compliments, describing someone that ‘does things with intention’ and ‘tries to stay objective’. It is attentive and generous, giving the whole sample a whole new set of references that supersede its objectifying implications. 

‘Slow Down’ is an articulation of love as a modern fairy tale, one where time ‘slows down’ when they are together. Yes, it’s refreshing to hear classic sounds transformed into a different genre; but it’s far more satisfying to witness the implications of these sounds flipped entirely on their heads. It represents something bigger, as a clear sign of the constantly changing state of female voices in music, and the conversations that R&B facilitates and leads. 

‘Peng Black Girls (Remix)’ ENNY featuring Jorja Smith

On ‘Peng Black Girls’ ENNY relates to an entire diaspora of black girls despite its London-centric references. ENNY is a new artist from South East London and she’s only got two other songs out (all released in 2020), which only makes ‘Peng Black Girls’ more impressive. Before you listen to this song, listen to the version featuring Amia Brave . The beat is completely different, and its music video is probably unlike one you’ve seen before.

The remix is noticeably more intense and introspective; painted by nostalgia and postcode pride, with an acutely political message delivered nonchalantly by both Jorja Smith and ENNY. Touching on desirability politics that pertain to Black women – (including colourism, hair texture, and contouring) ENNY’s rapping is so illustrative and affective that it could be spoken word.

One of the best bars is where she rejects the Kardashians as body goals and looks towards something familiar, to a time before the Kardashians dominated celebrity culture and we were too young to internalise the beauty myth, so wanted “a fat booty like my aunty got” instead. 

‘Peng Black Girls’ recognises that as Black girls we have to work harder than most to get what we want, but we have so much to celebrate as well. It’s a matter-of-fact statement on what it feels to be misrepresented AND erased, but refusing to dwell because it’s just unproductive. 

I can’t tell whether it’s my personal SE London pride that makes this song more meaningful, but when ENNY mediates her frustrations about race and gender by repeating “We gon’ be alright, okay?”She’s talking to a particular subset of people, one that is rarely afforded these affirmative words, but are so deserving of them. 

ENNY uses UK R&B to verbalise the spectrum of shared experiences and emotions that all exist at once, without it sounding dramatic or overwhelming. Her recitation of childhood memories are always related to togetherness, which will always be significant when you’re the minority amongst the masses.

Graphic courtesy of Nahal Sheikh