Black R&B Artists Are Continuing to Redefine the Genre With a DIY Approach

Steve Lacy
David Wolff - Patrick/Redferns

Steve Lacy performs at La Cigale on Nov. 19, 2019 in Paris, France.

If it wasn’t for Steve Lacy being “forced” by his mom to play bass guitar in high school, he probably wouldn’t have landed his second nomination for best urban contemporary album for debut solo album Apollo XXI at the 2020 Grammys.

Some critics didn’t consider the LP to be traditional R&B, as it’s intermingled with guitar-driven psychedelic and lo-fi pop. But Lacy utilized similar production techniques from 2017’s Steve Lacy’s Demo and his experience assisting with Jhené Aiko and Big Sean’s 2016 joint LP TWENTY88, Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy-winning DAMN and Solange’s When I Get Home

While Apollo XXI was recorded in his sister’s bedroom (which Lacy calls “Paramore Palace”), when she left for college, Lacy advocated for using production tools on his iPhone during his 2017 TedxTeen talk, including Garageband, iMPC and Beatmaker 2. Though Lacy’s production was unorthodox, it fits within the SoundCloud ideation of unmastered vignettes created without the complication of pricey, big-name studios.

Lacy still kept his instruments at hand, but his optimization of production apps further defined his authentic sound. While this isn’t the first Grammy nod Lacy has received -- being nominated in the same category for Ego Death as guitarist and occasional singer for neo-soul fusion band The Internet in 2017 -- the recognition spotlights the ongoing wave of Black DIY artists enjoying success in R&B this year.

As writers and producers of their own material, a majority of new-gen R&B artists can also promote their music in the palm of their hand through streaming apps -- including Apple Music, Spotify and SoundCloud -- taking advantage of the industry’s focus on Internet absorption and adapting to experimental trap and cloud R&B sub-genres. In turn, they’ve managed to sidestep the homogeneity of radio-friendly R&B. Marketing for these artists has also become more hands-on thanks to platforms like Instagram -- which Ella Mai, Ari Lennox and H.E.R. utilized heavily in the early stages of their career, through intimate singing sessions and track snippets, and where established singers can still connect with fans. 

Instead of taking the album route, R&B artists can now also spontaneously release free mixtapes, as seen this year with Kehlani’s While We Wait and Blood Orange’s Angel’s Pulse. Though she’s become a notable mainstream artist, Kehlani occasionally returns to SoundCloud, most recently promoting the rough mix of “You Know Wassup” before releasing its final version. With the ability to generate their own content without being manufactured, artists have adapted to DIY methods of self-promotion, including merch pop-ups, and updating their socials daily to further generate buzz, without any of the restrictions that might come with being on a major label. 

Dying her hair blonde and retreating to Jamaica’s Runaway Bay last Spring, Solange penned a letter of gratitude to the country for Dazed while working on When I Get Home, an atmospheric, spacey ode to her Houston hometown, recorded following her improvisation sessions during the creation of 2016's A Seat at the Table. For viral promotion of the set, Solange took over the long-abandoned BlackPlanet dating site with a photobook Dossier and cosmic sketches. The album debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. 

Like Lacy’s production method, Solange utilized her iPhone for voice memos and created mood boards as the template for When I Get Home's song and video ideas, notably “Almeda." Instead of being dependent on classic soundboard production used frequently in the last decade, Solange personalized her sound through one-take improvisation with a studio band and vocal layering. Lacy himself even played guitar on “My Skin My Logo”, a Gucci Mane-featuring cut, in which Solange encouraged Lacy to adlib, creating the song’s eventual chord structure. 

Sharing an emotive, mood board style is Tinashe, who experienced a freeing transition after officially leaving RCA in February following years-long grapples. With the November release of her fourth album Songs For You, Tinashe is now a full-fledged independent artist. Returning to her DIY roots was natural after undergoing the label pressures of third album Joyride, having previously using her home studio to produce songs for much of her discography, as seen with mixtapes like Black Water and Amethyst

“Once I made those changes, I felt completely different,” the singer previously told Billboard. “I felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders and I had no pressure in the studio anymore, which changed the game for me. I remember when I was on a major label, you’d go into the studio with a producer and you get one day and you feel like we have to make a f---ing hit. We got the next eight hours to do it big, and by adding that pressure, it genuinely taints the creative process.”

Fellow Los Angeles native Jhené Aiko is also leading her own tranquil sound. Two years after delving into psychedelic experimentation on 2017’s Trip, Aiko dug into her freestyle roots on May’s “Triggered”, subtly addressing past relationships before joining on-again, off-again beau Big Sean on “None of Your Concern.” Continuing her stride in songwriting and production, Aiko most recently crafted “Trigger Protection Mantra," a therapeutic six-minute song mediation. Not a stranger to changing character for a concept album, Aiko’s music goes beyond traditional R&B soundwaves, as she defines her message of healing through self-written poetry, finding inspiration through travel and unconventional harp instrumentation.

Before August's Chasing Summer, Inglewood’s own SiR was a songwriter and engineer and worked at Guitar Center, where he was able to receive discounts on music equipment that he used on songwriting demos -- ultimately signing to Top Dawg Entertainment in 2017. With his newest album reaching No. 64 on the Billboard 200, SiR’s songwriting approach has led to him penning songs for Stevie Wonder, Anita Baker and Jill Scott (featured on Chasing Summer highlight “Still Blue”). 

Fellow singer-songwriter and one-time American Idol contestant Lucky Daye was reintroduced to R&B in late 2018, releasing EPs I and II in four-track doses, before his 2019 debut Painted. The album opened with the guitar-laden “Roll Some Mo,” which garnered an intimate and organic following forher ensuing  The Painted Tour. The tune reels listeners in with dream-like opulence, peaking at No. 8 on the Adult R&B Songs chart. Having previously served as a songwriter for Ella Mai (“10,000 Hours”, “Down”), and Keke Palmer (“Enemiez”), Painted landed Daye with four nominations for the 2020 Grammys, including best R&B album and best R&B song. Along with prior songwriting experience, both SiR and Daye excel through their vocal conviction and autobiographical takes on love.

In the new decade, this continued DIY approach will evolve past home and mobile recording, further connecting with listeners who are receptive to independent creativity. With more reliance on technology, traditional R&B artists will likely fall in line to personalize their recording experience using updated formats. As artists become further self-taught, and find ever new ways to push their own content, the DIY R&B movement should lead to even greater Internet buzz, and ultimately, more overall consumption from a wider fanbase. 

2019 Billboard Year in Music