Justine Skye & Kehlani Display Different Approaches to R&B at NYC Duh Party

Elijah Donminique
Justine Skye

Though the producer DJ Mustard got his start making songs for rappers, many of his biggest hits have been in R&B. This is because he favors wiry, uncluttered beats that come with a guarantee that they will never overwhelm a vocalist. His work dominates the radio, and his spirit hangs over R&B shows like last night's Duh Party event, which featured two young singers, Justine Skye and Kehlani.

Star R&B producers of the past -- take Pharrell Williams, Timbaland, or even Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis -- came up with instrumentals that were vibrant and vicious, capable of steamrolling a singer: think of Ginuwine's "Pony" or Kelis's "Caught Out There." By contrast, a Mustard instrumental is forgiving and undemanding: if you're a thin-voiced singer -- and thin voices are fashionable at the moment -- it's easy to glide along with the track, finding refuge in the forward-momentum. As a result, Mustard's current dominance has been a boon for R&B vocalists, helping expose Ty Dolla $ign, Tinashe, Mila J, Jeremih, Jhene Aiko, and even a veteran like Omarion to a wider audience.

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This pattern of relentless, pounding beats and singers enjoying the breezy ride initially felt fresh and compelling, but like any musical trend, it runs the risk of becoming stale.  This is why "Collide," the Mustard-produced single from Skye, was an encouraging development when it came out last year. "Collide" took the formula and translated it into something sensual and seductive: instead of just following the track as it raced from A to B, Skye made time for pleasure. People noticed, and though the song stalled at radio -- which at the moment largely ignores female voices (aside from Rihanna's and Nicki Minaj's) and slow jams (the less said about "See You Again," the better) -- it has nearly a million plays on Soundcloud.

Skye played last night at the Manhattan club Up And Down, which hosted a party thrown in honor of Michael Goldberg's birthday. (Goldberg's Butter Group owns and runs the club.) In addition to live performances from Skye and Kehlani, the evening featured a steady stream of DJs, some announced -- Jus Ske, Chase B, Ibe Soliman -- and some not: Soulection's Andre Power and SoSuperSam, as well as Kanye-associate Virgil Aboh.

When Skye took the microphone, she didn't play "Collide," preferring to stick to more recent tracks like "Bandit," which takes an old western-sounding guitar line, a cousin of the riff in Nancy Sinatra's "Bang Bang," and sprinkles it with trap drums. Skye's vocal delivery was overly-indebted to Rihanna here, but there's child-like delight in the chorus: "I'm a bandit!" She also performed next single from her forthcoming EP, Emotionally Unavailable, which pushes towards a soaring, ecstatic hook.

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Kehlani is more of an R&B outlier than Skye: a young singer who has achieved a level of success (though not a hit single) without the Mustard connection. Since she hails from Oakland, maybe she doesn't feel like she needs his help -- after all, when Mustard's sound first gained traction, the L.A. producer was accused of stealing the Bay's mojo. Why not steal it back? A Kehlani track like "Act A Fool," from her Cloud 19 tape, has plenty of streamlined propulsion, Mustard or not.

Kehlani's approach also makes room for more emotional depth than a Mustard beat might allow: her recent mixtape, You Should Be Here, is an intimate project that probes deep into relationships and calls out friends, lovers, and relatives on their failures. But the singer actually leaned more on her older material during her short set. "FWU," also from Cloud 19, provided a pleasing visual to match the brassy, celebratory tune: Kehlani and a small group of friends and collaborators bouncing furiously in a small DJ booth as she chanted the hook, "f---ing with me 'cause I'm loyal." To represent You Should Be Here, she leaned on a downtempo number, "The Way," a head-over-heels collaboration with Chance the Rapper.  

Earlier in the night, the DJ Andre Power mixed a stream of current hits with a few R&B classics. A DJ's job isn't easy -- you're a slave to the dance floor -- but his set was a reminder of the flexibility within that mandate, something that's not always available to a singer: he barely played a single Mustard song.