Saint Paul, Minn., singer Corbin has developed a streamlined version of R&B, one with all the surface decoration carefully scraped away. His innovation is to remove the melisma and ad-libs and flowery vocal runs that so predictably (and often boringly) signify feeling in contemporary pop. Corbin’s songs are intensely emotional and radical in their modesty.
Corbin has put out music as Lil’ Spooky, as Spooky Black, and as a member of thestand4rd (pictured above). Most recently, he released the couch potato EP with MC/producer Bobby Raps, and the two played a pair of New York shows this weekend in support of their new project. Across this slew of releases, Corbin’s voice remains the same: gentle with a dreamy tremor. There’s a ’50s teenybopper purity to his quaver, a sense of naiveté that’s unusual when most performers want to sound older and more experienced than they actually are. At his most affecting, he seems to capture and extend the moment when that first tear wells up in his eye.
While Corbin’s music codes as R&B or hip-hop, his best work demonstrates a lack of aggression that distinguishes him from his contemporaries. Several songs off last year’s excellent Leaving EP are nearly beatless — they hang, linger and evaporate slowly, like smoke in an old movie. So much of his ghost-soul concerns absence: the object of his affection is usually out of the picture. Take “Pull” — “Gone just as you came through the broken air/ Now I start to question were you even there” — or “Reason”: “Now that I’m gone, I know that you hear it.”
Corbin’s rise hasn’t been a solitary affair: He earned attention last year as a member of thestand4rd, a group that was given the official DJ Khaled stamp of approval. (Another stand4rd member, Allan Kingdom, appeared on Kanye West‘s “All Day” earlier this year.) Bobby Raps also came up in thestand4rd’s ranks and served as a producer on a number of Spooky Black songs.
couch potato pushes a harder sound. There’s some shouty hip-hop (“Frozen Tundra”) and even a dance-leaning pulse on a few tracks (“Torment” channels the glitchy propulsion of U.K. garage). While it doesn’t have the same impact as Leaving, the new material is better suited for performance. Corbin’s subtle wispiness doesn’t always translate in a live setting.
Bobby hasn’t put out many solo releases aside from his work in thestand4rd, so this show — at MOMA PS1 in Queens — was a coming out of sorts, a chance to prove that he could split the spotlight with the better-known Corbin. Bobby displayed an impressive singing voice of his own, climbing suddenly into a falsetto on several occasions. During one of the performance’s most thrilling moments, he joined Corbin in a gorgeous, wordless harmony.
These flashes of beauty gained power through contrast: Bobby’s rapping oscillated between a casual, conversational tone and a husky, throaty barrage. The hoarse moments are raggedly compelling — he sounded punch-drunk and dazed but deeply hurt. “PlaneWalker,” a track he put out this year on his own, served as the show’s cathartic moment. “I ain’t in it for the recognition!” he yelled. “Only talk about this shit because I really feel it!” Corbin looked on in pride as Bobby exploded in staccato gusts of emotion, recognizing that different means can lead to the same end.