Within weeks of each other last year Frank Ocean and the Weeknd, both largely unknown R&B artists at the time, released free digital albums—Nostalgia, Ultra and House of Balloons, respectively—that conformed to the structures of R&B but explored sonic spaces indebted to the aesthetics of indie rock. In a reversal of the status quo for R&B, they broke first with the largely white hipster demographic before catching on with the largely black "urban" audience. This process threw light on the fact that contemporary R&B, unlike other mainstream American pop styles—rock, soul, hip-hop, country—has never spawned a countercultural avant-garde.
I can think of a few reasons for this. One is that modern, electronics-based R&B has been ruthlessly devoted to the pursuit of commercial success since arising in the mid-80s, so that musicians with pretensions of making "art" were likely to gravitate toward genres (particularly hip-hop) that have nurtured robust underground scenes. Another is that R&B is remarkably accepting of experimentally minded musicians (especially considering its focus on satisfying mainstream audiences), which tends to deflate the potential for an iconoclastic insurgency. Some of the style's wildest innovators—Prince, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Timbaland, Christopher "Tricky" Stewart—are also its biggest successes, and they worked from the center out (big smash songs followed by experimentation with esoteric genre workouts), rather than from the fringes in. Frank Ocean and the Weeknd are now collaborating with heavyweights such as Jay-Z and Drake, but they started on the fringes—they've followed trajectories a lot like the one Nirvana took to superstardom, though at Internet-enhanced speeds.
Jeremih Felton, who performs under his first name alone, started his career far from the fringes—his 2009 debut single, "Birthday Sex," came out on Def Jam and was inescapable on the radio, in clubs, and blaring from car stereos almost all year long. With its impossibly catchy "Girl you know I-I-I" vocal hook, "Birthday Sex" earned itself a respectable position on the list of the best pop singles of the aughts; the self-titled album that followed was perfectly enjoyable if not groundbreaking, indebted to R. Kelly both in its blend of slow jams and club bangers and in its single-minded lyrical focus on sexual single entendres. Jeremih's 2010 follow-up, All About You, was slightly more interesting—its lead single, "Down on Me," folded in ideas from southern trap rap and Kanye West's sweeping electro-tinged anthems.
Earlier this month Felton released a free album-length mixtape of his own, Late Nights With Jeremih, through online distributor DatPiff, and joined Ocean and the Weeknd on the leading edge of R&B's aesthetic overhaul. It's a surprising move for an artist who's previously stayed near the middle of the road.
Late Nights owes obvious debts to Nostalgia and Balloons, and a cynic might suspect that Felton is making a coattail grab. But he's still a young artist—he was only 21 when "Birthday Sex" dropped—and he hasn't stolen an entire blueprint so much as lifted a couple of keys, which have unlocked creativity he's still learning to exploit. He's borrowed some of the Weeknd's techniques for turning his voice into a textural instrument rather than simply a vehicle for salacious lyrics, and his more refined taste in beats seems influenced by Ocean.
Late Nights is very much its own album, though. The only R&B record I've listened to more this year is Channel Orange, Ocean's follow-up to Nostalgia, Ultra—a certifiable masterpiece and quite possibly the best album of any kind released in 2012. Channel Orange is introspective and full of heartbreak and longing, and it's all the more fascinating because Ocean created it while struggling to define his sexual identity after falling in love with another man; Felton, on the other hand, is still primarily concerned with knocking boots with sexy women. Channel Orange merely flirts with hip-hop; Late Nights features nearly a dozen guest rappers.
Channel Orange is also extravagantly eccentric, skipping from ersatz psychedelic oldies to meditative semi-spoken word like an early Prince record. Late Nights is more consistent, and seems to have an audacious goal, which is to compete with the biggest club hits on their own terms—that is, hookiness and danceability—while tweaking the sounds and structures of R&B till they occasionally threaten to fly free of the genre altogether.
"Fuck U All the Time" features vocals by Atlanta R&B singer Natasha Mosley, and it's one of several songs on Late Nights that could work as radio singles, especially since the profanity comes prebleeped; the minimalist production by Atlanta duo FKi (promising up-and-comers, like most of the producers on the record) nods to Sade and chopped-and-screwed Houston rap in nearly equal degrees. The beat behind "Ahh Shit," courtesy of Sak Pase, would read as rock if it were played on acoustic drums, and combined with throbbing synth and grungy lo-fi guitar it sounds considerably more like TV on the Radio than any other track that features a cameo by rap-mixtape legend Fabolous. The two biggest-name guests on Late Nights, Gucci Mane and 2 Chainz, appear on "Outta Control," where they go in over a pileup of synthesizers—including one that comes daringly close to exceeding the average person's tolerance for high frequencies.
One of the many remarkable things about Late Nights is that Felton sounds more confident than he ever has, even as he strays so far from his comfort zone. Late Nights hasn't yet caught fire with tastemakers, either indie or urban, in the way Nostalgia and Balloons did—maybe people still think of Jeremih as just the "Girl you know I-I-I" guy. I hope that changes. I like to see artists who've found certified success by playing it safe take a leap into the ambitiously artsy—and more than that, I think these songs sound enough like hits that they deserve to become hits. I've been through Late Nights well over a dozen times so far without getting close to wearing it out, and I already can't wait to see what Felton does next.