I wish I could say that I came up with “PBR&B” as a term for the indie R&B that has been popping up on Pitchfork, Stereogum, et al. for the past month or two, but I’m not that clever (not by a long shot). Despite not coming up with the name, I’ve been digging quite a few albums that fall into said sub-genre, namely The Weeknd’s House of Balloons and Frank Ocean’s Nostalgia U.L.T.R.A.
From what I can tell, the main thing that makes PBR&B artists hipster-friendly (versus regular R&B artists like Ne-Yo or Trey Songz) is that at least one song on their album makes extensive use of a familiar, hipster-approved indie rock song. In The Weeknd’s case, this takes the form of two songs that sample Beach House (pre-Teen Dream, no less). “Loft Music,” which is one of the better songs on the album, borrows guitar and Victoria Legrand’s vocals from “Gila,” distorts them, and adds a drum track and vocals. Somehow, it works to great effect.
The other Beach House sample on House of Balloons is “The Party & The After Party,” which samples from “Master of None.” I think it’s a less original sample, an inferior Beach House song (relative to “Gila,” anyway), and the track just sort of meanders along for the last four minutes. Not exactly the best pitch in the world, but it’s worth a listen just to hear the Beach House sample.
All in all, the Weeknd album is pretty solid. It is deconstructed, sometimes sparse R&B that is better than anything I’ve heard in the genre in years. My favorite track is the opener “High for This.” While it doesn’t sample any indie rock, the beat during the chorus sounds like the beat from Ginuwine’s “Pony” and the sound from Inception got together and had a baby. Awesome.
Frank Ocean’s Nostalgia U.L.T.R.A. is more standard R&B fare, but still an enjoyable album that has its weird moments. For instance, he manages to take an atrocious Coldplay song and make it marginally listenable (“Strawberry Swing”), reworks The Eagles’ “Hotel California” as a song about marrying a teenager (“American Wedding”), and samples Radiohead’s “Optimistic” in an interlude that features two women lamenting the lack of Jodeci in Frank Ocean’s music collection and includes the line “What is a Radiohead anyway?” However, the absolute standout track on the album is “Nature Feels,” in which Frank Ocean takes MGMT’s “Electric Feel” and turns it into a ridiculous outdoor sex romp (first line: “I’ve been meaning to f*** you in the garden”).