Words by: Dwayne Wilks
Despite the work of legends like Omar and Sade Adu, over the years UK R&B has typically struggled to find its footing. The new crop of UK based singers has the scene now moving forward in leaps and bounds.
Throughout the years, the UK’s relationship with its homegrown R&B acts has been what you would call “neglectful”. For decades the British music industry has happily imported R&B from America, but hasn’t sought to create the space or infrastructure for its own practitioners of the artform to build their own true artistic vision. Right now, however, there are more UK R&B acts contributing stellar music to the genre than at any other time previous. Whether you make your assessment based on commercial success, critical acclaim or just the word on these R&B streets, you’re likely to come to the same conclusion. We are in the golden era of UK R&B.
In this era of abundance, a number of acts have borrowed and built upon what might be referred to as the ‘Estelle model’. The ‘Estelle model’ is essentially just making the choice to relocate to America in order to sustain and potentially better an R&B artist’s career. This brought Estelle great success, and Ella Mai now treads the same path as the ‘American Boy’ singer in that regard. Upping sticks from the South London suburbs to LA allowed her to cultivate the clean, throwback sound from which came maybe the biggest pure R&B hit of the entire 2010s – ‘Boo’d Up’ and its strong accompanying album.
For the most part, UK artists that have built a rapport with their American counterparts have managed to do so off the strength of the music they’ve made here; for his recent album Table For Two, New Orleans-born crooner Lucky Daye chose two of the UK’s finest in Mahalia and Tiana Major9 to feature on the project respectively. Mahalia has also been called on to feature on songs by Rico Nasty, Chiiild and Pink$weats, and Tiana Major9 scored a Grammy nomination with her Johnny Venus assisted duet ‘Collide’. It’s clear that the current cohort of UK artists are reaching a new level of exposure as well as unprecedented critical and commercial success.
Quiet as it’s kept, beyond UK R&B’s biggest exports, there is also an increasing number of acts delivering their own takes on what it is to be an R&B artist. In doing so they have created a rich and vibrant arena and provided much needed diversity.
By way of example, Cleo Sol’s soulful offerings on her album A Rose In The Dark was as good as anything to come out on either side of the Atlantic in 2020. Etta Bond and Ray Blk, who have been feeding the streets since before the current high tide, continue to add quality music to their respective catalogues. Sinead Harnett, James Vickery, Jaz Karis, Gaidaa, Mnelia, Bellah, Scribz Riley, Odeal, Shae Universe and more all offer their own spins on the genre impressively in a way we haven’t seen in UK R&B before. Whether it’s velvety vocals or sugary nostalgia inducing sonics there is now something for everyone being made by this current generation of UK R&B artists.
For too long, for a UK R&B artist’s career to constitute success, the ‘Estelle model’ of using international means to gain international attention was the only viable route. But as the barriers between genres become more porous and the internet and social media continue to empower artists, UK singers have been able to carve out space for themselves. Now, not only the number of artists but also the range within the genre tells of a once nascent scene that is now in full bloom and here to stay.