With the revival of West Coast R&B, the thematic continuum between hip-hop and soul music continues. As the region’s rap scene soars through the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples and others, so do its urban artists.
In this case, it’s a wave of recordings where everyone is keenly aware of their surroundings. Think Dr. Dre’s Compton, where the 50-year-old rapper/producer invites a cavalcade of old and new friends on an exploration of the region’s culture and his growth from an N.W.A tyro to a middle-aged tycoon worth hundreds of millions. One of those newcomers is Anderson .Paak, whose Venice and Malibu albums tour the sounds of underground L.A., from the beats freaks at the weekly event Low End Theory to the skater kids in Venice aka “Dogtown.”
Perhaps inspired by the panoramic view of Compton, Ty Dolla $ign opens Free TC with “L.A.,” which courses through the city of angels, and neighborhoods like South Central, Inglewood and Watts. The album title pays tribute to his younger brother, who is currently serving a life sentence for murder. Then there’s Miguel’s Wildheart, which taps Eros and mortality as pulses running through life in the city. There’s “The Valley,” which is inspired by San Fernando Valley’s reputation as the home of the pornography industry, and on “Hollywood Dreams” and “What’s Normal Anyway,” Miguel reflects on growing up as a biracial child with a black mother and a Mexican-American father.
These songs all pay literal tribute to the West Coast. More remarkable, however, is the sheer number of major R&B acts emerging from the region. TeeFLii found his voice cranking out club hits in the “ratchet R&B” scene. Jhené Aiko, Kehlani and Tinashe create diary-like pop visions that aren’t necessarily specific to any location other than their own minds. Alternative soul band The Internet represents a millennial youth that isn’t burdened by the racial and gender restrictions of past.
We can date the current era back to 2012 and Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE, a West Coast R&B classic that floats between songs that describe a certain kind of L.A. demimonde –- the “Sweet Life” -– and introspective forays such as “Bad Religion.” Will Frank Ocean finally give us a new album in 2016? The time seems right for it.