Rhye and the Failed Promise of ‘Post-R&B’

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Mike Milosh of Rhye. Photo: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

The swooning strings that introduce Rhye’s 2013 track “Open” are yearning and seductive, a supple crystallization of gloom and eros that makes for a promising first impression. Led by the soft-voiced crooner Mike Milosh, Rhye managed to typify a particular sort of man in the mid-aughts: sensitive, deeply aware of sensuality, and endlessly horny. The cover of the group’s debut album, Woman, was a nude portrait of Milosh’s then-wife. The album hardly lives up to the first few seconds of “Open,” delivering a slog of forgettable, quasi-soulful tracks that at the time fell under the umbrella of the inescapable genre of “post-R&B.” And while it was literally the product of a joke made on Twitter, the idea of post-R&B — known at various points as hipster R&B or PBR&B — served as an attempt at the kind of cultural mishmash that the era’s optimism called for. Rhye’s latest, Blood, is something of a repudiation of those hopes. The album’s hollow offering speaks to the limitations of dousing campy vocals in reverb, and marks something of an end to an era. Today, it seems, there’s little patience for white dudes making derivative love songs.

The post-R&B phenomenon started around 2011, when a mysterious artist from Toronto called the Weeknd released the free mixtape House of Balloons. The project featured electronic flourishes, hints of dub and techno, and a druggy atmosphere atypical of popular R&B at the time. It also attracted an atypical audience. Now indie-rock fans, a largely white audience, were being drawn to what sounded a whole lot like R&B. Writing for the Awl in 2011, Jozen Cummings described the denomination as a sort of musical segregation: “Calling it ‘hipster R&B’ is a nice way of saying it’s R&B that white people like (black hipsters notwithstanding), and here’s my problem with that: It’s myopic, lazy, and it sounds to me like a form of musical segregation that’s not entirely based on genre.”

“Rhythm and blues,” the genre definition that prefigures the shorthand R&B, was created in 1949 by the record executive Jerry Wexler as a replacement for “race records,” a designation given to music made by black artists. It’s a relic of the music industry’s steadfast use of commercial taxonomies that organize consumers along racial lines. In 2011, the acclaimed R&B producer Ivan Barias petitioned the Grammys to create the Urban Contemporary category as a way of crediting artists who were making music influenced by R&B, but that fell outside of what the genre had become traditionally known for. “I’m trying to bridge that gap between the future and the past,” the producer Tricky Stewart told the Fader about his support for the category. Even without the music industry’s early designation of the genre as “race records,” R&B is in fact rooted in black musical traditions, which made white artists’ early forays into the genre, think of John B. or Justin Timberlake, exciting in their time. It symbolized a sort of idealized racial harmony, where a white guy could sing for a black audience and vice versa. Never mind that the white guy is more commercially viable thanks to long-standing stigmas against black artists. But even so, those overtures into black music were marked by white artists seeking approval, or a sense of authenticity, from the black progenitors of a sound.

The post-R&B phenomenon moved in a different direction, blending much of the indie world’s sensibilities with long-standing tropes from R&B. (It’s worth noting that many of the flourishes of indie music can be traced back to blues, gospel, and disco, too). You had artists like FKA Twigs and Miguel making out-of-this-world love songs that didn’t quite fit in any genre. And Frank Ocean could do just about anything musically and then, out of the blue, knock you over with his falsetto. What was happening in music during the post-R&B phenomenon was more likely an evolution of pop music, borrowing from the distinct sound of R&B while making something altogether new. By the time Rhye released Woman in 2013, what was initially described as post-R&B had become a defining element of all popular music. Rhye’s revivalist shtick was the favorite parlor trick of a particular era, and they managed to hit all the right notes.

Blood picks up where Woman left off, with Milosh in awe of womankind while whispering sweet nothings into the wind. Except this time the group is inspired by a different ingenue, Milosh’s current wife, who is similarly photographed in the nude on the record’s cover. Album opener “Waste” is built on a shuffling bass line and oozing funk guitars that speak to the upgrade in the group’s production. All of Blood is masterfully engineered thanks to the work of seasoned producers Thomas Bartlett and Justin Parker. After the release of Woman, Rhye toured with a full band, and brings much of that organic energy to this latest record, with distinct arrangements offering the only noticeable separation between tracks otherwise built on Milosh’s hushed whisper. The result is something like a sampler of Al Green and Sade covers. The latter, whom Milosh confoundingly claims he is “no fan of” is far more adept at building emotional textures than Rhye, and such shortcomings are harder to ignore than five years ago. With the integration of the more experimental wing of R&B into pop, Rhye’s music fails to move past anything but misfired replication. For all of Milosh’s longing whispers, Blood never feels like anything more than posturing — a guy who’s heard one too many R. Kelly ballads trying to seduce you at a bar. A glance at Blood’s lyrics reveal a frustrating overreliance on Seussian rhyme patterns and a sometimes bizarre affinity for sensual double entendres. There’s blood, trembling, surrendering, and licking of wounds, all of which serve to make sex seem more like hunting than loving.

The post-R&B phenomenon, like many internet-driven trends, was heavy on aesthetics and light on substance. There are already plenty of artists taking the sound of R&B to new realms, consider Solange or Kelela’s most recent releases, with the latter serving as an example of R&B leaning into electronic music. And pop music has never been more eclectic thanks to the democratizing force of online streaming. We now have Bruno Mars in full superstar mode. Rhye shows that artists who ignore the contours and subtleties of their sound’s originators will ultimately have trouble finding long-term appeal. Five years after their debut dazzled the music press, Rhye’s latest manages to prove just how much things have changed.

Rhye and the Failed Promise of ‘Post-R&B’