Gloom&B (Part 1)

Towards the end of 2011, a new strain of R&B drifted into collective musical unconsciousness: “Gloom&B[1],” a genre based on total lack of feeling. The classic trio of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll that spurred the creation of so much music no longer satisfies, and love rarely garners a mention.  Gloom&B investigates the overstimulated and oversatiated.  It tells the story of cold, impersonal interaction, unattainable intimacy, and a fading memory of human connection – a memory that is obscured further by each lost high and pleasureless sexual encounter.  In different ways, artists like The Weeknd, Frank Ocean, and Drake chart a downward spiral into dependence, depression, and numbness.

Like much popular music, Gloom&B formulates its outlook in reaction to what was popular before, looking for an edge, relying on provocation.  When the simple structures of soul became limiting and didn’t mesh well with the frustration of 60s progressivism, soul stalwarts like James Brown and Curtis Mayfield moved into funk, a more energetic genre that gave them room to express a more complex dissatisfaction. Traditionally R&B embraces love, loss, and all manners of heartbreak; hip hop often celebrates success, living in a world of no restriction. Gloom&B reacts to these themes by celebrating anomie.  But it goes further:  paired with a lengthy economic downturn, Gloom&B pokes holes in an important part of the American dream. Upward mobility as the reward for hard work may be a false promise – or worse, a trap.  Love is emptiness, and pleasure is an illusion.  In Gloom&B, making it big eliminates the artists’ feelings entirely.

Two of the artists most closely associated with this new trend, Drake and Frank Ocean, are well-known.  Drake earned a deal with Lil’ Wayne on the strength of a 2009 mix tape; he released his second album, the much acclaimed Take Care, in November of 2011.  Frank Ocean has worked for several years as a song writer, is associated with the rappers in the collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (OFWGKTA), and had a solo deal with Def Jam that fell through, causing him to release his debut album Nostalgia/Ultra for free on the internet.  While these two artists have dabbled in Gloom&B mode without solely devoting themselves to it, it’s chief practitioner is the Weeknd, who burst out of the ether early in 2011, clothed in debauchery and misery, maintaining a tunnel vision that hones in on depression and emptiness.

The Weeknd is principally the work of Ethiopian-Canadian singer Abel Tesfaye.  Tesfaye has an unnerving and despairing voice and sings alarming or intensely disaffected lyrics.  His first release, House Of Balloons, stands as the uncompromising centerpiece of Gloom&B.  On the opening track, Tesfaye sings with gentle menace, “trust me girl/ you wanna be high for this,” setting the lyrical tone for much of the album. In “What You Need” Tesfaye creepily intones, “I’m the drug in your veins, just fight through the pain,” a phrase closer to addiction than to love.  Later he talks of “No closed doors” — but this phrase does not denote freedom and openness; instead, it communicates an absence of protection and the presence of ghostly, forceful, haunting as Tesfaye cannot escape a specter, stuck listening “to her moans echo.” At another point, Tesfaye rattles off the line, “I got a brand new girl. . . but she’ll probly OD before I show her to mama.” The phrase starts like a more traditional R&B line – taking home a girlfriend to meet mom – but then it takes a quick, hard turn into drugs and death.

On the song “Coming Down,” the refrain, “I only want you when I’m coming down,” emphasizes one of the central tenets of Gloom&B – sex no longer feels good.  It is a consolation, a kind of drug the singer uses when other drugs don’t give him what he needs.  Practically everything The Weeknd touches is a drug (Tesfaye himself claims to be a drug).  Typically, life under the influence is an escape from ordinary reality; on House Of Balloons, however, there is no real life, no unmediated interaction with the world around Tesfaye—and thus no escape.  It is exciting at first, but once imagination becomes reality, it’s hard to find the line between the actual and the fantastic, or the nightmarish.  On “Coming Down,” Tesfaye tries to use sex to delay his return to reality, but the song is devoid of thrill. “Coming down” sounds a lot like “come undone.”

The Weeknd’s instrumentation reinforces Tesfaye’s tormented voice and messy lyrics.  “High For This” has an industrial rumble in the background that sounds like a low-pitched fire-alarm, a sonic signal to run.  The guitar on “Coming Down” is hesitant and sparse, teasing or torturing a listener waiting for the riff to resolve.  Tesfaye sometimes mashes songs into each other, changing instrumental palettes but not the underlying feeling of misery. The first part of “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls” runs edgy and pleading, but then all extraneous sound drops away, and Tesfaye half-raps, half-sings, chugging metronomically over a skittering drum beat and synthetic throb. When Tesfaye breaks into full throated singing for a moment it sounds startlingly lush in contrast to the streamlined forward pulse, and it conveys pure anguish.  The two parts of the song are connected mainly by a pervasive tinge of despair.

[1] Only I call it that.

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  1. Ocean For Soul Sides « Sign Of The Times

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