High is Low: On the Merging Worlds of Independent and Commercial R&B

Jonah Bromwich aligns new releases from Rihanna, and AMTHST—a collaboration between Nite Jewel and Droop-E.
By    February 2, 2016

rihanna

Jonah Bromwich used to be an intern at the pop factory.

Over the last 5 years, we’ve seen nonstop experimentation in R&B-influenced pop. The genres’ disparate wings have fused together like cars on the new MTA train models. From Frank Ocean to Dawn Richard to Jeremih, artists’ willingness to ignore traditional templates has revitalized the genre, leading to heightened demand. In turn, a bevy of new artists have gotten shine, and certain critics’ standards have gotten higher, as damning reviews of acts like Banks and Wet have indicated. But any major backlash would ignore the enormous amount of good music that’s come out, and the way the artists making it have helped to reshape the pop landscape.

One of these artists is Ramona Gonzalez. Her 2012 LP as Nite Jewel, One Second of Love, expertly wedded pop melodies to more ambitious structures. Since releasing that album though, Gonzalez all but disappeared. Now, suddenly, she’s reemerged as one part of the duo AMTHST, a project that resurrects her partnership with the Bay Area rapper (and E-40’s son) Droop-E. On Thursday, they dropped a new single, “Thug Passion,” ahead of an EP to be released in mid-February.

https://play.spotify.com/album/6tRSEEDBWYfAcFPVDtVSoQ

“Thug Passion” is a worthy showcase for Gonzalez who, like an actress, uses slight variations in her tone and delivery to imbue a simple song with emotional depth. It feels both posed and vulnerable, slinky, but with real soul underneath. With little but her voice, she’s able to create an atmosphere of defiance and need that lingers beyond its running time, as if Gonzalez were keeping her foot squarely on the damper pedal.

The way that Gonzalez’s personality anchors the new song is reminiscent—on a much smaller stage—of Rihanna’s enormous charisma, and the way that it’s always elevated her music. That charisma is the quality that makes her new album work despite an absence (I think) of potential megahits.

Rihanna has always had a whatever-works style; look to any of her albums and you’ll see a mess of different genres and approaches. The new album, ANTI, is similarly mixed in tone, but it also sees Rihanna eschewing traditional pop in return for something that feels closer to the singer’s public persona. Her star has been boosted higher than ever, helped along by the stagecraft of her Instagram and the flattering interpretations of those who have recently profiled her, and ANTI makes full use of her hard-edged appeal. (When Beyoncé came out at the end of 2013, it too seemed like personality-driven anti-pop, though after several spins, the albums’ hooks unfurled. ANTI is even more slippery.)

The album’s first single, “Work,” highlights the approach. With its minimal beat and half-scatted lyrics, it relies purely, and successfully, on Rihanna’s ability to communicate emotion. Drake and his pop instincts are confined to a single, late section, a choice that diminishes the song’s chances of becoming a massive collaborative hit like “What’s My Name,” (which incorporated Aubrey earlier.)

Rihanna’s personality is center stage on all of ANTI’s standouts. “Kiss Me Better,” features her as sexual power broker, while on “Needed Me,” DJ Mustard downshifts his style to fit her jaded lyrics. On “Higher,” barely more than two minutes long, she plays a drunken cowboy belting desperation in an empty bar, a strain in her voice that suggests real emotional risk.  Even the presence of “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” a karaoke version of a Tame Impala song, suggests Rihanna’s autonomy in determining the shape and sound of ANTI.

In the past, Rihanna has made a good show inhabiting the roles she’s given, but  certain parts have been a poor fit. For every “Disturbia,” or “S&M,” there’s been something more generic, a “Cheers (I’ll Drink to That),” “Take a Bow” or “Don’t Stop the Music.” Until recently, it was the fate of those who existed inside the pop factory to suffer that sort of erasure, to be second to their own hits. Alternately, one of the traditional advantages of being independent was the power to create and maintain your own persona. Artists like Ramona Gonzalez made great use of that power, and it was one of the few things that gave them an advantage. But since these worlds have joined, artists like Beyonce and Rihanna have seized those reins too, and both have been fully in control of the most personal and enjoyable front-to-back listens of their respective careers.