Kevin Abstract and the Last of the Genres

Will Hagle knows how to leave anything in 30 seconds Someone once told me, genre is a flat circle. Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again. Truly...
By    May 14, 2014

kevin abstract

Will Hagle knows how to leave anything in 30 seconds

Someone once told me, genre is a flat circle. Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again. Truly creative artists are those outside that circle, looking down and laughing.

Genre distinction may not actually matter to most artists or listeners, but humans like to categorize things, so it exists. Although a particular genre can’t be explained in an exact manner, it can be viewed as a jumping off point – a loosely-defined set of musical rules. Artists of a particular genre make music that’s expected to fall within certain boundaries, but certainly not limited by them.

Genre was once the broadest way for record stores and radio stations to organize music, with subcategories making it easier to find what you’re looking for or to discover something new. This type of classification has since transitioned online, with music discovery services working genre tags into algorithms that help computers make recommendations based on your listening habits. It’s the reason my Spotify Discovery section says “Have you heard this song by Raekwon? Give it a try.”

Most Spotify recommendations are laughable. The aforementioned Raekwon recommendation was for his feature on the Cruel Summer album, because I listened to one Kanye West song. Spotify actually uses a variety of methods to execute its discovery service — collaborative filtering, manual curation, tag attributes, etc. (these are things that I googled and know nothing about). Companies understand that genre is no longer the most important factor when it comes to discovery, yet the genre categories still exist. No one has made a perfect music discovery service because taste is subjective, but also, more simply, genre is imperfect.

The Apple acquisition of Beats that’ll inevitably lead to a Forbes Dr. Dre cover shoot reminded me how primitive iTunes’ genre classification feature was when it first launched. The service was revolutionary, for sure, but the genre options were limited (unless you typed in your own term).

A quick scan of my library is suggesting that I’m wrong, but for some reason I recall one of iTunes initial genre options being “Hip-hop/R&B.” I was amazed how the service knew the album title, artist name and other information about The Black Album when I (legally, this time) uploaded the disc, but the genre stuck out to me. Genre was one of the easiest ways to filter your iTunes library when you were looking for something, but Jay-Z was a rapper, not a singer. If I wanted to find Jagged Edge and 112, I’d be searching for an entirely different genre, yet my computer classified them together.

This is a longwinded way of admitting that I don’t know what R&B is. Old people might say it’s the Rolling Stones, or someone from Motown. Younger people might say it’s Jodeci, R. Kelly, or Destiny’s Child. The genre’s Wikipedia page cites race as a defining factor of the music, but then lists tons of non-black artists as participating in the music.

R&B has always been difficult to define, but in 2014 it’s almost impossible. The Weeknd, Future, Frank Ocean and Drake are the first examples that come to mind. A good guideline has always been that R&B is mostly singing and hip-hop is mostly rapping, but artists have always blended those boundaries and they continue to do so perhaps more than ever today. Eminem said it best on “Hailie’s Song”: “Yo I can’t sing. I feel like singing. I want to fucking sing.”

Kevin Abstract is probably not thinking about genre. He has other things to worry about, like graduating high school and becoming a pop star. He’s also outside that flat circle, making music that’s too hard to pin down with one label.

His new single, “Drugs,” spans seven minutes and he navigates every second single-handedly and successfully. The track was produced by romil, a member of the AliveSinceForever collective which Abstract leads. The song is essentially broken up into three distinct sections, as Kevin Abstract raps over a polished beat at the beginning, then sings in a sometimes shaky, sometimes slightly off-key voice that emphasizes his emotions later on before switching back to rapping again.

I imagine that someday my Spotify account will say “Do you like Kid Cudi? Give this song by Kevin Abstract a try.” That recommendation will be accurate for a few reasons — both artists emphasize being lost in the world and doing too many drugs while alternating between singing and rapping— but wrong for a longer list of reasons. Kevin Abstract’s own inventive website paints a better picture of his influences — with Kurt Cobain, Justin Timberlake, Andre 3000, Frank Ocean, Funkadelic and King Krule all receiving proper praise.

On that same site, someone commented “i bumped drugs in the car for my grandma today and she turned it up and rolled the windows down.” That further emphasizes the artist’s range. His type of R&B — with its soulful crooning at times and straightforward, spoken rapping at others — spans the years of that genre’s evolution (or something, this argument about genre is obviously played out, and of course after writing all of this Kevin Abstract himself tweeted a screenshot of his forthcoming album, MTV1987, on iTunes, which he’s apparently categorized as “Pop.” which he’s apparently categorized as “Pop.” Maybe that’s the easiest, truest answer, but I am human and I like to categorize things. “Drugs” should definitely filed in the “maybe rap maybe R&B maybe just pop but definitely the good kind of pop that you should at least check out because this kid just goes nuts for 7 minutes” bin.

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