Dean Van Nguyen is out chasing waterfalls.
When our generation’s history is written on papyrus scrolls and committed to hidden crypts accessible only to the most daring Lara Crofts of the distant future, one sheet of parchment will be etched with a list of ‘90s R&B jams and stuffed inside an old C90 cassette tape. It was a genre that created some of our doomed species’ most precious works. The cultural footprint was as wide as Arthur Ashe Stadium.
So where are the swaggering successors? Beyoncé still carries around some of the core tenets that have served her well since Destiny’s Child’s first hit “No, No, No,” while The-Dream keeps the torch lit for his musical forefathers by making equestrianism-themed sex jams that would make Ginuwine search the back of his closet for his saddle. But the velvet rhythms and fulsome beats of the commercially-minded rhythm and blues records of yesteryear have mostly been stripped out of the genre, like a Cadillac Fleetwood stripped of its purring engine.
It seems to me that almost all music released under the “R&B” banner right now is built on cold-as-ice synths, rattling hi-hats, post-breakup anxiety, and drug-enhanced paranoia. Kanye West’s 808s And Heartbreak caused a seismic shift that continues to reverberate. (Just asked How to Dress Well, one of the album’s acolytes, who told Pitchfork in 2014, “I can’t fucking believe that that wasn’t the most universally praised record of the decade.” But there’s enough room in life for both cold beer and molly.
Emerging UK duo S4U are one of the few acts right now that can slide comfortably into Aaliyah’s baggy pants and Dru Hill’s silver jackets. I pegged the pair three months ago, mid-bill at a Clash magazine launch night in glorious Shoreditch, London—buzzed on alcohol out of plastic cup, enwrapped by the group’s smoking grooves, talking about dope. Rosita Bonita (singer) and Prinz George (producer) take throwback R&B, add some hollowed-out cloud rap flavors and fashionable post-808s hazy atmospherics, before distilling it all through a lens that’s distinctly of the English capital.
The concoction is funky and streetwise. S4U (or Something For You) sound like the spiritual kin of TLC without bending the knee to T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli. Enough time has passed to call ‘90s-style R&B “nostalgic,” but this isn’t straight retro revivalism. S4U have studied the playbook without lifting out old chapters wholesale.
In saying that, “Sket” plays like an East London version of “No Scrubs.” With to-the-point lyrics like, “Never would I let you drive my car if I knew that you had slept with her,” Bonita’s crazy, sexy, cool vocals flow slicker than a silk shirt. The keys are grim and drum machines rasping, giving the track a dark red edge. The whole things ends with a jackknife beat that could piece New Edition back together.
“Sket” appears on the four-track EP Brazil, which dropped last year. Included was “Twice,” my favorite song from the group so far. There’s a midnight cool to the programmed horn loops that breeze over the thumping old school drums. This is Saturday night music that flows smooth enough to cure Sunday hangovers.
Latest release “Too Much” adds UK garage to the mix. The shuffling beat and mild vocals effects delete the last 17 years, re-re-winding the calendar back to when the Artful Dodger reimagined the UK as an endless summertime session. It’s another thread to the S4U’s slim but impressive catalogue. How often does a new artist surface these days with a clutch of tracks that would sound comfortable on a garage classics disc, or that ‘90s R&B cassette tape mix, next to deities like Montell Jordan? This is a retro clutch of new-age classics I can’t turn away from.