Bibi Bourelly / Photo by Ryan Muir for The FADER, courtesy of The FADER Fort Presented by Converse
Bibi Bourelly is drunk, she informs us. She would like to encourage us to be the same way. This is a festival, after all! We're at South by Southwest! Bibi, who ends several of her songs with an almost involuntary utterance of “Lit!” as punctuation, is basically chill as hell. If there is someone you want to go try to crash some parties with later, it is definitely her. And in her, perhaps, lies R&B's chill as hell future in the post-Rihanna era.
Bourelly is probably best known as the songwriter of Rihanna's “Bitch Better Have My Money” and “Higher” (the best song on ANTI—fight me). But she's also a compelling artist in her own right, one for whom her label, Def Jam, has high hopes. Yesterday, performing at FADER Fort, she was perhaps the best new act in Austin. She was funny and relaxed onstage but also lit up with charisma as soon as she started singing, each of her songs reflecting a nuanced and engaging perspective on relationships or self-confidence or the general confusion of life. Her band—bassist, guitarist, drummer—shredded, but she was always the most commanding figure onstage, dressed unpretentiously in a cropped T-shirt and partially sequined skirt that might have been plucked out of the closet of anyone her age. She might be pressed to shake that Rihanna association—like Rihanniversity colleague Sia, she has a rich timbre to her voice that makes it possible to instantly imagine the Bajan superstar singing her words—but she also feels tied to a very specific iteration of Rihanna that didn't exist until recently, and thereby well positioned to take that attitude in a different direction.
The casual, blunt-smoking, supremely relaxed on a boat, Instagram rule-breaking BadGirlRiRi persona found its perfect expression in Bourelly's songs. It took Rihanna a decade to carve out that space; but now that it exists, the doors are open for other artists to explore it further. Bourelly, as the more distilled version of that attitude and one of the geneses of it in musical form, is in a particularly good place. That doesn't mean that Rihanna won't comfortably be inhabiting and excelling in her current mode for a long time to come, but it does mean that there are some very exciting possibilities for a future of R&B that takes present-day Rihanna as a sort of jumping-off point, something of which I was reminded on multiple occasions yesterday. Along with Bourelly, SXSW performances by Oakland singer Kehlani and UK import Shakka offered mesmerizing looks at a genre trending toward a more organic, down-to-earth, musically omnivorous, and globally aware approach.
Four or five years ago, with the ascendance of The Weeknd and Frank Ocean, critics were quick to proclaim a new era of experimentation for R&B, which may have been a bit overblown. (Longtime fans of the genre pointed out that it has always had those tendencies; the real change was that suddenly indie rock had a new era of experimentation indebted to R&B.) For a while, though, the only evidence of artists embracing this so-called evolution seemed to be a rather disappointing, whispered approach of downplaying the vocalist as much as possible. The period's real contribution, driven especially by The Weeknd and Drake and cemented by Beyoncé's self-titled 2013 album, was one of pushing more texture and digital distortion into pop music. Alongside a social media-driven shift toward transparency and candor—or at least the impression of it—among celebrities, we ended up at the messier, more relaxed place where we are now, with Kanye West updating his album in real time and Rihanna's relatively pop-unfriendly album crowning her as the coolest pop star in the world.
Kehlani at Noisey's JanSport Bonfire Sessions / Photo by Jason Henry
The new artists who have already accepted this template as a given are in a particularly exciting place for offering up a modern twist on the genre. Bourelly introduced one standout song yesterday about the self-doubt that comes from knowing someone who has their shit annoyingly together: The song hits a high note on a description of her own cracked iPhone screen. Like Bourelly, who is 21, the similarly young Kehlani has made a space for herself singing songs that speak to the distinct doubts and occasional triumphs of contemporary youth. Her 2015 project You Should Be Here spoke to social media jealousy, reminisced about hustling to promote shows only to become the shit, and took a frank look at a tumultuous relationship with her mother. Last night, playing Noisey's show, she was similarly casual, playing a sprawling set that went back to her earliest material and placed a few deeply sincere ballads alongside the tightly choreographed performances of her more upbeat songs. Kehlani and her dancers, by the way, might have the most professional yet fun-looking stage show of anyone in music right now, all apparently at the behest of Kehlani herself.
Where young artists in past decades had to go through industry gatekeepers and labels inclined to fit them into pop molds, the dissolution of those institutions and the rise of online self-promotion have made it so young artists can be both consummate professionals and put out art that is truer to the experience of youth than ever before. That honesty wins fans (which has the labels newly interested in engaging artists on their own terms).
Photo by Ryan Muir for The FADER, courtesy of The FADER Fort Presented by Converse
The flattening of the industry via the internet also means new sounds and collaborations: One of the ongoing stories of the last year or so has been the cross-pollination of the British underground, particularly rooted in grime, and the American hip-hop and pop worlds. Yesterday's other unexpected star was Shakka, a singer at the UK-focused SBTV showcase whose global mix of funk and R&B felt indebted to Caribbean rhythms, incorporated double-speed grime vocals, and had the warm familiarity of Motown soul. At one point he gave a quick shoutout to the increased American interest in British music, highlighting the thriving scene that includes artists like himself, JME, Skepta, and Stormzy. Bourelly, meanwhile, was in the audience.
It's not totally clear yet where R&B might head next in this more laid-back, plainspoken, international future—perhaps it's silly to even paint it as a sea change—but the crop of talent on display yesterday in Austin, divorced from both the strictness of pop overproduction and the artsy pretension that so often surrounds buzzy acts, felt like an exciting glimpse of some state of evolution. We're living in Rihanna's world—who would want it any other way?—and we might just be headed higher.
Kyle Kramer is an editor for Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.