meta-scriptCautious Clay's 'Karpeh' Is & Isn't Jazz: "Let Me Completely Deconstruct My Conception Of The Music" | GRAMMY.com
Cautious Clay's 'Karpeh' Is & Isn't Jazz: "Let Me Completely Deconstruct My Conception Of The Music"
Cautious Clay

Photo: Meron Menghistab

interview

Cautious Clay's 'Karpeh' Is & Isn't Jazz: "Let Me Completely Deconstruct My Conception Of The Music"

On his Blue Note Records debut 'Karpeh,' Cautious Clay treats jazz not as a genre, but as a philosophy — and uses it as a launchpad for a captivating family story.

GRAMMYs/Aug 23, 2023 - 02:27 pm

Nobody can deny Herbie Hancock is a jazz artist, but jazz cannot box him in. Ditto Quincy Jones; those bona fides are bone deep, but he's changed a dozen other genres.

Cautious Clay doesn't compare himself to those legends. But he readily cites them as lodestars — along with other genre-straddlers of Black American music, like Lionel Richie and Babyface.

Because this is a crucial lens through which to view him: he's jazz at his essence and not jazz at all, depending on how he wishes to express himself.

"I'm not really a jazz artist, but I feel like I have such a deep understanding of it as a songwriter and musician," the artist born Joshua Karpeh tells GRAMMY.com. "It's sort of inseparable from my approach to this album, and to this work with Blue Note."

Karpeh is talking about, well, KARPEH — his debut album for the illustrious label, which dropped in August. In three acts — "The Past Explained," "The Honeymoon of Exploration," and "A Bitter & Sweet Solitude," he casts his personal journey against the backdrop of his family saga.

As Cautious Clay explains, the title is a family name; his grandfather was of the Kru peoples in Liberia. "It's a family of immigrants. It's a family of, obviously, Black Americans," he notes. "I just wanted to give an experience that felt concrete and specific enough — to be able to live inside of something that was a part of my journey."

On KARPEH, Cautious Clay is joined by esteemed Blue Note colleagues: trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, vibraphonist Joel Ross, guitarist Julian Lage, and others.

Vocalist Arooj Aftab and bassist Kai Eckhardt — Karpeh's uncle — also enhance the proceedings. The result is another inspired entry from Blue Note's recent resurgence — one lyrically personal and aurally inviting.

Read on for an interview with Cautious Clay about his signing to Blue Note, leveling up his recording approach, and his conception of what jazz is — and isn't.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Tell me about signing to Blue Note Records, and the overall road to KARPEH.

I kind of got connected to Don [Was, the president of Blue Note] through a relationship I had with John Mayer, who had, I guess, connected Don to my music.

Don reached out via email probably a year ago, and so we connected over email. And I had sort of been in a situation where I was like, OK, I want to do something different for this next project. We kind of met in the middle and it just made a lot of sense based on just what I wanted to do, and then what they could potentially kind of work with on my end. 

So, [I was] just recording the album in six days, and doing a lot of prep work beforehand and getting all these musicians that I really liked to be able to work on it. It was just a really cool process to be able to unpack that with Blue Note.

That's great that you and Mayer go back.

Yeah, man, we have a song. We worked on each other's music a little bit together. The song "Carry Me Away" on his [2021] album [Sob Rock] I actually worked on, and then we did a song together called "Swim Home" that I released back in 2019.

You said you wanted to "do something different." What was the germ of that something?

I felt like it could be interesting to do a more instrumental album, or something that felt a little bit more like a concept album, or more experimental. I wanted to be more experimental in my approach to the music that I love.

I wanted to call it a jazz album, but at the same time I didn't, because I felt like it wasn't; it was more of an experimental album.

But I felt like calling it jazz in my mind kind felt like a free way to express, because I think of jazz much more as a philosophy than necessarily a genre.

So, it was helpful for me in my mind to be able to like, OK, let me completely deconstruct my conception of the music I make and how I can translate that music.

And then it eventually evolved into a story about my family and about American history to a certain extent in the context of my family's journey, and then also just their interpersonal relationships. That sort of made itself clear as I continued to write and I continued to delve deeper into the process.

Not that KARPEH ended up being instrumental. But instrumental records are lodestars for you? I'm sure that blurs with the Blue Note canon.

There's a lot of different stuff. There was that red album that Herbie Hancock released [in 1978, titled Sunlight] that I really liked. "I Thought It Was You" was super inspirational — sonically how they arranged a lot of that record.

Seventies jazz fusion was an overall influence. I felt inspired by the perfect meld of analog synthesizers, and then also obviously organic instruments like horns and guitars of that nature. So I wanted to create something that felt like a contemporary version of what could be a fusion record to a certain extent.

Any specific examples?

Songs like "Glass Face," for example, are pretty fusion-y, but also very just experimental in a way that doesn't feel like jazz, even.

My uncle [Kai Eckhardt] is a pretty big-time bass player, and he played on "Glass Face." I just was like, OK, dude, do your thing, and he just did this sort of chordal bass solo. Then, I did all these harmonies over top of the song.

And then, Arooj Aftab is a really good friend and musical artist; she was able to work off of that as well. So, it was an interesting journey to make a lot of these songs and sort of figure out how they all fit together.

How did you strike that balance between analog and synthesized sounds?

I recorded most of this album at a studio, which is very different for me.

I don't normally do that. I use a lot of found sounds like drums and stuff that I've either made or sampled, but I did all of the drums and bass and upright and electric guitars we'd recorded at a studio called Figure 8 in Brooklyn. That was the backbone for a lot of the music that I created for the album. 

Then, I took it back home to my home studio. After we had recorded all of the songs, I essentially had some different analog synths and things that I wanted to add into it either at the studio that I worked at or my own personal studio, which happens to also be eight blocks [away] on the same street away.

I struck a balance just mostly with it in the context of working at a very formal studio and then having an engineer and just getting sounds that I wanted that could be organic and more specific in that way. And also using some of the synths they had.

In terms of the approach, I kind of wanted it to be different. And so part of that was just being at more of a formal studio and having an engineer and overseeing the overall process outside of just being inside of my Ableton session.

Tell me more about the guests on KARPEH.

I knew Immanuel through a couple of mutual friends, and he has a certain sort of bite to his sax playing that I felt was so juxtaposed to my sax playing.

And same with Ambrose. I feel like his trumpet style couldn't be more esoteric and out, in the context of how he approaches melodies. It's almost in some ways like, Whoa, I would never play that way.

They're also soloists, and conceptually for me, the idea of being in isolation or being in bittersweet solitude was conceptually a part of the last part of the album. They as soloists have so much to offer that I feel like I can't do and I don't possess.

So, I wanted to have them a part of this album, to demonstrate that individuality within the context of what it takes to make a song.

Julian is just a beautiful and spirited man, a beautiful guitar player. I've liked his sound for a while. I think it was back in 2015 when I first heard him; he had a couple of videos on YouTube that I thought were just super gorgeous.

I feel like he just has this way of playing that's folky. Also, it's jazz in the context of his virtuosic playing style, but it's also not overbearing. I felt like as a writer and as a musician, it would be a really great connecting point for a few of the more personal songs on the record.

And then my uncle Kai as well, — he's not on Blue Note, but he used to play with John McLaughlin and run bass clinics with Victor Wooten and Marcus Miller back in the early 2000s. Dude is a real heavy hitter, and he happens to be my uncle, so it's just cool to be able to have him on the record.

Cautious Clay

*Cautious Clay. Photo: Meron Menghistab*

With KARPEH out, where do you want to go from here — perhaps through a Blue Note lens?

I really love a lot of the people there, and I feel like this could be the first of many. It's also a stepping stone for me as an artist.

I feel really connected to the relationship I have, and our ability to put this out. It's hard to say what exactly the future holds, but I am genuinely excited for this album. I feel excited to be able to put out something so personal and so connected to everything that sort of made me, in a very concrete way.

From what I understand, this is a one-time thing, but it could potentially be two. It depends, obviously. I'm very open-minded about it. I'd love to keep the good relationship open and see where things go.

I really have enjoyed the process and I feel like this next year is going to be something interesting. So, we'll see.

On Her New Album, Meshell Ndegeocello Reminds Us "Every Day Is Another Chance"

Here's What Happened At The Black Music Collective’s Recording Academy Honors 2024 GRAMMY Event Celebrating Mariah Carey & Lenny Kravitz
Mariah Carey accepts the Global Impact Award during the Recording Academy Honors presented by the Black Music Collective

Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

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Here's What Happened At The Black Music Collective’s Recording Academy Honors 2024 GRAMMY Event Celebrating Mariah Carey & Lenny Kravitz

The power of staying true to yourself was at the center of the 2024 GRAMMY Week event. Honorees Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz were lauded by colleagues and performers, including Stevie Wonder, Quavo, Babyface and Andra Day.

GRAMMYs/Feb 3, 2024 - 08:34 pm

On a wet but buzzing Thursday evening ahead of the 2024 GRAMMYs, leading lights in the music industry gathered for the third annual Recording Academy Honors Presented By The Black Music Collective. Along the event's black carpet, stars and industry insiders were showing out — taking photos, reconnecting with friends and collaborators, and chatting with the press. 

The official 2024 GRAMMY Week event was held Feb. 1 — the first day of Black History Month — at the Fairmont Century Plaza in Los Angeles and was sponsored by Amazon Music and City National Bank. Each year, BMC presents its Global Impact Award to legendary musicians advancing the culture, and 2024’s honorees Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey, loomed over the entire evening before they'd even arrived.

Flava Flav, sporting his patented clock necklace, was also hyped about the evening. "It means everything to be at the GRAMMYs tonight. This is big," Flav told GRAMMY.com. The rapper then spoke about the two transcendent stars being honored. "I feel real big about the honorees. Mariah Carey, always been proud of her and I love her songs…Lenny Kravitz is my dude. That’s my man. So congratulations Lenny!" 

The significance of the event was felt from the first foot set on the black carpet. Afrobeats star Fireboy DML weighed in on the importance of the night. "I’m honored. It feels good. It’s always important to be in spaces like this," Fireboy told GRAMMY.com, adding that he's excited about his upcoming fourth album. "It’s important for the culture." 

As attendees inside the jam-packed ballroom room eagerly awaited the main guests of the night, Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. spoke about the momentum being built through Black Music Collective. 

"[Last year] I spoke how great it was to be holding the second annual BMC event. To me it meant we established a new tradition. And now the tradition proudly continues," Mason Jr. told the audience, emphasizing how the influence of Black culture can be found in all corners of the world and across musical genres. 

A performance by Nigerian superstar Davido, a first-time GRAMMY nominee, spoke to the power of musical diversity in the Academy and BMC. Although the crowd had sat down with their appetizers, many stood up to vibe out as Davido performed his nominated song, "Unavailable."

By the time Andra Day, adorned in a bright red leather coat, got to the end of her rendition of "Strange Fruit" with support from trumpeter Keyon Harrold, everyone in the ballroom was on their feet. It was a great moment for Day, whose cover of Billie Holiday’s 1939 cry for justice hammered home the connection between Black artists across different genres and across time.

Gabby Samone garnered the second standing ovation of the night for her take on Nina Simone’s "Four Women." Simone has had a number of major cosigns as her star has grown brighter, and her fans include Jennifer Hudson and none other than Mariah Carey. Samone's performance was followed by a powerful song from Erica Campbell, whose I Love You is nominated for Best Gospel Album this year.

A set from DJ Mannie Fresh, Kravitz took the stage to receive the first BMC Global Impact Award of the night. Introduced by mentee H.E.R, she talked about "American Woman’s" genre-bending influence on her own career and Kravitz's own influence from childhood. "The fashion, the confidence, the badass walk, and the killer vocals made me at six years old say to my dad ‘I wanna play guitar.’ ‘I wanna be a rockstar.’ ‘I wanna be like Lenny Kravitz,’" H.E.R. said. 

She then listed off some of Kravitz’s other accomplishments including working on "Rustin," the new Netflix film about critical civil rights architect Bayard Rustin, as well as Kravitz’s work in philanthropy through his Let Love Rule Foundation. 

Once the din died down, Kravitz took a trip back to childhood, too. He shared how, when he went to go see the Jackson 5 with his family, and was so hooked that he dreamed of becoming part of the storied troupe. "I fantasized that I was their long lost brother and turned the Jackson 5 into the Jackson 6," he said.

Kravitz also spoke the various genres of music that helped mold him, drawn from many different corners. From his "grandfather’s block in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn," where he "witnessed the birth of hip-hop," to being shaped by legends like Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye and Nina Simone. He also shouted out his godmother, the late great actress Cicely Tyson. 

In a particularly cool mashup of genre and generation, Quavo provided vocals to "Fly Away," flanked by P-funk all star George Clinton, Earth, Wind & Fire bassist Verdine White, and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith. At the end of the performance, Kravitz went over to each performer and hugged them.

After a brief intermission, record producer and BMC Chair Rico Love shouted out leadership, including the Recording Academy board of trustees and Ryan Butler, Vice President of DEI. Love spoke about Black Music Collective as a space where everyone can feel at home. "The life of a creator is so hard. And lonely. That’s why it’s valuable to build community," he emphasized. 

Black Music Collective’s scholarship program, in collaboration with Amazon Music, Love said, will once again support HBCU students who aspire to be in the next generation of music industry power players. In 2023, scholarships were awarded to students at Florida A&M University, Texas Southern University, Norfolk State University, among others. Love recalls the mentors he had when he was coming up and is glad BMC is also paying it forward. 

Last night’s program found one of the few people on the planet that even Mariah Carey might be star struck by. Before the pop legend received her Global Impact Award, Stevie Wonder appeared and sat down over a keyboard. 

"Very excited to be here to celebrate someone that has been a friend and I’ve been a fan of since the very beginning of hearing her voice," he said, before serenading Carey with "I Just Called to Say I Love You," ending the rendition with "I love you, I love you, you are my hero."

Mariah Carey was seemingly surprised and star-struck herself. Once she overcame the awe, Carey detailed the pressure she faced early in her career to avoid leaning into Black music. "When I first started in the music business, I was often told to ‘conform’ to certain expectations. I was not encouraged to focus on my love for Black music," she told the crowd.

Later, some of Carey’s other friends and collaborators performed, including Babyface, who once sang backing vocals on Carey’s "Melt Away." (Carey then returned the favor by singing on "Every Time I Close My Eyes.") Another Carey collaborator, Busta Rhymes, performed crowd favorite "I Know What You Want" and offered sincere thanks to Carey for her boldness and desire to "run with the wolves." Tori Kelly also sang "Vision of Love" during this segment and earlier in the night, gospel legend Yolanda Adams performed "Make It Happen." The third annual Recording Academy Honors/BMC event certainly did make it happen, as attendees flooded out of the ballroom and into the streets pumped with pride.

2024 GRAMMYs: See The Full Nominees And Winners List

Head to live.GRAMMY.com all year long to watch all the GRAMMY performances, acceptance speeches, the GRAMMY Live From The Red Carpet livestream special, the full Premiere Ceremony livestream, and even more exclusive, never-before-seen content from the 2024 GRAMMYs.

2024 GRAMMYs Presenters Announced: Christina Aguilera, Oprah Winfrey, Meryl Streep, Kacey Musgraves, Maluma, Taylor Tomlinson & More
(Clockwise, L-R) Christina Aguilera, Lenny Kravitz, Lionel Richie, Mark Ronson, Maluma, Kacey Musgraves, Taylor Tomlinson, Samara Joy, Oprah Winfrey, Meryl Streep

Photos courtesy of the artists

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2024 GRAMMYs Presenters Announced: Christina Aguilera, Oprah Winfrey, Meryl Streep, Kacey Musgraves, Maluma, Taylor Tomlinson & More

Additional presenters for the 2024 GRAMMYs include Lenny Kravitz, Lionel Richie, Mark Ronson, and Samara Joy. The 2024 GRAMMYs will broadcast live from Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles on Sunday, Feb. 4.

GRAMMYs/Jan 31, 2024 - 03:00 pm

Updated Friday, Feb. 2, to add Kacey Musgraves as a presenter.

Presenters for the 2024 GRAMMYs have been announced: Christina Aguilera, Lenny Kravitz, Lionel Richie, Mark Ronson, Maluma, Kacey Musgraves, Meryl Streep, Samara Joy, Taylor Tomlinson, and Oprah Winfrey are all confirmed to take the GRAMMY stage on Music's Biggest Night this weekend, Sunday, Feb. 4. Of course, it wouldn't be a proper GRAMMY night without a few surprise guests, so make sure to tune in to find out who you'll see on GRAMMY Sunday.

In addition to the star-studded presenter lineup, the 2024 GRAMMYs will feature breathtaking performances from the leading artists in music today. Performers at the 2024 GRAMMYs include Billie Eilish, Billy Joel, Burna Boy, Dua Lipa, Joni Mitchell, Luke Combs, Olivia Rodrigo, SZA, Travis Scott, and U2. Several confirmed GRAMMY performers will make GRAMMY history at the 2024 GRAMMYs this weekend: Mitchell will make her GRAMMY performance debut, while U2 will deliver the first-ever broadcast performance from Sphere in Las Vegas. Additional performers will be announced in the coming days. See the full list of performers, presenters and host at the 2024 GRAMMYs to date.

Learn More: 2024 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Full Nominees List

2024 GRAMMYs: Explore More & Meet The Nominees

The 2024 GRAMMYs, officially known as the 66th GRAMMY Awards, will broadcast live from Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles on Sunday, Feb. 4, at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on the CBS Television Network and will be available to stream live and on demand on Paramount+.^ Prior to the Telecast, the 2024 GRAMMYs Premiere Ceremony will broadcast live from the Peacock Theater at 12:30 p.m. PT/3:30 p.m. ET and will be streamed live on live.GRAMMY.com. On GRAMMY Sunday, fans can access exclusive behind-the-scenes GRAMMY Awards content, including performances, acceptance speeches, interviews from the GRAMMY Live red-carpet special, and more via the Recording Academy's digital experience on live.GRAMMY.com.

Trevor Noah, the two-time GRAMMY-nominated comedian, actor, author, podcast host, and former "The Daily Show" host, returns to host the 2024 GRAMMYs for the fourth consecutive year; he is currently nominated at the 2024 GRAMMYs in the Best Comedy Album Category for his 2022 Netflix comedy special, I Wish You Would.

The 66th GRAMMY Awards are produced by Fulwell 73 Productions for the Recording Academy for the fourth consecutive year. Ben Winston, Raj Kapoor and Jesse Collins are executive producers.

^Paramount+ with SHOWTIME subscribers will have access to stream live via the live feed of their local CBS affiliate on the service, as well as on demand in the United States. Paramount+ Essential subscribers will not have the option to stream live but will have access to on-demand the day after the special airs in the U.S. only.

Stay tuned for more updates as we approach Music's Biggest Night!

How To Watch The 2024 GRAMMYs Live: GRAMMY Nominations Announcement, Air Date, Red Carpet, Streaming Channel & More

Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Coco Jones On Her Breakthrough Year, Turning Rejection Into Purpose & Learning From Babyface
Coco Jones

Photo: Courtesy Coco Jones

interview

Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Coco Jones On Her Breakthrough Year, Turning Rejection Into Purpose & Learning From Babyface

Coco Jones is nominated across five categories at the 2024 GRAMMYs, including Best New Artist and Best R&B Album for her EP, 'What I Didn't Tell You.' The first-time nominee discussed her hit, "ICU," working with legends and the power of representation.

GRAMMYs/Jan 8, 2024 - 02:23 pm

Coco Jones is feeling more inspired than ever following a year of exciting surprises and breakthroughs. In 2023, the 25-year-old budding star celebrated her first Billboard Hot 100 entry thanks to her platinum-selling "ICU" single, embarked on her first headlining tour, and earned her first GRAMMY nominations.

"Being a GRAMMY-nominated artist changes everything. It's such a different creative mindset when the world says, 'You're good, we like what you do,'" Jones tells GRAMMY.com. "It's like a gold star. It makes you want to work harder, it makes you wanna continue to impress, and it makes you impressed with yourself, too."

Jones is nominated across five categories at the 2024 GRAMMYs: Her 2022 EP What I Didn't Tell You is up for Best R&B Album and its "ICU" will compete for Best R&B Performance and Best R&B Song. Her feature on Babyface's "Simple" has received a nod for Best Traditional R&B Performance. Jones is also up for the coveted golden gramophone for Best New Artist.

In recent years, her vocal prowess has received praise from SZA, Janet Jackson, and Beyoncé, but anyone who's even remotely familiar with Jones' story knows that her newfound success is anything but overnight. Jones first found success at age 14, when she starred in the 2012 Disney movie musical Let It Shine. The Tennessee native faced colorism early on, which she addressed in a 2020 YouTube video that went viral.

"I always wanted that representation that my dreams were possible growing up," she shares. "I definitely was not based in reality of what the entertainment industry is. It's tough and it's challenging and sometimes it isn't fair and that is not what I was prepared for as a kid."

During the pandemic, Jones secured a spot in "Bel-Air" (Peacock's reimagining of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air") as the spoiled yet beloved Hilary Banks, but she never let go of her love of  music. Following her 2014 departure from Hollywood Records, Jones released music independently, including the ominous "Hollyweird" and "Depressed"; when Def Jam approached her in the summer of 2021, she was ready for her close-up.

Fast forward to present, and Jones is gearing up for one of the most pivotal nights of her blossoming career. But perhaps the most precious thing she's collected along the way is self-assurance. "I'm learning that I have to believe in my creative choices and that I shouldn't second guess what I feel because it does well," she says with a laugh.

Of her recent success, Jones says the back-to-back accolades shocked her, but like a true artist, she's already thinking ahead and manifesting an exciting first for 2024: "I want my debut album to hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart."

Ahead of the 2024 GRAMMYs, Jones discusses the power of representation for dark-skinned Black women, why her mother is her biggest inspiration, and how joining forces with Babyface created momentum in her career.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

After finding out that you received five GRAMMY nominations, you posted an Instagram video showing you and your mother reveling in the excitement of it all. Tell me more about that moment and your mother's role in this journey.

I'm one of four children and my mom owned multiple businesses, but she made us all feel loved and supported while also being a boss. Watching her navigate the entertainment industry — which she had no prior experience with — was very inspiring. She took every challenge head-on and still managed to make time with all of her kids. 

She's always been a visionary, so I think for her, it's like, This is exactly what we worked for. The end goal is to be award-winning, to be show-stopping, to be classic, to be timeless. That's what she saw for me even when I was a little girl on stage singing Aretha Franklin.

There were times when it was hard for me to see what she saw in me, especially when you're dealing with the rejection that is the music industry. But she always knows the right thing to say to keep me going and to keep my faith. So, when it wasn't like how it is now, she was the entire team. She did anything she could to help me progress.

You retweeted a meet-and-greet with a fan, who donned your merch from 2018, which seemed to take you by surprise. It seems like your 2023 breakthrough was a win for not just yourself, but for those early supporters as well.

I would definitely say it's a win for my fans and my supporters, but also for young Black women who look like me and have big dreams and just want to see what they are dreaming about is possible. I know that I inspire so many young Black women — they tell me almost every day that seeing me win helps them believe in themselves winning.

My goal is to continue to break those barriers down for young Black women so that it's not such a surprise when we succeed.

In a 2022 interview, you said you wanted to experience the highs of being an entertainer and being on stage "even if it meant a lot of lows." Many creatives feel that way. Do you have any advice for struggling artists who feel like no one's paying attention?

You can make it this thing where you feel like you're running out of time, or you can make it feel like you're adjusting to time. Time is whatever you decide it is.

There were so many obstacles I didn't understand, but hindsight is 20/20. I needed the lessons that I learned, I needed the self-reliance, I needed the optimism and the faith. So, I think it was all very growing but still tough not knowing what was going to happen, not knowing if I was going to have that life-changing job, that life-changing song. 

I'm just grateful to God for protecting me through all the confusion and for not giving up. I had enough support around me and enough doors to open even though they felt far and few between to keep me sustained and pursuing this dream, even though I was pursuing it without any guarantees.

What I Didn't Tell You isn't the first EP you released, but it's the one that made you a first-time GRAMMY nominee. What was different this time around?

I was very supported; when Def Jam approached me, they seemed so understanding of my vision that I couldn't help but feel like we were already a team. They helped me put the pieces together. Before this, I was just on my own or it was me and my mom, so I felt more supported with this EP release. My label understands me and what I want to be, and there's no pushback against who I am and what I can naturally do. It's all about enhancing. 

As part of R&B's new class, what do you want to bring to the genre?

More uptempo! I want to be able to sing my heart out but make a bop that you wanna dance to. I love how Whitney Houston would do that with some of her songs like "I'm Your Baby Tonight" and "How Will I Know."

Your breakthrough single, "ICU," is up for Best R&B Song, but what lesser-known song off What I Didn't Tell You (Deluxe) would you nominate in the same category if you could?

"Fallin'" because it's a sensual song, and I feel like it sits in a really cool, pretty place in my voice. It also tells a good story of the chaos that my life is while also starting to fall for somebody.

In 2022, you joined forces with R&B legend Babyface for his collaborative Girls Night Out project. Your "Simple" duet with him is nominated for Best Traditional R&B Performance. Do you think collaborating with Babyface acted as a precursor for the incredible year you had?

When I learned Babyface wanted me on his album, I was beside myself. He was really one of the first legends to give me that stamp of approval. I definitely think the recognition I got from him was like a turning point in what was next for my life. The world started to notice around that time. 

When I interviewed Babyface soon after the release of Girls Night Out, he talked about doing his homework to better understand the differences in today's R&B. That was surprising to hear, because he's clearly an expert at writing hit songs but not above learning from others. What did you learn from his mentorship?

I just learned that you can be a legend and you can still be open to ideas, open to new talents, and open to suggestions. Just stay open to what’s new, who's new, and why they're doing well, and that's what will keep you legendary. 

I'm a big fan of studying music, so I will continue to be a student. Creating music and studying music are two different things to me. I study it and then I feel creative, so I think it's about separating them because sometimes if you're creating while studying, you just end up repeating exactly what somebody's doing and that doesn't feel authentic. It's more about getting inspired and then creating.

My love for music and being a creative is what keeps me going because it's not always fun, it's not always easy. Sometimes it's about business, sometimes it's about pushing past your exhaustion. I don't think I would do that, not for this long, if I didn't love the payoff of being a creative. 

How will you celebrate if you win a GRAMMY?

I haven't thought about how I'm gonna celebrate. I think my favorite type of celebrations are intimate. They're with people who are in the mud with me — my family, my team. I would probably just want to have a great dinner and think about how far we've come and what's next.

2024 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Full Nominees List

2023 Year In Review: 5 Trends That Defined R&B
(From left) Babyface, Emily King, SZA, Usher & Summer Walker

**Photos: **Steve Granitz/FilmMagic; Rob Kim/Getty Images for The Recording Academy; Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Webby Awards; Paras Griffin/Getty Images for ABA; Paras Griffin/Getty Images

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2023 Year In Review: 5 Trends That Defined R&B

R&B dominated in 2023, with women leading the vocal-charge behind R&B’s biggest recognitions. From deep confessional projects to the comeback of Usher, check out this year’s R&B biggest trends

GRAMMYs/Dec 27, 2023 - 05:42 pm

R&B lovers were spoiled in 2023. 

Talented legends received well-deserved flowers, while focused newcomers celebrated many exciting firsts. Usher set his sights on an epic comeback, and Best New Artist nominees Coco Jones and Victoria Monét (who are nominated in the category alongside Gracie Abrams, Fred again.., Ice Spice, Jelly Roll, Noah Kahan, and The War And Treaty) set the R&B charts ablaze while embarking on their first headlining tours.

R&B in particular is set up for a big year at the 2024 GRAMMYs: SZA earned the most nominations at the 66th GRAMMY Awards with a total of nine, followed by Monét with seven nods. What's more, women led the way in the genre this year — four out of the five Best R&B Album and Best R&B Song nominees are ladies.

As R&B music continues to evolve and shatter naysayers' expectations, revisit some of the biggest trends that defined the genre in 2023.

The Ladies Dominated

Women ate and left no crumbs in 2023. Vulnerable as ever, self-discovery through romantic heartbreak was a common theme — as evidenced by Emily King and Summer Walker's confessional projects (more on those later).

R&B-infused bangers from Tyla and Tems took the male-dominated Afrobeats genre by storm, while Chlöe and Halle Bailey's solo endeavors set the sisters apart creatively. Janelle Monáe's first album in five years saw her basking in the fierceness of sexual freedom. Part of R&B's new class, Kiana Ledé joined forces with London-born Ella Mai for a "strong R&B girl moment" and her first release of 2023, "Jealous," is set to appear on Ledé's upcoming sophomore album.

Women were the highlight of Babyface's collaborative Girls Night Out — which is nominated for Best R&B Album at the 2024 GRAMMYs alongside Coco Jones' What I Didn't Tell You (Deluxe), Victoria Monet's JAGUAR II, Emily King's Special Occasion, and Summer Walker's CLEAR 2: SOFT LIFE. Singers Ari Lennox, Kehlani, Muni Long, Queen Naija, and a host of other female R&B artists shined bright as they belted out tunes about the highs and lows of love.

But the year in R&B unequivocally belonged to SZA, who boasts the most nominations at the 2024 GRAMMYs, including Record of the Year, Song Of The Year, and Album Of The Year.

Women Made Vulnerability Their Superpower

The ladies of R&B took the confessional route with their 2023 projects. On Special Occasion, Emily King channeled the inevitable pain brought on by the end of her 15-year relationship but not without leaving room for joy — from the delightful opening track "This Year" to feeling regretful on "Bad Memory." Summer Walker similarly left it all on the table with CLEAR 2: SOFT LIFE, a nine-track EP that chronicles her frustration with feeling undervalued in relationships. The frankness of "Hardlife" speaks to the emotional burdens many Black women face in their relationships and beyond.

SZA's SOS (nominated for Album Of The Year alongside Jon Batiste's World Music Radio, boygenius' the record, Miley Cyrus' Endless Summer Vacation, Lana Del Rey's Did You Know That There's A Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, Janelle Monáe's The Age Of Pleasure, Olivia Rodrigo's GUTS, and Taylor Swift's Midnights) was the gift that kept on giving in 2023. Self-described as "bizarre acts of self-embarrassment," SOS solidifies SZA as a generational talent as she fearlessly toys with folk ("Special") and grunge ("F2F") and spits rap verses ("Smoking on My Ex Pack") like it's nothing all while wearing her heart on her sleeve. That unapologetic candor is what makes SOS such a standout.

R&B Veterans Made A Comeback

Nostalgia was front and center in 2023 as acts like New Edition announced a 2024 Las Vegas residency and Y2K-era duos like Ashanti and Nelly gave love (and touring) a second chance.

After two show-stopping runs in 2021 and 2022, Usher's acclaimed Las Vegas residency continued well into 2023 and solidified him as the "New King of Vegas." In between shows, the eight-time GRAMMY winner released "Good Good" featuring Summer Walker and 21 Savage — signaling a new and exciting era that also includes a headlining spot at the 2024 Super Bowl halftime show. The performance will coincide with a global tour and the release of Coming Home, marking Usher's first studio album in nearly a decade. 

Babyface kicked off 2023 with "As a Matter of Fact," his first solo record in eight years. It spent five consecutive weeks atop Billboard’s Adult R&B Airplay chart, becoming his longest-running single. In June, Babyface crammed four decades' worth of music into his NPR Tiny Desk Concert, which included snippets of his own hits like "Whip Appeal" and beloved songs he penned for other artists like Whitney Houston's "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)" and Tevin Campbell's "Can We Talk." The latter song is sampled in his duet with Ella Mai, "Keeps On Fallin'." 

Meanwhile, vocal powerhouse Cheryl Lynn's 1983 hit "Encore" went viral on TikTok. Penned by the legendary duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the song's resurgence 40 years later even took Lynn by surprise. "What in the world is going on?" she tweeted. The "Got to Be Real" singer now boasts over 500 million Spotify streams.

New Names Shined Bright

While icons like Usher, Babyface, and Cheryl Lynn took us down memory lane, Best New Artist nominees Coco Jones and Victoria Monét achieved critical and commercial success while proving that the future of R&B is in gifted hands.

Thousands of miles away in South Africa, 21-year-old Tyla's "Water" cracked the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming the first solo song by a South African artist to chart since Hugh Masekela's "Grazing in the Grass" 55 years ago. "Water" is nominated for Best African Music Performance at the 2024 GRAMMYs alongside ASAKE & Olamide's "Amapiano," Burna Boy's "City Boys," Davido's "UNAVAILABLE" featuring Musa Keys, and Ayra Starr's "Rush."

Two weeks after inking a new deal with Epic Records, Mariah the Scientist kept the celebratory vibes going by dropping her third studio album, To Be Eaten Alive, on her 26th birthday. Lead single "From a Woman" not only answers boyfriend Young Thug's "From a Man," but it explores relationship-centric vulnerability and surrender through the lens of empowerment. "I close my eyes and trust your plan / Won't let no one force my hand," she sings softly against a smooth beat — illustrating that the studio is indeed a creative lab for the former biology student.

EPs Stole The Show

Many emerging artists are choosing to release EPs over studio albums as a more cost-effective way of establishing their fan base while creating anticipation for future full-length projects. In fact, two of the five nominated works in this year's Best R&B Album category are categorized as EPs.

After many years of putting out music independently, Coco Jones' debut EP, What I Didn't Tell You, repositioned the 25-year-old "Bel-Air star" as someone worth watching on the charts. "Sometimes people see me as the characters I play, but these stories are my own script," Jones shared in a press release. Becoming her first-ever entry on the Hot 100, Jones' "ICU" is nominated for Best R&B Song (alongside Halle Bailey's "Angel," Robert Glasper's "Back To Love" featuring SiR & Alex Isley, Victoria Monét's "On My Mama," and SZA's "Snooze"). The sizzling ballad is also up for Best R&B Performance (alongside Chris Brown's "Summer Too Hot," Glasper's "Back To Love, Victoria Monét's "How Does It Make You Feel," and SZA's "Kill Bill").

Following the success of Summer Walker's 2021 sophomore effort, Still Over It, many fans awaited another studio album from the 27-year-old mother of three. But in late spring, Walker surprised audiences by dropping an EP titled, CLEAR 2: SOFT LIFE. Walker is diaristic in detailing her journey toward joy and self-compassion, from being fed up in "Mind Yo Mouth" to holding herself accountable on closer "Agayu's Revelation."

Whether you prefer the old or new school, R&B's biggest names are putting their own spin on a decades-old sound, proving that the genre knows no bounds.

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