When it comes to soul music and r n' b, the Americans have always been the high priests. However, sometimes, the British give them a decent run for their money. In the ‘60s, some blue-eyed soulies really showed how great these shores could be at making American music – not simple, cloying facsimiles, but effectively, stirring pop music.
Sure, The States had Nina, Aretha, Marvin and Smokey, but Britain had Dusty, Chris Farlowe, Van Morrison and, even for a period, The Beatles, who were the prime exponents of blue-eyed soul.
In the ‘70s, Cymande created monstrous underground funk from London, and of course, The Bee Gees became Disco overloards, putting their genius pop-spin on American club soul.
Right now, British soul music is an incredibly strong place, riding on the back of the successes of the Kanye-approved Estelle, the utterly fantastic Amy Winehouse, neo-soulie Lynden David Hall, Craig David, Brand New Heavies, Misha Paris and more. All of these acts cut their own take on soul music, creating something Americans couldn’t.
In the past few years, r n' b has hit yet another golden generation, with exciting, fresh new acts pushing soul music into the clubs and bars, with DJ Mustard’s addictive synth-soul, Jhene Aiko’s thoughtful, digital re-imagining of neo-soul and a whole crop of new acts like Melat, Lion Babe and Tink all promising great things.
Elsewhere, Adele’s take on soul went and conquered the world, while Taio Cruz built his corner of the r n' b empire and Jessie J’s abrasive slant saw her teaming up with Nicki Minaj and Ariana Grande. Even shows like The X Factor realised the potential of new British R n' B with Rebecca Ferguson, Cher Lloyd (much bigger in The States than Blighty) and of course, the spectacular Fleur East who handed Saturday night TV its arse with her barnstorming rendition of ‘Uptown Funk’.
It goes without saying that someone as bright at Fleur East could easily see her career dissipate (whatever happened to the Hannah Barrett’s straight-to-the-stomach soul, huh?) thanks to X Factor’s sometimes cack-handedness when it comes to dealing with young black singers.
Away from the mainstream, British soul music is in even better shape. One of alt. r n' b’s (terrible name for a genre, but there you go) biggest new stars is FKA Twigs, with a style cribbed in part from acts like SZA and Ciara as well as the S&M-lite of 50 Shades of Grey or, more appropriately, Tumblr. With a critic-approved LP, celebrity partner in tow and numerous high profile fashion shoots, FKA Twigs is all set to be a major headliner in 2015.
Of course, British soul music has been threatening for a while, with Katy B making a raft of great records and Jay Sean making waves around the world. Sam Smith, went to the toppermost of the poppermost with his album and all four corners of the world are seeing the strength of UK soul. Cutting records with Disclosure (now making records with r n' b royalty like Mary J. Blige), Nile Rodgers and appearing on just about every award ceremony going.
Chasing him is a crop of artists so good that 2015 could be the greatest year in British soul music.
Music fans will be eyeing up Laura Mvula to see what she does next, and not to mention the utterly fabulous Lianne La Havas, who's so great that Prince went to her house for a brew.
However, for devotees, there’s a number of artists ready to drop albums, to which we can barely hold our breath anymore. The fiercely talented MNEK has taken a break from writing for others and focusing on his own work. Mixing ’90s r n' b sensibilities with cutting edge pop and dance, he’s creating some of the finest music on the planet right now and if, collectively, we don’t make a megastar out of him, we don’t deserve the ears on our heads and the ass in our pants, frankly.
AlunaGeorge will be readying more music after the terrific Body Music and killer collaborations, again, giving something fresh to the British r n' b bracket. Fatima is another artist that keen ears will be listening out for, hoping for some more of her fine music (‘Circle’ is well worth your time) which has been absolutely brimming with potential.
Shepherd’s Bush don, Angel, has been proving his worth as London’s R n' B champ. He’s got all the ingredients to become a recognisable force outside of the circles that are inhabited by salivating r n' b nerds. After a great mixtape and the release of his debut LP About Time, he’s showing that he’s got more in the bag than appearing as guest spots on Wiley and Fuse ODG records. 2015 is the year he’s got to show and prove.
Hot on the heels are a crop of super-young and super talented artists, making the kind of r n' b that uses the foundations of the genre and eases it into the future, which should appeal to old-school fans and forward-thinkers alike. One bright light on the rise is the gifted Courtney Bennett, who not only writes and produces her own music, which she puts online at an alarming rate, but she also got chosen to appear on Ryan Leslie’s Black Mozart LP.
There’s also the prodigious Raye who released her mixtape Welcome To The Winter at 17 years old, with a sound that is sophisticated and deep.
With the latter, it shows you that, as well as some of the slightly older, more seasoned singers, British r n' b has a future in safe hands. Young, intelligent and keenly channelling the newest music and reinventing them for their own tastes, British r n' b/soul is moving out of America’s shadow to be a real, standalone scene all by itself. While America may be the ruler of the movement, here in the UK, it has some competition and, as any music-nut knows, r n' b has always been a contact sport and competition is what makes music better.