R&B's current identity crisis is about to hit a boiling point. A few weeks ago Solange Knowles took to Twitter to air her concerns (read: molten fury) about the resurgence of the popularity of R&B, mostly in regards to ignorant music critics (ahem) who often hype an underground musical movement despite ignorance of the genre's history. Specifically, one of the tweets stated "Like you should really know about deep Brandy album cuts before you are giving a 'grade' or 'score' to any R&B artist." This assumes a whole lot about not just critics and writers, but the intentions of listeners and the artists themselves.
The assumption being that whenever an outsider joins some sort of scene with a rich tradition there's an implied sense of irony; like a tongue-in-cheek mocking of others via righteous self-awareness. However, as much as I expected to, I don't get that feeling with Autre ne Veut (real name Arthur Ashin). His second full-length Anxiety bravely and effortlessly nests itself among some of the more intelligent records currently being branded as "future pop", rarely coming across as anything but sincere.
When Autre ne Veut debuted three years ago with a self-titled LP on Olde English Spelling Bee, the indie-R&B tornado was just touching down. How to Dress Well's Love Remains had just been released and the tidal wave of speculation and hype about the identity of then-anonymous act The Weeknd was about to make landfall. Eventually abjection and tape hiss became the staple of modern R&B. What made Autre ne Veut stand out and subsequently remain one of the more underrated releases of that year was its focus on maximalist, uptempo dance floor jams. Anxiety replicates these themes, building on the soulful weirdo-pop foundation of 2011's Body EP.
Currently the floodgates have opened and countless soul(less) lo-fi acts are saturating the landscape, yet Anxiety, despite its title, makes no attempt at retreating into solitude. If we're going to draw comparisons, Ashin's closest reference point is Prince. By default, the marriage of pop, R&B, and avant-garde tends to lend itself to endless comparisons to The Man Formerly Known As The Man Formerly Known As Prince. But the chunky guitar on 'Warning', or the dueling solo on 'Don't Ever Look Back', recall such a specific style of pop music that it's an inevitable observation. His voice, often in emotionally-strained falsetto, brings to mind other fair-skinned contemporaries like Justin Vernon or Tom Krell, and on a track like 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody' he sounds right at home in high-pitched bliss.
In an interview with Dummy two years ago, Ashin stressed the importance of weirdness in pop: "...the craft of producing pop music is strange because it's always the song that's just a little bit off that tends to touch people the most." His feature on Ford & Lopatin's Channel Pressure, one of 2011's most left-field pop records, rubs off on Anxiety at multiple points. The warped opening tones of 'A Lie', as well as the wispy synth tone throughout the song, and the vocal glitches on Gonna Die' are distinct samples of a specific sound coming out of the New York & Canadian electronic scene right now, and Daniel Lopatin's invisible hand is all over this record as much as Prince's is. It's the subtle unexpected refinements like the jittery vocal cuts in 'Promises' or the backup singers on the smooth closer 'World War' that tie together traditional pop tropes with the experimentation of "weird" underground producers.
In that same Dummy interview Ashin explains his album construction process as "more like making a mixtape out of my own demos." Anxiety, like most pop albums, flows in a similar way, which is to say it doesn't flow much at all. It's a casual listening experience, one in which you're not obligated to sit down and listen to it front-to-back. Beyond 'Play By Play' and 'Counting', the stunning first singles, most tracks here invite themselves to be repeated endlessly. 'Ego Free Sex Free', one of the more impressively dynamic songs I've heard this year, has yet to get old. Like wearing out my Backstreet Boys Millenium cassette by rewinding and replaying songs was one of the endless joys of childhood, Anxiety provides an exponentially rewarding experience with each replay.