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Best Alternative R&B and Soul Artists

Updated on September 24, 2017

R & B and Soul Music - Old But Also New

R&B music, always with an ampersand, is a genre of music which dates back to the 1940s.

R&B has never stood still and has changed over the intervening decades into something which hangs onto its core values - music created with the blues at its heart and soul at its soul, but it has benefited from some amazing individual contributions to its genre from musicians, writers and vocalists.

R&B has taken the threads from other genres and woven its own tapestry over the years.

Initially, it belonged to African Americans and in general, African American artists have held sway over the shape of R&B and soul but more and more white artists have used it as the base for their own music -The Animals, The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison and The Spencer Davis Group to name a few of its earliest exponents, Adele, Amy Winehouse, James Morrison and Rihanna to name some of its latest.

After 2010, R&B carries on with its long, fruitful melding with soul music and had reinvented itself again. This time it was suffused with hip-hop, rap and a decidedly more urban style.

In time, this gave rise to alternative R&B and soul artists - those who didn't need to venture into the city's clubs to feed off music at its live roots.

Instead, these alternative R&B and soul artists found influences not only in old hip hop CDs but also from the internet. They stole samples from YouTube videos using free audio software like Audacity. They bought Ableton Studio or Pro Tools and read its manuals for hours.

They made music in their bedrooms and their garages. They lived R&B or soul but usually both, twenty hours a day, infused it with their own flavours and sent it out to the internet for free - in anonymity - to feed the growing R&B and soul market, already surfing for the newest sounds.

The Weeknd
The Weeknd

Best Alternative R&B and Soul Artists - #1The Weeknd

Abel Tesfaye is a Canadian musician with Ethiopian famiial roots.

He made his music at home - one critic called his free 3 track YouTube released EP video as 'loft music'.

The Weeknd's appeal is to a young R&B and soul audience but his greatest gift to alternative R&B is his appreciation of old 'alternative' or 'indie' style music and his desire to create something new out of the old while still retaining the retro soul sound.

The Weeknd has become best known for his many references to drugs, sex, love, lust and the pain of existing through all of those things - it is a sort of 'mood' music for the underbelly of the young generation. It's a kind of 'dirty' soul music but was born in the alleys, not the churches.

On his free 9 track album released via his website in 2010, he has samples by Siouxsie and The Banshees (see featured video) and Aalaiyah. Siouxie was as 'alternative' as you could get in the 1980s!

He owes his rise to the top of the alternative R&B/Soul artist list to fellow Canadian, Drake who has gone out of his way to publicise The Weeknd.

The Weeknd performed live in 2012 at the Coachella Festival as well as at the Wireless Festival in the UK, both considered excellent gigs for rising alternative music artists.

The Weeknd remained anonymous for a short time before deciding to perform live but will still not give interviews to magazines and the likes, preferring to release information in 140 characters or less - via Twitter.

Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean

Best Alternative R&B and Soul Artists - #2 Frank Ocean

New Orleans born Frank Ocean developed his solo career after already having a successful start to his career by writing songs for other artists like Beyonce Knowles (I Miss You)and Justin Bieber (Bigger). His music is truly a fusion of 90s soul and modern R&B but is influenced by strong melody from a range of genres.

His songs for other artists are not your run if the mill pop stuff either. Frank Ocean has a taste for off-kilter, edgy melody and some artists seem to like the 'different' in his song writing.

His own rise as an aternative R&B and soul artist has been due to his ability to create something out of the ordinary and yet give the song a catchy element.

He ran into trouble recently for using a sample (in fact most of the whole master) of Hotel California and creating a new song out of its melody. Legal action by the Eagles may still follow but R&B fans liked it a lot.

Frank Ocean recently 'came out' and admitted a relationship with another man, usually a no-no in R&B and Hip Hop circles but he seems to be a fearless guy.

His song writing mixes soulful rap and sung lyrics and he walks the delicate line lyrically, creating double entendre song words which still get him radio play, but just barely!

He won second place last year in the BBCs music awards for 'Sounds of 2012'.

There is more to come from Frank Ocean. His stylings lean more towards the soul influences than R&B but he has successful created a fusion of the two which has seen him much sought after as a song writer.

Frank has a bright future ahead.

Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar

Best Alternative R&B and Soul Artists - #3 Kendrick Lamar

Strictly speaking, Kendrick Lamar is usually referred to as hip-hop but he has such a strong cross over into R&B that I have included him here.

He is young and sassy and his songs' subject matter take up the R&B themes of drugs, sex, drink, lust and lifestyle choices in a big way.

He has compared himself to Tupak and certainly has the talent to take him to similar musical heights, though hopefully not to a similar end!

Kendrick Lamar released his debut album, 'good kid, MAAD City' in October 2012 but owes all of his early success to his internet followers who publicised him as much as they could.

Like The Weeknd, Kendrick Lamar created his own music at home and released it onto the web, tapping into what was considered a sort of counter-culture in music publicity and release in the 2000s.

He is also a member of the hip-hop 'supergroup' Black Hippy, ostensibly, they are a band of already very successful solo artists brought together to make music together.

They are expected to release a debut album soon.


Best Alternative R&B and Soul Artists - #4 JMSN

Like The Weeknd, JMSN is actually just one man, Christian Berishaj, anative of Detroit Michigan.

Christian's father bought his Pro Tools music software when he was 12 and he started to write and record his own music at home.

It was not long before both of his separated parents began to notice that his songs were pretty good and his mother started to call record companies to see if someone would give him a contract.

Alternative R&B has gained a reputation for being created by individuals and certainly JMSN, The Weeknd, Drake and Frank Ocean would all fit into this idea of being innovators of the genre - alternative R&B was born out of keyboard filled bedrooms, broadband digital communication and social networking and sharing. Of all of the artists featured here, JMSN has the firmest grasp on taking the best of soul music and toughening it up with the grittier R&B.

JMSN released his album, Priscilla in 2012 and the video for 'Something' featured here is not for the fainthearted!

JMSN also has that darker approach to song writing so popular with the alternative R&B artists, they certainly son't look on the sunny side of the street for their subject matter.

Best Alternative R&B and Soul Artists - #5 James Lidell

James Lidell is the only British alternative soul artist featured here though he now lives in the United States.

James Lidell has done more for traditional soul vocals than any of the other artists featured here.

Soul has never been just about music. A lot of the joy of R&B and soul, its core popularity, has been in its strong lyrical content. Vocalists like Jeff Buckley, Kanye West, Jamie Foxx, Amy Winehouse and Alice Russell have managed to infuse the new alternative R&B and soul musicality with its darkness and reliance on digital music with a vocal style which belongs in the 1960s.

Adele has modern arrangements but still owes a lot to Etta James. Winehouse used R&B infused with jazz and some gorgeous horns to give her voice a full on retro vibe. Her soul influences came from Ashford and Simpson and she did them both proud.

James Lidell uses his soulful voice to make his music. His lead vocals owe more to Otis Redding than Kanye West or Drake and they are the better for it. He is perhaps one of the best examples of the alternative soul and R&B artists - he steals from here and there, from the 80s, the 90s and also the 60s. He does not apologise for this - his video is also a bit 70s soul inspired!

Jamie Lidell's music is made out of his voice with a lot of beatboxing in many of his songs - but hey, if you've got it, flaunt it!

Of all of the artists featured perhaps he is the most 'alternative'?


Best Alternative R&B and Soul Artists - #6 Miguel

And finally to Miguel who has taken the alternative soul genre to another place.

His subject matter is the same as that shared by Kendrick, Frank and The Weeknd but is soul melody making is straight out of the 1980s.

He writes a love song and it is so catchy and then you listen to the lyrics 'Do You like drugs? Do you like drugs? Me too, me too'

And if that doesn't stop you in your tracks nothing will.

His songs have 'popular' melodies, they are catchy soul melodies but the lyrics are still from that counter-cultural - sex and drugs and R&B.

It will be interesting to see if Miguel takes any of the darkness away over the next few years - his songs are like Alexander O'Neal singing fresh off the bong!

It's so wrong but sounds so right.

Alternative R&B and Soul - Do They Have Staying Power

The internet has proved to be vital to self-publicity for counter-cultural art and music but will alternative R&B and soul be able to hold their nerve now that the cat is out of the bag?

Drake was the king of the anonymous R&B trailblazers but has just released a single with Rihanna. His album has gone multi-platinum. Will he keep to his roots?

Miguel's style is sort of soulful alternative R&B meets Boys II Men - will he keep singing the praises of his ladies based on their ability to party as hard as he does? Or will he succumb to singing love songs without the darker undertones.

Alternative R&B and soul are still new but rely on their sub-cultural subject matter and ability to sell the message via broadband (first anyway!) before allowing a more mainstream approach.

Have we entered a new musical era anyway? Radiohead released their last album online and allowed fans to decide what they would pay for each track.

Are alternative R&B and soul artists blazing the same trail? Or will they sign with the big labels anyway and appear in due course on MTV Cribs?

Time will tell. For now let's enjoy all of their darkness, freshness and insistent way of getting inside our heads.

Many thanks for reading.


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    • Angela Washington profile image


      3 years ago from Marietta, Ga.

      Miguel, Kendrick, and The Weeknd all have staying power. Listen to them heavily on my phone. Gotta love great music!

    • KendrickLamarTour profile image


      6 years ago from Miami

      Your #1 Source For Kendrick Lamar Tickets - - Kendrick Lamar 2013

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      6 years ago from North-East UK

      trusouldj, thanks for reading; me too!

    • trusouldj profile image

      LaZeric Freeman 

      6 years ago from Hammond

      I always enjoy reading about the artist that often go under the radar.

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      6 years ago from North-East UK

      Kanja, many thanks for reading! It could have been twice as long though :o)

    • Kenja profile image

      Ken Taub 

      6 years ago from Long Island, NY

      R&B lives! And you did a fine public service Jools by picking out the tasty wheat from the chaff. Cheers. Ken

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      6 years ago from North-East UK

      Dianna, I only come into contact with them through dear daughter and my regular scanning of YouTube and itunes - I don't like all of the swearing to be honest but I admire that they're doing new music, writing it on music software in their bedrooms and it sounds so great. Thanks for your comment.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      6 years ago

      I am not surprised that I have not heard of these artists since I live under a rock! Your coverage brings me up to speed and I will know what people are talking about when I hear these names. Great job!

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      6 years ago from North-East UK

      Sherry, Thanks for your comment. frank Ocean has finally broken through into the mainstream but his initial recordings were, like the others, mainly mixtapes which were leaked through the internet. I love finding new bands and artists when I'm browsing online.

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      6 years ago from North-East UK

      MsLarayne, Thanks so much for your comment. The shape of R&B seems to be ever changing. I like The Weeknd and Kendrick Lamar. Miguel is a sort of mainstream sound with some subversive lyrics - it's an exciting time for R&B and Hip Hop at the moment.

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      6 years ago from North-East UK

      Vellur, thanks so much. Glad to have introduced some newbies to you!

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      6 years ago from North-East UK

      Martin, many thanks for your comment.

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you for this. Your picks are so good, it is very difficult to mount any argument that will hold water.

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 

      6 years ago from Dubai

      Great hub, with so much of information. Thanks to you, I know new artists now. Voted up.

    • msLarayne profile image


      6 years ago from New York, NY

      I love this list! I don't know if I love Channel Orange or Nostalgia Ultra better. Frank's falsetto is something and I've had Kendrick Lamar stuck in my head all day yesterday and today. I'm glad to see this list highlighting artists like them. Miguel does his thing as well. I love his track Teach Me, it has such a Prince influence on it that's unexpected! and I'll Still Try isn't on the album, but I still love it. He's so dope, I had to do a cover of one of his songs!

      Ok, I'm done lol. Good Hub!

    • Sherry Hewins profile image

      Sherry Hewins 

      6 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      The only one I knew was Frank Ocean, just because he was recently nominated for a Grammy for New Artist of the Year. I will have to give them all a listen, I love to discover new (to me) artists.

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      6 years ago from North-East UK

      I will pop over to YouTube now to check out Bilal and Lianne La Havas. I think if Drake can make it work with his way of doing things, there is hope for the others too. The Weeknd are going to be mega soon!

    • e-five profile image

      John C Thomas 

      6 years ago from Chicago, Illinois, USA

      I don't know if you consider them in this classification, but I've become a fan of Bilal and Lianne La Havas recently. I've also got a couple of Frank Ocean songs I've been listening to lately. I'll be sure to check out the others on your list, because these talented artists need some support in the otherwise rap-heavy industry.

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      6 years ago from North-East UK

      Linda, thanks for your comment - I need some quiet now though...been listening to R&B and soul all day - I either need quite or to go to a club :o)......quiet wins!

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 

      6 years ago from Orlando, FL

      I thought I knew most every R&B and soul artist, obviously I don't. I never heard of these singers, so well done Julie for teaching us something new!

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      6 years ago from North-East UK

      Alecia, Many thanks for your kind comment. Drake has kind of aligned himself with R&B more recently but as I suggested in the closing paragraph, will this last long? Miguel is something of a mystery to me, the lyrics are confounding aren't they? My own soul leanings go back a ways to be honest but I do like some of the newer stuff, I think James Lidell is someone I would like to hear more of and Kendrick Lamar is someone I could listen to as well.

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 

      6 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      I know Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, Miguel, and Kendrick Lamarr. I don't know all of their music that well but I have some idea. My problem with current R&B is the fact it is either completely neo-soul, somewhat pop, or too much hip-hop. I don't consider Drake R&B but he does sing half the time so I understand it.

      I only heard of the Weeknd recently but I like his song Wicked Games- cool, dark, and haunting.

      Another awesome music hub Jools!

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      6 years ago from North-East UK

      Janine, well thanks for stopping by anyway :o), I quite like new and up and coming music and my daughter plays Drake constantly in her room so that is how I got my first introduction to alternative R&B. I did a lot of research or this 'exclusive' but I suspect it won't get much traffic but I did enjoy listening to all of the music :o)

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 

      6 years ago from New York, New York

      Sorry, Julie I am with Bill, but did get a crash course hear from you on these artists and thank you for that. Have of course voted up and shared to educate more!!!

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      6 years ago from North-East UK

      Ha Ha Bill, I had only heard of a few but I have spent the whole day doing research and listening to music so this HP lark is not all bad! I feel quite chilled out now.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Okay, Julie, I have no idea who any of these people are. Maybe I need to expand my knowledge just a bit. LOL Thanks for the education; I'm heading to YouTube now.


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