PBR&B is R&B that's…different. The term was coined as a snarky joke by music writer Eric Harvey, and it caught on, somewhat to his horror. PBR is the hipster beer, so PBR&B is a way to refer to indie R&B or alternative R&B. It’s R&B music for musical connoisseurs — especially white musical connoisseurs. PBR&B performers such as Frank Ocean, FKA Twigs and Solange are smart, idiosyncratic, and have eclectic (sometimes white) influences. They can cross over.
As a genre, a concept, and a joke, PBR&B depends on there being a stable R&B for PBR&B to be defined against. Mobley, an independent artist who has often been compared to alt R&B performers, said he liked the term PBR&B precisely because it skewers the hipster impulse behind separating this R&B from that R&B.
People, especially white people, who want to be seen as having good taste, Mobley said, use genre markers to separate themselves from music that is seen as too blandly black.
“If I like alt R&B, it’s signifying that there’s something extra about it which makes it worthwhile, as compared to the rest of that dreck,” he said. “That’s always the feeling I get when people draw these sorts of distinctions.”
R&B performers such as Ciara, or Beyoncé, or Chris Brown, or (going back a bit) Brandy, TLC, or Dru Hill, are seen as stylistically traditional. That can mean that they’re authentically black, untainted by white influences — in which case PBR&B is a crossover sellout for white people.
More often, though, as Mobley says, R&B is perceived as boring, mainstream, and hidebound, while alt R&B is innovative, exciting and eclectic. In either case, PBR&B is a brand new thing, either diluting the pure, real R&B, or expanding it.
But is PBR&B actually different from R&B? Open Mike Eagle —an artist often labeled as alternative hip-hop, is skeptical.
“The only real difference between so called alternative R&B and the stuff that’s been traditionally called R&B is that the alt stuff is marketed directly to white listeners through indie channels before it’s run through established mainstream black radio and marketing,” he told me.
In his view, it’s a smart marketing move, not a smart stylistic innovation.
That makes sense, because R&B has always been more of a marketing term than a formal one. R&B comes out of the split between race records and hillbilly recordings in the 1920s — a split that explicitly segregated black and white music. Just as country has come to mean a variety of styles played by rural white musicians, so R&B over the years has simply meant anything played by black musicians, and/or marketed to black audiences.
R&B is defined racially, not formally, which plays havoc with efforts to define PBR&B as a particular style or aesthetic. Sam Wolfson at the Guardian, for example, says that the key to PBR&B is “progressive electronic experimentation, coupled with introspective lyrics, often about alienation and excess (rather than love and heartbreak that dominated the genre’s previous incarnation).”
Which sounds reasonable, until you think for a second about Marvin Gaye’s 1971 What’s Going On, maybe the single most famous and critically lauded R&B album of all time. Gaye’s record is celebrated for its stylistically daring multiple overdubs (electronic experimentation) and for its politicized and alienated lyrics.
So, either PBR&B is more than four decades old and includes perhaps the single iconic R&B album — or else the distinction between R&B and PBR&B is meaningless.
Similarly, if PBR&B is sometimes seen as separate from R&B because of its white influences — rock, psychedlia. But the truth is that white influences have been endemic in R&B for decades, from Bill Withers’ 1971 folk pop “Ain’t No Sunshine” to the Chi-Lites 1973 bluegrass soul obscurity “My Heart Just Keeps On” to Jody Watley’s 1987 synth-heavy new wave hit “Looking For a New Love” to Kelis’ 1999 punk riot grrrl anthem “Caught Out There”.
Articles about alternative R&B often reflexively refer back to 1990s producer Timbaland as an iconic example of forward-looking R&B innovation, but the truth is that R&B has always been stylistically omnivorous and inventive.
Where do people think hip-hop came from, anyway? For that matter, black R&B artists, from Ray Charles to girl groups, founded the rock sound that was picked up by The Beatles and others. When black artists are influenced by “white” music, they’re generally just re-borrowing a sound that was theirs to begin with.
The concept of alternative R&B, then, tends to erase the history of R&B innovation, so that music by black R&B artists is seen as traditional. Innovation, or stylistic eclecticism, becomes associated with whiteness, and with artists associated with, or appreciated by, white people. Black music influences geniuses, from Paul Simon to the Rolling Stones. But for black people to be geniuses, they get stuck with an asterisk (or a PBR) signifying that they’re white-ish, or white-approved.
“White artists can be anything they want to be without any kind of constraint, whereas black artists are limited to pigeonholes,” Dee, a critic who runs the fyeahblackrockmusic Tumblr, told me. To her, labels like PBR&B are “a way of segregating black artists” and of “limiting what black artists and artists of color are capable of.”
Meleni Smith, aka Polly A, is an example of a performer whose work doesn’t seem to fit into the R&B/PBR&B binary. Smith’s written songs for R&B performers Alicia Keys and J. Cole. Her single from her independently released 2014 Distorted Fairytales uses a big band jazz sample and reggae beats for a crazily infectious blast of girl power wisdom.
Polly A doesn’t precisely sound like current radio pop. But she doesn’t really sound like the psychedelic, fractured vein of current alternative R&B either. So where does she fit?
“I definitely see myself as an R&B singer, soul singer, multi-genre singer,” Smith told me. When I asked her if she’d been classified as PBR&B, she responded, “I had never heard of PBR&B, and after finding out the origin, I think it’s pretty wack. Like hipster R&B? What is that? It’s all soul music. It’s all rhythm and blues just hybrid because now we’re drawing from hip-hop and reggae and all of these different formats but it’s still, in essence, R&B.”
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.