“Fuck alternative R&B!” FKA Twigs told UK newspaper The Guardian last month. The popstar was clearly distressed by the journalist’s question of how she felt about constant comparison to other “alt R&B” singers such as Banks and Kelela, insisting that her music has more in common with “punk” than it does the neo-generic term that’s been applied to any 2010s R&B-related music that indie publications feel comfortable writing about. "When I first released music and no one knew what I looked like, I would read comments like: 'I've never heard anything like this before, it's not in a genre,'” she continued. “And then my picture came out six months later, now she's an R&B singer. I share certain sonic threads with classical music; my song “Preface” is like a hymn. So let's talk about that. If I was white and blonde and said I went to church all the time, you'd be talking about the 'choral aspect'. But you're not talking about that because I'm a mixed-race girl from south London."
“Alternative” or “experimental R&B” is a term that needs to die, and that’s why I cheered when I read these words from Twigs. It’s not a genre, but more like a door to condescension. By adding the prefix, it sidelines R&B itself by implying it’s not experimental, boundary-pushing or intellectual. It throws side-eye at the genre, while at the same time claiming to have discovered something worthy within it. To call someone “alternative R&B” is pretty much the ultimate musical negging: it feels like it’s not so far away from saying, “This is innovative… for R&B.” It allows curious outsiders to have their say while still maintaining a spectre of segregation. It keeps R&B perpetually in another room.
Twigs is fiercely on-point when she notes that this segregation is racial, stemming all the way from R&B’s invention as a record industry marketing term for popular music made by and promoted to African-Americans back in the 1940s. Rolling through jazz, blues and '50s rock, the sound never stayed static, devouring funk, pop and hip-hop influences in the late 20th century. In recent years its cultural and commercial dominance has been repeatedly proven by the sheer number of emerging indie artists who are influenced by it, and who have combined its raw, emotional spirit with electronic trends—but the relationship has been problematic, and coverage of it even more so.