The British R&B/soul scene has grown exponentially over the last few years, as is evident in our annual list of emerging talent. When we first launched the series in 2016, it was fair to say that the scene, while growing, was only operating at a local, underground level. Fast-forward to 2020, and many of the singers that have been featured have broken through and achieved mainstream success—not just in the UK, but globally—which is a true testament to the talent that’s coming through each year.
It was only recently that four Brit-R&B/soul acts were climbing the Top 20 of the Billboard R&B Chart simultaneously, with Tiana Major9, Mahalia and Ella Mai (from our 2019, 2018 and 2017lists, respectively) being joined by soul singer Samm Henshaw. Aside from this success in the world’s leading music market, of course there have been many highlights on home soil too. Since 2016, there’s been plenty of chart success and an overabundance of recognition from The BRITs and annual BBC Sound poll, for the likes of NAO, Mabel, Izzy Bizu, Jorja Smith, RAYE, IAMDDB and Ray BLK, which only paves the way for the next crop of rising stars.
Here are 10 new names you need to know in 2020 and beyond.
BRIT School graduate Kara Marni had a steady buzz in 2019 thanks to her accessible brand of polished R&B, which she uses as a vehicle to explore the ups and downs of love and relationships. Only two EPs in, she’s already produced bonafide earworms such as “Opposite” and “Caught Up”. The London-based singer lists Diana Ross, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and Minnie Riperton as some of her biggest musical influences, while newer acts like Ariana Grande have left a lasting effect on her. Tapping into the same emotional honesty as the aforementioned artists on her latest project No Logic, Kara Marni brings out a variety of sounds in addition to R&B, such as early noughties UKG on “All Night, Pt. I”. The stars are aligning for Kara.
A must-hear: “Opposite”
“I wrote ‘Opposite’ about my best mate who was going out with a complete dick, and, no matter what I told her, she kept going back to him.”—Kara Marni
It’d be easy to categorise BenjiFlow as just an R&B artist, but in actuality, the multi-instrumentalist’s sound is much broader. He managed to capture the UK’s attention with his very first release, “Deep End”, in 2018: an incredibly well-received track, its infectious melody and African-influenced production proved to be an instant crowd-pleaser. Follow-up singles “Can’t Lose” and “Somebody” took a different turn, though, drawing inspiration from flamenco and Latin pop. What’s impressive is that while the three tracks we’ve heard so far are sewn together by his instantly recognisable, smooth R&B vocals, they sound completely different to one another—a reality made true by way of his production skill. Aside from producing his own music, BenjiFlow’s also made beats for the likes of Wretch 32 and Avelino. Watch this guy go!
A must-hear: “Deep End”
“The song is about telling a girl she can trust in me with her insecurities. I’m saying, ‘It’s safe with me, but are you ready to go there?’ It came about over KFC and Mario Kart with a friend.”—BenjiFlow
Greentea Peng‘s catalogue is a journey through lo-fi R&B and soothing neo-soul, mixed in with elements of hip-hop, and is brought to life by use of her smoky vocals and honest writing (EPs Sensi and Rising capture her style and mood perfectly). There’s an undeniable swagger present—both sonically and visually—and it quickly becomes apparent why her favourite colour’s green when listening (when you want to get lean, give my medicine a try, she can be heard singing temptingly on “Medicine”). It’s earthy, vibey, spacey and even therapeutic—just as suited for a Sunday morning chill as it is a Friday night hotbox. Fans of fellow UK artists IAMDDB and Zilo will likely enjoy her sound and, going further afield, even the great Erykah Badu.
A must-hear: “Downers”
“‘Downers’ is my disillusioned confession to self, a realisation of apathetic behaviour patterns. Walking around with my head down through London one day, I realised I was missing all the beauty flowing past me. I told myself that feeling dark sometimes is better than trying to feel nothing all the time. That riddim was a big release for me and probably my most vulnerable expression to date.”—Greentea Peng
South London’s Joy Crookes has been writing songs since the age of 12. Now 21, the singer of Bangladeshi-Irish descent has had time to develop her craft, and has since drawn comparisons to the late Amy Winehouse; with her retro-soul sound and witty lyrics, it’s not hard to see why. Offering emotive ballads one minute (“Don’t Let Me Down”) and playful storytelling the next (“Two Nights”), it’s a comparison that holds merit. What also makes Crookes interesting is the attitude and confidence she reveals through her pen game—on cuts like “Power”, which speaks for itself—and you’ll never hear expletives uttered more gracefully.
A must-hear: “Don’t Let Me Down”
“I was at a jam session in a bar with about five people in a really desolate part of the south of Spain. No one paid us any attention, and out of nowhere the chorus melody flung out of me with the lyric attached. It was the only time anyone turned around to listen to us. I kind of knew there was something special there, so I went to my sister’s flat that I was staying in and worked out all the chords that night on the guitar. There’s a video of me post-shower, half-naked and looking like a female version of Mowgli trying to work those chords out.”—Joy Crookes
Hailing from Battersea, South London, Kadeem Tyrell was surrounded by music from an early age. His mum and aunts were gospel singers, and his father’s a DJ—allowing him to be exposed to a wide array of genres. Serving up a fusion of contemporary and throwback ’90s R&B, Tyrell cites Brandy, Aaliyah and A Tribe Called Quest as some of his main influences, and these come through on must-hears “Let Me Know” and “For Good”. He’s also dabbled in dance music: the garage-leaning Fooled EP, a collaborative effort with producer RYN, also takes inspiration from a much-loved sound from the ’90s. Kadeem Tyrell’s ability to incorporate his love for that era while still sounding current is impressive, and with new music promised for 2020, he looks set to build further on his growing status in the Brit-R&B scene.
A must-hear: “Let Me Know”
“‘Let Me Know’ stems from the love I have for ’90s hip-hop and R&B, which led to me making a track that brings together the sounds I’m inspired by. The flow we chose was inspired by A Tribe Called Quest, and the layering of vocals and harmonies I learned from Brandy tracks.”—Kadeem Tyrell
Singer, songwriter and producer Lauren Faith previously wrote for the likes of Craig David, but has since stepped out as an artist in her own right. Her talents have been recognised by Kaytranada, and the prolific producer is responsible for “Just A Little” and “Jheeze”, the two tracks that best showcase Faith’s brand of futuristic-sounding R&B. She also makes her own beats, previously stating that she wants to become the first-ever female to win Producer Of The Year at the Grammys. If the alluring, trippy ambience of self-produced cut “D.M.T.”—from debut EP Cosmic—is anything to go by, she has plenty to offer, and it’s only a matter of time before everyone else catches up.
A must-hear: “Jheeze”
“‘Jheeze’ was a collaboration between myself and Kaytranada. We’ve known each other for a few years and often send ideas back and forth to each other. When I heard the ‘Jheeze’ beat, I just knew I had to write to it. Lyrically, the song is me fantasising about a perfect love—definitely a bit of wish fulfilment there as I was single at the time.”—Lauren Faith
Celeste has already begun to cause a stir in the industry, recently winning the BRITs Rising Star award and BBC Sound Of 2020 poll. Born in LA and raised in the UK since the age of three, Celeste’s earliest music discoveries stem from her grandad playing cassettes of Aretha Franklin and Ella Fitzgerald in the car and hearing Otis Redding on the off-chance during a trip to Romford market. It’s an important anecdote, as her music could easily be lifted from that era. There’s a classic sound to her voice, which lends itself well to her heartfelt balladry (“Strange”, “Lately” and “Both Sides Of The Moon”, from her Compilation 1.1 project, are notable highlights). Celeste possesses a voice that doesn’t come around often but should travel far and wide over the next twelve months.
A must-hear: “Coco Blood”
“‘Coco Blood’ is a coming-of-age song. The main lyric, ‘are you warm enough?’, is about an inner conversation with yourself. It’s asking yourself the questions: Are you strong enough? Are you good enough? Are you determined enough to achieve and acquire all the things that you wish for and desire?”—Celeste
Hailing from North London, Dolapo and her cocktail of R&B and Afrobeats has been bubbling under for a while. Released towards the end of 2019, debut EP A Short Love Story was a showcase of everything that the rising talent has to offer—catchy hooks and melodies, relatable lyrics and vibrant vocals that echo the likes of US R&B artist SZA. The five-track collection has Dolapo delivering impressively at both ends of the R&B spectrum, easily switching between uptempo club bangers and heartbreak R&B. It’s this versatility that has allowed her to collaborate with the likes of MoStack, Hardy Caprio, Louis Rei and Chip so early on in her career. With the list of collaborators only set to grow further and the machine of a major label behind her, Dolapo’s presence in the UK R&B scene over the next few years will be even more pronounced.
A must-hear: “Changes”
“‘Changes’ came from a tricky part of a relationship where the person did me wrong. I remember, at the time of writing the song, I was constantly going back and forth with myself about whether I’d be able to stay and work it out with this person. Also, I was questioning if I even truly felt like they were worth it. This song is me explaining that I’m trying to move on and rebuild, but ultimately I’m still hurting and it’s hard.”—Dolapo
Born in Miami and raised in South East London since the age of three, DWY was initially a rapper before being inspired by Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak and gaining confidence as a singer. DWY’s sound today is best described as minimalist electro-R&B, as heard on his first few two releases “Everytime I See You Again” and “Everything”. It’s a sound that’s quiet and understated yet deceptively addictive thanks to his knack for catchy, hypnotic melodies—surely a reason why he landed a publishing deal with BMG before becoming an artist in his own right and why he’s since been snapped up by Loud Robot, the indie label of Hollywood filmmaker J.J. Abrams. With the arrival of his debut mixtape and accompanying short film, 8-Bit Memories, expected to drop in the next few months, DWY has the potential to make a strong impact in 2020.
A must-hear: “Everytime I See You Again”
“This was the first song I wrote when I made my first trip to LA in 2017. It’s about a situation I had while at university. There was this girl I had a thing for; we had this connection. I thought when I left uni and we stopped seeing each other, it would go, but whenever I saw her, I went right back to that moment: awkward at 17.”—DWY
Dayo Bello‘s voice will draw you in on the very first listen. The 22-year-old, South East Londoner has spent much of the last two years penning songs in his bedroom studio, such as the brilliant “You”—a track that was later remixed to include additional vocals from Brit-R&B singer Jaz Karis for his debut EP, 360. The project captures Dayo’s voice in all its glory, showcasing his vocal dexterity, range and agility, which can all be traced back to his formative years where he sang in the church choir and was influenced by gospel music and Kirk Franklin. Bello has some major blessings coming his way.
A must-hear: “You”
“I wrote this song to honour my lover and to show deep appreciation for the input she has had in my life. I solely wanted to project all love and blessings towards her through the song because she deserves it. I wrote and recorded it with Alastair O’Donnell in my bedroom studio in autumn 2017.”—Dayo Bello
Original article from Complex magazine UK