Although “cloud R&B” may seem like a generic categorization for the overarching ethereal sound of this decade, it remains a perfect descriptor for the genre’s fascination with nature, space, time, and the universe. During the course of the 2010s, R&B bent further into alternative waves with critics labeling the genre as “ethereal” or “hallucinogenic.”
Taking after its SoundCloud-cultivated counterpart, cloud rap, cloud R&B became the larger expression of the genre as a whole — whether it was fused with the earthy sounds of neo-soul, counterbalanced by the attitude of trap&B, or used as an accent for the alternative trends existing in niche and nostalgic subgenres of rock and pop.
When discussing when R&B (and melodic hip-hop) started heading towards the trends that would define the 2010s, many fans will start at the releases of Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak and Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop.” From there it trickles into Drake’s rise followed by other names breaking through with mixtapes that generated a buzz on SoundCloud or that were freely downloaded on Datpiff. These mixtapes leave room for unmastered experimentation without record label interference, allowing the artist a chance to grow in their R&B sounds.
This year, we have seen some triumphant full circle moments for some R&B stars. Tinashe has gone back to her independent ways, sounding her most in control to date on Songs For You. Tory Lanez has finessed his skill of sampling, recruiting a legion of 2000s R&B all-stars for his Chixtape 5 project. And Kehlani’s voice and artistry have matured overtime from when she was just 15, giving listeners a taste of her new wisdom of love on her While We Wait project.
The culture of cloud rap is well documented and preserved, even with the notion of mixtapes slowly fading away due to the disappearance of links that archived those projects. On the opposite hand, R&B’s steadily growing popularity, thanks to the melodic vibes of its cloudy form, have not been given a similar treatment despite being just as rich with mixtape culture.
From Drake to Jhené Aiko to The Weeknd, Okayplayer is telling the story of cloud R&B’s evolution through these 18 Mixtapes.
It would be a bit unfair to not mention Drake’s third mixtape, So Far Gone, on this list, although it was released ten months outside of the 2010s. Especially when we consider how his tenth anniversary reissue of the project on streaming services (with all legally cleared samples) charted in the Top five of the Billboard 200.
Knowing how the history of melodic singing will always have a place in hip-hop, what is undeniable about the critical success of So Far Gone, and the commercial popularity of “Best I Ever Had,” is how the Canadian artist set his own tone for the movement heading into the 2010s — ultimately transforming into its leader and trendsetter. Sonically, So Far Gone exists in outer space as Drake balances his rapping subject matter of rookie fame with his casanova R&B side that craves intense companionship through the journey. From the decrescendo of hovering keys on “Lust For Life” to the motherboard sound effects of “Successful” and trip-hop vibes of the Lykke Li- assisted “Little Bit,” So Far Gone capitalizes off 2007’s Comeback Season.
From the airy usage of quiet storm R&B on tracks like “A Night Off” — which features a crooner’s baton passing with Lloyd (who utilized cloud R&B on 2006’s “You”) — to a direct freestyle over Kanye West’s hypnotic 808s & Heartbreak opener “Say You Will,” the project exemplifies where the merging of R&B and hip-hop was heading in the new decade. Drake would run with that crown for ten years after the release of So Far Gone. So much so that a compilation of his loosie tracks would debut at No. 1 later in 2019.
In a matter of a year, tabloids and personal decisions would place Chris Brown as the defacto “Bad Boy of R&B” for his generation. With his pristine image in the public eye long erased, Brown resharpened his sound at the beginning of the decade by dropping In My Zone, a Gangsta Grillz mixtape hosted by DJ Sense and DJ Drama, on Valentine’s Day.
In My Zone starts with “Turnt Up” where Brown introduces that he made this project for “the streets.” Once he starts inquiring “have you checked your levels” his voice is altered by reverbed auto-tune, honoring the unmastered quality of cloud R&B mixtape tracks. In the following songs, “Too Freaky,” “Convertible,” and “Don’t Lie,” he’s confidently rapping over hyperactive production, working out the lyrical kinks to his new persona.
What’s most telling about In My Zone is how Brown tackles two remixes of Trey Songz‘s most popular hits from 2009, a play on of “Invented Sex” (“Invented Head”) and “Say Ahh.” The move indicated the magnitude of his peer’s equal impact on shaping the direction of R&B.
What’s always been distinguishable about Frank Ocean’s brand of R&B is how he fuses the elements of gaming culture with other pockets of digital and internet synesthesia. The name of the mixtape itself — Nostalgia, Ultra — picks up on how cloud R&B relies on the mind’s affinity for throwbacks and memories.
Naming the opening track “street fighter,” Ocean starts Nostalgia with a tape player and AM radio playing back the folksy instrumental of “strawberry swing.” Cloud R&B’s lyrical matter often delves into recreational drug use. And the repetitive, hypnotic rhythm of “novacane” is what planted Ocean’s name on to the world of underground R&B, the song’s unapologetic examination of drug abuse and loneliness serving as relatable content. Throughout the mixtape, Ocean learns many love lessons as exhibited by his cellophane-affected voice on “there will be tears.”
The standout track of Nostalgia, Ultra, “swim good,” is a coming of age tale. Spiritual Baptist components such as a tambourine and handclaps fuel the beat. Ocean is preaching his own message of escaping romantic baggage.
What has always been clear since the early Danity Kane days, is Dawn Richard was destined for a solo career. She made her point on her first mixtape, The Prelude To A Tell Tale Heart, which succeeded a stint in the future soul trio Diddy-Dirty Money.
Based on Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The Tell Tale Heart,” Richard’s mixtape immediately starts with production cadences loosely revolving around intergalactic sounds. She’s upbeat, fashion-ready, and cocky on “Superman,” “Runway,” and “Biggest Fan.” It’s an attitude she would later revisit on 2015’s Blackheart.
Tell Tale reveals how Dawn Richard served as a creative backbone for Diddy-Dirty Money, as exhibited by her Kalenna-backed demo version of “I Know.” The mixtape balances on early 2000s oasis pop on “Let Love In,” marinates on the reversed drumline of “I’m Just Sayin,” and complements the futuristic, funkdafied grooves of 2010s sex music on “Vibrate.” It’s at “Champion” and “Me, Myself, and Y” where Richard is not only floating on a cloud of her own independence but flexing her ability to reshape R&B with tints of alternative rock that colored outside the lines of both genres.
As cloud R&B was maneuvering its way through the canon of mixtape culture, SoundCloud was unearthing more of the mainstream industry’s future stars. In 2011, another Toronto native would find himself breaking through the scene.
House of Balloons embodied a cool sense of sex, drugs, and rock-n-B, placing The Weeknd in the shadows of ’80s musicians for the new school. While cloud R&B is mostly about harping on cerebral nostalgia at any given chance, The Weeknd’s brand of the genre simultaneously redefined 2010s dream pop.
The opener, “High For This,” relies on a motocross thrill that chases on spaceship sound effects. “What You Need” predates the feeling Doja Cat went for in 2014’s “So High.” The two-part “House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls” samples the haunting, post-punk vibes of ’80s band Siouxsie and the Banshees. “Come Down” grounds The Weeknd’s state of high with neo-soul, while “The Morning” flirts with star shooter soundscapes blended with East Asian pop and trap-singing. Eventually, House of Balloons would be included on a Trilogy consisting of The Weeknd’s first three mixtapes.
A decade prior to releasing her first mixtape, Sailing Soul(s), Jhené Aiko had a career in the music industry. She contributing vocals to B2K and even released her own debut album. However, at that time, she faced commercial failure as a solo artist, eventually finding artistic inspiration and resurgence from the birth of her daughter.
Jhené would break into the mainstream with her Grammy-nominated EP Sail Out, which featured the smash “The Worst.” However, prior to that, Sailing Soul(s) set the groundwork, making the singer an heiress to 2010s ethereal R&B. Starting with reversed vocals on “The Beginning.”
What immediately made Sailing Soul(s) stand out is Jhené’s faint soprano voice complimenting the intergalactic, flower child tones of the production. Although her voice was soft, the messages of deception through love combined with the production elements of West Coast boom bap and neo-soul define this record, particularly on “My Mine,” “Real Now,” and the Kanye West-featuring “Sailing NOT Selling.” The raw emotions and recording of “Space Jam,” however, served as the best representation of Jhené’s cloudy sound and preoccupation with the lessons of the universe.
Tinashe’s attitude has always been spacey, which she noted during a 2019 Twitter Q&A session. It revolves around the elements of nature, outer space, and the philosophies associated with astrology.
While many critics regarded her third mixtape, Black Water, as her R&B breakout, her rise in the scene started with her first mixtape, In Case We Die. She immediately starts her hallucinogenic project by singing “I’m floating on a funny green cloud” on “The Last Night On Earth” before transitioning into the orgasmic “My High.” By the middle of the mixtape, Tinashe is flirting with Zimbabwean drums on the sex romp “That” and dealing with ghostly vocals on “Boss.”
In Case We Die summons spiritual hymns on “Heaven” and deals with distorted lo-fi production on the trippy “Another Season,” “Stumble,” and “I Tried.” Tinashe finds herself pop-rapping on the Nintendocore track “Chainless,” while she’s angelically singing about “catch[ing] a falling star” on early fan favorite, “Crossing The Cosmo”.
It’s the lavishness of Miguel’s words combined with the outer space glow of the synths that makes his music cloud R&B. The three collective volumes of Art Dealer Chic magnifies Miguel’s transition from boom bap-centric soul to the hallucinogenic alternative sound of his 2012 follow up Kaleidoscope Dream.
On “Gravity,” Miguel calls himself a shooting star matching the twinkling sounds in the background of the track. “Arch N Point” sonically deals with new wave synthpop while “…All” lyrically deals with Miguel chasing after his dreams as an artist. “Party Life” really sets the tone for the psychedelic nature of Miguel’s future discography, further blurring the lines of him as an R&B artist and a rockstar.
Due to its uncut and raw sentiments on mixtapes, cloud R&B’s emerging dominance meant that R&B stars were getting edgier. Look no further than Cassie’s mafioso-infused RockaByeBaby, a sharp left turn from her ingenue days of “Me & U” and “Long Way 2 Go.”
With a relationship with Diddy influencing her sound, Cassie was bound to enter into more hip-hop, soul territory, offering the West Coast-inspired “Paradise”. With a half-shaved hairstyle, she sings about being “so high,” a feeling she would reiterate with an “Aston Martin” flow alongside Rick Ross on “Numb.” RockaByeBaby perfectly cuts away into scenes from the ’90s gangsta classic New Jack City, with Cassie taking on the role of Keisha.
At the center of the album is the titular track where Cassie raps about her glamorous life and partnership, making allusions to her fuel before transitioning into “I Know What You Want” which samples the jittery instrumental of Kendrick Lamar’s “M.A.A.D City.”
At the heart of cloud R&B is its innate ability to combine outside avant garde genres into its overall soundscape. Digging further into the alternative tip, Kelela experiments with multiple UK subgenres, predating the debuts of Nao, Jamila Woods, and Masego. At the time of Kelela’s debut, 2010s R&B was being uprooted by black women heavily influenced by the aesthetics of Imogen Heap and Björk (see: SZA).
Cut 4 Me embraced the varying scenes of techno combining with soul. For the project, Kelela partnered with producers from the indie label Fade To Mind. “Keep It Cool” drips in a slowed down frenzy of UK jungle music. The titular track digitizes the atmospheric undertones of the ’80s girl group Vanity. “Floor Show” takes a few cues from The Weeknd. Like the remainder of the mixtape, “Bank Head” energetically repurposes dance music with hazy synths that balance out with Kelela’s distinguished vocals.
Canada controlled the state of cloud R&B. It wasn’t just the work of Drake, The Weeknd, or PartyNextDoor, but also that of Tory Lanez. Coming onto the scene as a crossbreed of rapper and singer, Tory Lanez started the Chixtape series in 2011.
The second tape caught more steam for its daring samples, including an altered take of Ginuwine’s “Pony” on “R.I.D.E.;” The-Dream’s “I Luv Your Girl” and the Brandy-Monica duet “The Boy Is Mine” on “The Girl Is Mine;” and Jon B on “Summin.’” Much of the production on Chixtape II sounds as if the music is playing in the bass speakers of a sports car.
The beauty of any Kehlani record is that her titles always come with a purpose. There’s no better way to start describing the origins of Kehlani’s sound than with the title of her first mixtape. Not only does it contain “cloud” to match the R&B cadences, but also draws attention to the age she was at before the start of her meteoric mainstream rise.
What Cloud 19 brought to 2010s R&B was a different breed of swag. While the women singing the songs were sweet with a bit of savageness, Kehlani brought a grittier, street tone that matched the flavor of ’90s R&B. Songs like “FWU” danced with Bay Area sonics, but also floated on the lighthearted nature of crunk&B. “Get Away” sampled “So Anxious” by Ginuwine with a hollowed approach, while “Act A Fool” delved into the emerging sound of RnBass.
While this list contains a lot of stars who eventually made their way to mainstream stars, it’s nice to note an underground act who had a helping hand in influencing the industry. Candice Pillay’s songwriting credits extend from Christina Aguilera down to Rihanna’s “Cockiness (Love It)” and “American Oxygen.” She’s appeared as a guest vocalist on ScHoolboy Q’s “Groovy Tony” and Dr. Dre’s and Eminem’s Compton statement, “Medicine Man.”
In 2014, Candice Pillay would partner with Alex da Kid and Dem Jointz to create an epic voyage on The Mood Kill. A mixtape meant for the stoners and lovers, The Mood Kill starts with “Poor Girl” which flips the intro of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” From there, Candice Pillay starts telling her story of a South African, Indian woman who’s hustling hard to survive a vicious music industry (“Go Getta”) while being distracted by love (“Rome and Julie”).
While newcomers were finding their artistic voices through cloud R&B, there were a few vets that felt a need to contribute their own statements. Erykah Badu does this successfully on her surprise mixtape, which drew inspiration from the popularity of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” and her own signature cut, “Tyrone”.
But You Cain’t Use My Phone starts with a New Amerykah reminiscent Badu singing the hook of “Tyrone” over a beeping operator line and a hovering space shuttle. “Cel U Lar Device” remixes “Hotline Bling” with a feminine perspective over a vocoder. “Phone Down” chills everything out by blending trap soul production with hazy neo-soul vocals. At the end of the mixtape, Erykah Badu cycles back around to “Hi” on the closer “Hello,” which features another André 3000.
Jacquees has endured a large firestorm when he declared himself as the modern King of R&B. His bold gesture, and ego-stroking, confusing many people who were unaware of his previous mixtape work. At the start of Mood, Jacquees finds himself asking his love interest “can we start a New Wave.”
Mood captures the state of male R&B in the middle of the decade. On songs like “Hot Girl,” Jacquees’ more relaxed flow indicated how his peers were taking their time with their slower vocal deliveries — almost reminiscent of acts like Pretty Ricky. “T-Shirt Panties” interpolated the Adina Howard classic of the same name, but with a molasses tone. Meanwhile, “Them Other Girls Interlude” surpassed the length of a typical interlude and “Ex Games” experimented with chopped-n-screwed and trap sonics that we’re starting to take over cloud R&B.
Winter’s Diary 4 could have worked as a proper debut album from Tink. Conceptually whole in addressing a woman’s perspective of balancing budding fame with ride-or-die romance. The mixtape immediately starts with ethereal feels on “Lime Light.” Heavily influenced by the cloud R&B pioneer Aaliyah, Tink hauntingly writes, “Today marks August 25,” the anniversary date of Aaliyah’s fatal plane crash.
Further into Winter’s Diary 4, Tink tangoes with the moody nature of Aaliyah’s sound — from the warped instrumental of “Show It” to a bounce on “Aquafina” and sassiness of “Real Upgrade.” Combining forces with an artist who has dabbled in cloud rap, Tink and Lil Durk offer a banger with “Stay On It.” It’s on “MVP” where Tink is her most confident, rapping after a clip of a commentator reporting on Michael Jordan’s ball-handling skills — tying nicely into the theme of Space Jam’s broader influence on the genre.
With songs like “Jupiter Love” and “Top of the World,” Trey Songz’s impact on cloud R&B in the 2010s can be traced throughout various male stars who have seeped in and out of the genre. While his presence remained strong at the start of the decade, with a consistent release of mixtapes, EPs, and albums, Trey Songz started to wane into the background of the mainstream.
For his diehard fans who followed his every move, the third installment of Anticipation came as no surprise. In fact, it reminded some listeners about Trey Songz’s pioneering status in shaping how ethereal and sensual R&B had become for the new generations. The singer immediately tells his mate, “I brought some party favors” on the opener “A3” before voyaging deeper into a Bryson Tiller-like trap soul abyss with “Mind Fuckin.”
Literally an overnight success, Summer Walker’s first and only commercial mixtape was released in October 2018, a few months after she was discovered. “Girls Need Love” became the mixtape’s breakout hit, not only for its atmospheric quiet storm production, but also for its blunt and straightforward pre-hook. It also didn’t hurt to have Drake on the remix. “CPR” rallied on neo-soul, recalling slow jams from the early 2000s.
Summer Walker’s blend of psychedelic soul on “Baby,” Velvet Rope style of R&B on “Deep,” and slow creeping trap on “Karma” indicate how far R&B has emerged itself into separate styles within artists. On Last Day of Summer, the singer pulls off merging blues with modern soul. By the time of her debut album, Over It — less than a year later — Summer Walker sounded like a pro — despite the social anxiety.
Da’Shan Smith is a pop culture writer based out of New York City. You can follow him @nightshawn101
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