Next Wave #557: Kwabs

Modern R&B rolling with added velvet...

Teetering wildly on the flimsy parapet of musical trends is a growing deluge of young male artists promising the next great thing in contemporary R&B. 

Among them is South London’s Kwabs. He’s done his time in jazz and if anything will shuffle him to the front of the pack, it’s going to be his voice. 

A rich, traditionally soulful baritone, he rolls with added velvet, luxuriously dipping into bass notes so cavernous your whole body takes account for the extra impact. Technically it’s near flawless too: jaw-dropping range, razor-sharp phrasing and a penchant for breathtaking Mariah-style melisma (thankfully executed with caution). 

Drawn to the universal connection of “the song”, he awoke from his jazz-trance and nervously approached popular music aged 23. “I hadn’t known it, I didn’t know how to do it and I didn’t know where to place myself.”

Enter stage left: (our hero) Dave Okumu (The Invisible, Jessie Ware). Together the pair co-wrote ‘Spirit Fade’. A musical cleansing of sorts, Kwabs was reduced to a heavy, gospel lament. Minimal synths became wonky church organs and scattered beats danced defiantly down the aisles, barely able to disturb the hypnotic reverence. A huge overnight sensation, the stage was set – and so was a deal with Atlantic Records.

Moving from Okumu to nocturnal soul-man SOHN, Kwabs continued to feed his songs into a restless world of analogue moodscapes. But for all their trendy sonic contortions something obvious remained: his affection for the deep lineage of R&B. Donny Hathaway, Michael Jackson, Boyz II Men, and D’Angelo: these are the names that get to him and when quizzed, it’s their influence that propels him forward.

“That is what I’m working towards. I listen to Frank Ocean and I listen to Janelle Monáe and I look back at all that history, especially male singers who I really admire. I just try to remember that there is a way of channeling that. A way to keep the fire of that music alive.” 

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WHERE: South London

WHAT: Deep-rooted R&B moodscapes, luxurious baritone vocals

GET 3 SONGS: ‘Wrong Or Right’ (video above), ‘Spirit Fade', ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ (James Blake cover)

FACT: In 2012 Kwabs travelled to Ghana to meet his family for the first time. “I just had to complete that part of myself. It was a trip that needed to be had.”

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Words: Kim Hillyard
Portrait: Liam MF Warwick (website)

Kwabs plays London’s Village Underground on April 10th (details), and can be found online here

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