Hello and welcome to another Funked Up Blog Post: Funk in Contemporary Hip Hop and R&B. I feel like this post in particular applies to the many I know who enjoy the music of popular contemporary hip hop and and R&B artists like Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, and Frank Ocean. Funk remains highly relevant, even 40 years after its 70s heyday, in these styles of music. In this post we’re gonna single out some of today’s popular hip hop and r&b artists and consider some of their music in the context of funk, including checking out some specific sounds and themes that pay homage to the funk roots of this music. As typical I’m gonna be plugging links into this post to all the songs I mention so you can easily have a listen for yourself.
The first artist we’re gonna look at closely is one of the more popular and critically acclaimed rap artists of recent times, Kendrick Lamar. Lamar’s third album To Pimp a Butterfly, released in 2015, is his most lauded work thus far and features elements of experimental rap, jazz, and funk. TPAB’s first single was the Grammy-Award winning track “I”, a rap and soul track featuring a funky Isley Brothers sample, an outstanding rhythm section with remarkable syncopation and rhythmic shifts, and Lamar’s exceptional lyrics which meditate on individuality and struggle. The incredibly well-produced track is inspiring, dark, and mystical. Overall, To Pimp a Butterfly features a large amount of spacy, dark funk-rap drawing heavily on soul and neo-soul. Kicking off the album is “Wesleys Theory“, a track which plunges the listener into a torrent of off-putting funk featuring an intro from George Clinton and basswork from prolific funk bassist Thundercat. Some serious funk highlights follow. “King Kunta” makes a huge number of references to 70s funk and P-funk, most notably the echoing George Clinton voiceover “by the time you hear the next pop, the funk shall be within you”, and chants of “we want the funk” directly referencing the “Give Up the Funk”. Beneath these funky lyrical vibes a pimping, pumping bassline drives the song forward. “These Walls” combines late 70s disco sounds and rap to yield a unique track which is alternatively sad and sexy and captures the outlandish sexuality of funk.
Rapper Childish Gambino (Donald Glover) surprised listeners in 2016 with Awaken My Love, an album so palpably influenced by 70s greats that it can probably be called a flat out funk-rock album. According to Glover, the album cover itself, a strange and jarring yet strikingly beautiful image, is intended to prime listeners for the nostalgic musical experimentation. Especially of note here is the profound influence of the 70s funk-rock group Funkadelic, felt all around the album. The grand rising choruses on “Me and Your Mama“, the swinging funk beat of “Have Some Love“, and the groovy guitar riffs throughout are undeniably Funkadelic. Check out the 1971 Funkadelic album Maggot Brain for comparison, the cover of which has an uncanny and probably not coincidental resemblance to that of Awaken My Love. Still the album innovates by melding Gambino’s hip hop sensibilities and unique soul vocals into the mix. Clear standouts on this album are “Redbone” and “Me and Your Mama“. Redbone features a minimalist drum, synth and bass beat with a sample from the funk classic “I’d Rather Be With You” (Bootsy Collins) that holds the funk throughout as Glover’s smooth vocals reverberate with longing sexuality. Me and Your Mama begins with three minutes of slowly-building, twinkling hip hop before diving into aggressive, crunchy, thick funk rock with the choruses, guitars, and reverberating drums of Funkadelic and relapsing into a trippy ending as if the prior explosion never happened. A couple weeks before Awaken was released, Glover said in a Billboard interview: “I remember listening to songs my dad would play — albums by the Isleys or Funkadelic — and not understanding the feeling I was feeling. I remember hearing a Funkadelic scream and being like, ‘Wow, that’s sexual and it’s scary.’ Not having a name for that, though; just having a feeling. That’s what made it great.” The wild, sexual, sometimes terrifying sounds of Funkadelic are ever-present on this record. The album is sometimes divisive among fans of Glover’s rapping, but I encourage rap fans to give these weird and crazy sounds of funk a chance.
Anderson.Paak is a very new artist on the rap and R&B scene, just nominated this year for the Grammy for Best New Artist after his debut album Malibu dropped in January of 2016. The album features slick neo-soul and rap with smooth transitions between rapping and singing. Standouts here are “Come Down“, where Paak both sings and plays the drums and his syncopative, unrelenting drumming is crazy funky. “Am I Wrong” features a chilled out synth groove and the funky humor of “Am I wrong to assume, if she can’t dance then she can’t mm.” And “Put Me Thru” sounds like Motown and Curtis Mayfield brought into the new millennium.
Frank Ocean is a big voice in contemporary R&B. An exceptional vocalist and songwriter, Ocean draws on the R&B of decades past and channels his psyche into his records. The track “Pyramids” off his acclaimed 2012 album Channel Orange utilizes 80s style electro-funk without sounding overbearing- it retains Ocean’s characteristic smoothness of sound. And its imaginative lyrics echo the kind of creative, ancient stories conveyed in 70s P-Funk. “Sweet Life” off the same album is remiscenent of Stevie Wonder, a lush arrangement of horn, keyboard, and bass backing up Ocean’s emotive vocals. And “Monks” features a shifting funk groove with some very nice drumming and basswork.
R&B / neo-soul group D’Angelo and the Vanguard is one of my favorite funk influenced acts of the last couple decades. Not only does D’Angelo and his exceptional live band draw on funk, they bring it in new directions while remaining true to its roots. The group released Voodoo in 2000 and after a 14 year hiatus Black Messiah in 2014- both are exceptional albums of funk and of soul. These lovingly-crafted albums are chock full of smooth as butter, stream of consciousness funk with elegant and varied live instrumentation. The drumming, delivered by Questlove of The Roots, lags ever so slightly behind the band, absolutely dripping funk behind the group’s incredible assemblage of guitars, keyboards, and vocals. According to D’Angelo himself, Voodoo is “like a funk album. The natural progression of soul, the next step to soul is funk”. The line between funk and soul is blurred and perhaps nonexistent in D’Angelo’s music. On Voodoo check out the thick and greasy funk of “Chicken Grease“, the soft latin-tinged funk of “Spanish Joint“, and the stop-and-start Al Green-esque funk of “Send It On“. On Black Messiah check out the acoustic and soulful “Really Love“, the hard clapping funk of “Sugah Daddy“, and the epic joyful groove of “Back to the Future“.
Here we’ve looked at tracks and albums that take a nostalgic look back towards the black culture of the 70s, paying homage to the roots of rap and modern r&b itself. Much of funk influenced hip hop is delivered in experimental doses, rappers taking temporary looks back as their sounds stride into the future. But temporary and experimental as albums like To Pimp a Butterfly and Awaken My Love may be, they remain excellent and important funk records. Today’s contemporary R&B, meanwhile, integrates R&B’s storied past of funk and soul into fresh sounds of the 2000s. The line between the hip-hop, R&B, soul, and funk of the past and future is beautifully blurred in these records. Thanks for reading, and as always I encourage you to explore out the artists, albums and tracks I mentioned for yourself. Tune in to the show Thursdays 5-6 for all the funk your heart desires, including this week’s P-Funk World Takeover special. Until next time!
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