More so than other genres, R&B has been blurring its boundaries over the past several years, almost always looking forward instead of back. It has become especially fertile terrain, malleable enough to incorporate disparate influences from rock, blues, pop, funk, jazz, hip-hop, and gospel – often at the whim of the artist. Exhibit A: Janelle Monáe.
This year alone has given us ambitious, panoramic albums from Miguel (“Wildheart”), Jazmine Sullivan (“Reality Show”), Lianne La Havas (“Blood”), Ibeyi (“Ibeyi”), Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment (“Surf”), Kelela (“Hallucinogen”), and Tinashe (“Amethyst” — a mixtape, but still).
Son Little, the performance name of California-born Aaron Livingston, is the latest musician working on the cutting edge of R&B to make it wholly new and unique. His self-titled debut on Anti- Records requires several listens before it comes into focus as a shape-shifting exploration of identity both personal and universal.
After collaborating with the Roots, producer RJD2, and most recently Mavis Staples, Little steps up with a singular full-length debut. “Son Little” contains multitudes, from the sweet, Sunday-morning soul of “Lay Down” to the twang and locomotive chug of “The River.” At times the album feels like a flipside to Valerie June’s “Pushin’ Against a Stone,” a similarly deep dive into Americana in its distilled form.
Little uses tradition as merely a starting point, a foundation on which to build his own composition. Take “Loser Blues.” It’s an acoustic blues number, but he couches it in a backdrop of ghostly guitar and an ambient hum of blips and beeps.
There’s also a healthy amount of existential soul searching. “You get what you get/ And don’t expect a thing,” Little asserts as the first line on the opening “I’m Gone,” his voice processed to create a multitracked effect. On “O Mother” his songwriting grows more pointed, reflecting on the racial strife in places such as Ferguson, Mo. “Oh, mother/ Why do they treat me like I’m not a man?” Little sings, echoing the sentiment of the Staples Singers’ “Why (Am I Treated So Bad).” “I wonder/ Does anybody know just who I am?”
ESSENTIAL “The River”
Son Little performs at the Middle East
Upstairs in Cambridge on Nov. 11.