United Vibrations’ new single, “Rocksteady,” illustrates the group’s genre-defying approach to making jazz-influenced alternative R&B. An examination of the song reveals elements of different genres working as a cohesive whole.
United Vibrations: A style without genre
To try to define, or at least catalog the style of United Vibrations involves the use of several dashes. Typically, the group is listed as hip-hop jazz, but once audiences hear them, the R&B influences are clear, and the jazz influence is as well.
What the group presents is a hypnotic mix of soul, R&B, hip-hop and jazz. Heavy bass from a machine thumps out smooth, low notes. Meanwhile, singular voices add to the melody with simple vocal lines. A piano is used to build tension and to underscore the emotional elements of the song.
Sometimes, when performers create work that seems to defy definition, the actual product sounds like a mishmash of “art” music that exists without shape or emotive core. Fortunately, that is not the case with United Vibrations. Listeners can hear the elements without too much, or any fanfare from the artists. In short, they engage in the musical equivalent of show, don’t tell. The effect is cutting edge. It is also what some people refer to as “alternative hip-hop.”
Alternative hip-hop: United Vibrations
I admit that “alternative hip-hop” is a term that I have cringed at before. I thought the credo of hip-hop was about an emcee, a melody, bass machine, and street cred. If a group has the alternative of that, wouldn’t they be a different kind of group? My lack of understanding came from my lack of exposure to the genre.
When I was searching for new jazz in my usual places, I found United Vibrations. They were listed as fusion, but I didn’t hear it that way. I heard a number of musical elements, but I didn’t think “fusion” fit the sonic display.
United Vibrations: “Rocksteady”
The simple clacking of a drum, combined with low-key piano notes, sparse bass machine thumps, and a synthesizer, form the opening measures. It sounds like r&b in the vein of D’Angelo. The sound does not prepare listeners for the smooth explosion that makes the bridge and chorus. The contradictory terms are on purpose. There are few straightforward, simple terms that can capture what happens in this song.
The r&b opening moves into jazz with hip-hop sensibilities. The vocals are done in a plaintive r&b tenor. They are low-key, intoning the song’s title. The song’s multilayered hook has heavy, electronic bass as its foundation, and one male and one female voice. They sing together which creates another type of tension. At the same time, psychedelic distortions play frantically over the bass machine.
The song seems aware of itself, as if the players know that they are on the cusp of something great. The feeling is palpable as the song moves between its parts.
“Rocksteady” is at once smooth, trippy, psychedelic, and timeless. It is a celebration of urban music of the last 20-30 years. If United Vibrations is music’s future, and “Rocksteady” is an example of that future, then the future will have a sensational soundtrack.