Over the previous few years, the ascendance of hip hop as the dominant musical force has been hard to ignore, let alone argue against. Every aspect of musical comprehension and expression is driven by some form of composition, structure, and style that can traced back to the epicenters of Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York, London, and Toronto. And while the growth—and market power—of hip hop is undoubtedly a reflection of ideas and societal progressions beyond the confines of strictly music, the recent performances at The Anthem by Toronto’s DVSN and LA’s Miguel reflected hip hop’s trickle down impact on R&B.
If there’s one thing The Anthem does exceptionally well, it is the venue’s ability—intentional or not—to convey anticipation. The sharpness of the rising terraces, paired with the expansive general admission area, act as a funnel of murmurs, chatter, and unbridled excitement; it creates an intoxicating allusion of an audience unified by its admiration for the artist. When DVSN’s Daniel Delay came out, the anticipation flipped into emotional pandemonium.
DVSN, comprised of Daniel Delay and producer Ninteen85 (real name Paul Jefferies), represent the high-proof distilled version of Toronto’s musical calling card popularized by Drake & The Weeknd: a dark, moody, carnal, 808-driven hybrid of hip hop and R&B. Delay’s delivery never strayed into something usually found on Spotify’s Rap Caviar playlist, but the bone-clenching bass and ensconced treble of triple hi-hats at the core of songs such as “Too Deep” drove the crowd bat shit crazy. DVSN’s performance was a historical case-study of R&B both past and present; Delay’s falsetto had The Dream written all over it while the accompaniment of three wonderous vocalists brought to life a sermonistic vibe that elevated Delay’s expert duality of vocal shifts. Standing on the outskirts of the crowd, it was astounding to me just how illogical—and frankly, inspiring—it was to see people dancing wildly to songs usually more at home in dark-lit smoked out rooms.
Compared to the multilateral performance put on by Miguel, Delay’s was purposefully understated. His voice weaved through the crowd, pulling the audience through a vocal ebb and flow of pop, blues, and cavernous pairings of syllables and singular notes. Coupled with a production signature made commonplace by Drake’s OVO record label (DVSN is signed to OVO), Delay paced through a lush performance that acted as a here-and-now advertisement of why R&B is currently in a renaissance moment.
If DVSN’s performance was a snapshot of R&B in 2018, Miguel’s bombastic performance was that of a man who has rarely faltered since his debut in 2010. Miguel post-2015’s Wildheart is an artist who knows that his allure is as much connected to his ability as a singer as it is to his ability to embody his music; to create so little distinction between song and artist that it’s difficult to imagine him living a life outside of concerts and recording studios that isn’t described word-for-word in songs like “Told You So,” “Caramelo Duro,” or “FLESH.” The beauty of Miguel is that despite being one of the most popular R&B singers out, his drive to push his own boundaries suggests that whatever comes after his most recent album War & Leisure will be radically different yet comfortingly familiar. This man wears so many damn hats—dancer, singer, sex symbol, activist, fashion bellringer—that each song, despite being off the same album, seems isolated and unique.
Prior to this show, I was interested in comparing this performance to the one I saw at this year’s Broccoli City Festival; a performance so impeccably refined that I forgot I was standing in RFK’s parking lot during the entire show. Miguel’s performance at The Anthem was a level above that; everything, from his dancing to the way in which he pulled on the strings of the crowd’s enthusiasm with nothing more than smirk, was reminiscent of a ringmaster. Through it all, Miguel’s version of new-wave R&B—a version consumed by the sonic calling cards of Pharrell Williams, Kanye West, The Notorious B.I.G., and Freddie Mercury to name a few—left a trail of eclectic appreciation reflective of an artist whose musical identity is driven by an obsession of how the past and present define the future. This was peak Miguel, that is, until he redefines what that peak is with his next album.