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Last month, Abhi//Dijon tweeted, “we are r & b to the core and will wear that label if people need it but trust we intend on turning the genre and everything else inside out.” It was a bold, confrontational statement from the duo, which is comprised of Ellicott City-raised, Los Angeles-based musicians Abhi Raju and Dijon Duenas. But with the release of their latest EP, Montana, it definitely reads as a mission statement.
“People have a weird idea of R&B,” says Raju. Rather than just a “super ‘90s vibe” that is currently en vogue (pun intended), Raju and Duenas think of R&B in terms of melody and feelings. “R&B is much bigger than people give it credit for being.” He points to an artist like Frank Ocean who is currently pushing the genre into new spaces. “It doesn’t have to be Jagged Edge or Mary J. Blige.”
Montana, the pair’s third EP since coming together in 2013, certainly looks outside of the traditional boundaries of the genre. It kicks off which the insistent, U.K. garage-shuffling “Red Light,” glances back toward Timbaland-inspired synths and neo-soul grooves on “Ignore” and gradually gets more diffused and opaque as the EP ends, moving from the spaced-out “Often” to the deconstructed jam “End.”
Compared to last year’s comparatively straight-forward Stay Up EP, Montana is mysterious and seductive. It’s also the duo’s first effort since finishing college, moving to Los Angeles and really focusing on their music career. Duenas describes the EP as “an attempt to create something simple, sonically, that explores something fresh for us.” After having “one foot in, one foot out” of the music game for a few years, Montana is also an opportunity for Abhi//Dijon to “restart and recalibrate” their musical ideas.
For those that were drawn in by Abhi//Dijon’s earlier output, it’s not a wholesale change: they are still laptop producers, but ones focused on “darker, less cluttered” sounds without so many “J Dilla-indebted drums,” for example. Like sculptors, the duo carved away the unnecessary or “disingenuous” parts of their music to reveal a sleeker, more honest work within. That generally meant targeting the “rhythm” part of the R&B construct, with special attention to melody and production rather than lyrics. “I don’t think the kind of music we’re making is going to change the word lyrically,” Duenas admits. “If you want something profound, you can probably read a book.”
But even if their lyrics won’t light the world on fire, Abhi//Dijon hope that their music says something about the current state of R&B, how it can sound and how it is consumed by listeners and the press. “There is something implicitly prejudiced about how R&B is covered,” Duenas maintains, saying that because they are “two dudes of color,” their “softer, gentler” tunes are often pigeonholed. “When Jai Paul came out, people said ‘this is far out’ but they didn’t say ‘put this in your slow jam playlist.’”
That type of response leaves Abhi//Dijon in a precarious position: embracing the R&B label for everything it can mean, but not being limited by a myopic vision of it. “We are going to work in this template—strong melodies and hooky choruses and drums that might be familiar,” Duenas says. “But it’s okay to push certain things and make things weirder.”
“R&B is just getting its chance to be a very special, very honest, thought-provoking genre,” Raju says. He has a point: along with two albums from the aforementioned Frank Ocean, this year has seen the release of Solange’s politically-charged “Seat at the Table” alongside pop-R&B blockbusters from Beyoncé and Rihanna. And just before that, R&B fans witnessed the return of titans Janet Jackson and Babyface; the emergence of trap-crooners like Tory Lanez and Bryson Tiller; the chart dominance of The Weeknd; and the breakout of D.C.-born trailblazer Kelela. With Montana and whatever they do next, Abhi//Dijon are sure to find—to paraphrase Solange—a seat at the R&B table.