Last year, when Frank Ocean's Nostalgia, Ultra and The Weeknd's House of Balloons dropped within weeks of each other, critics and music fans celebrated the arrival of a fresh movement in R&B. Though the moods of those recordings differed considerably, they were both remarkably self-assured and sophisticated for artists so young (23 and 21, respectively), sharing an aesthetic that borrowed equally from indie rock and hip-hop-tinged R&B.
Nostalgia, Ultra and House of Balloons also benefited from bold-name co-signs: Ocean's affiliation with an insurgent Odd Future gave him an instant platform, while The Weeknd's Abel Tesfaye owes at least some of his overnight fame to support from fellow Torontonian, Drake.
For the considerably smaller audience that came across it, Clark's 2011 album Stripes provided an equally distinctive and immersive preview of R&B's future.
Self-produced with post-production support from Mr. Familiar (a three-man beatmaking team that, along with Clark and singer-songwriter Albert Vargas, make up local music collective, Freelve), the eight-song LP is colored by raw emotional directness and dark unorthodox arrangements.
Over the course of an interview at La Sandwicherie on South Beach, the singer cites Boyz II Men, A Tribe Called Quest, PM Dawn, Seal, N.E.R.D., Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams," Andre 3000's The Love Below, and Kanye's 808s and Heartbreak among his influences.
"It ain't just, 'I want to make love to you and make you my wife,' it's every aspect of life," Clark says, over a croissant sandwich, regarding his own creative impulses, as well as those of his fellow new-wave R&B soldiers. "It's the drugs. It's the drinking. It's the love. It's the hate. It's the pain. It's every emotion.
"And when you fuse that with supporting music that's not just typical 75-BPM R&B tracks, but with that same soul you'd get in a Marvin Gaye record, it just makes this new sound. This generation, we take in a lot. It's not a thing that's superclear. It's just obvious that we're influenced by everything."
While Clark hasn't enjoyed the instantaneous adulation that greeted Ocean and Tesfaye (Nostalgia, Ultra and House of Balloons both appeared near the top of many year-end best-of lists), the singer is slowly collecting accolades of his own. Local hip-hop website The305.com called Stripes Miami's best independent album of 2011. And coming off his biggest local show, opening for Theophilus London at Grand Central in late January, he'll perform for the first time outside of Miami or New York (where he opened for A$AP Rocky at last October's CMJ conference) during South by Southwest in Austin.
Meanwhile, Clark is already wrapping up work on his follow-up project. He plans to call it Fornication Under Consent of the King. "It's like me saying to a girl, 'I want to fuck you,' without saying, 'I want to fuck you,' he says of the playful title, which hopefully won't be confused with Van Halen's For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge.
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Clark was raised in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Growing up in a single-parent home in a military town, he immersed himself in sports. "I wanted to be a golfer, like hardcore," Clark recalls. Moving to New Jersey as a teen, he switched high schools three times, growing so introverted that he was dubbed "Most Quiet" in his senior yearbook. "I think by the time I got to the last high school, I was just tired of trying to make friends. So I just didn't talk to anybody," he says. "It was weird, man."
An introduction to the Neptunes' production style via N.E.R.D.'s In Search Of..., fueled his desire to make music. "I was like this is me in music, this is what I would be," he recalls of the 2001 debut from Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo's part-time band project. "[The Neptunes] would talk about [artists] that influenced them, like Stereolab or Stevie Wonder, [and] I would go and study these people. I bought Steely Dan's Greatest Hits and listened to it for a year straight."
While attending North Carolina's High Point University, Clark took up membership in a rap group and learned how to make beats on computer program Fruity Loops. Sensing that his opportunities in small-town Carolina were limited, Clark moved to Miami in 2006. "At the time, I really thought the industry in Miami was popping. This was when Khaled was starting to blow," he says. "I thought, 'I want to live.' I hadn't experienced shit."
While working as a songwriter-for-hire with his friend DJ Ideal ("We wrote a demo song for Usher ... He didn't use it"), Clark began developing material that would eventually make its way onto Stripes, which he recorded at his mom's house in New Jersey during a reprieve from Miami to "gather himself and figure things out."
The record's contents were highly personal, with the notable exception being "International Man," an aspirational fantasy in which he sang, "Everywhere I go...my life is like a fashion show."
"I'm not real comfortable with it now, because it's not reality," he says of the song, one of Stripes' catchiest. "I won't do something like that for a while. Or ever again, probably."
That authenticity is what makes people connect with Clark's music, says Amy Winehouse/Nas engineer Frank Socorro, who offered to mix Clark's new project after hearing Stripes. "Steven's a real dude and that place that he's coming from is honesty," Socorro says. "He gives off that everyman energy. It makes you wanna buy him a drink and talk shit. But there's no denying his brilliance. The balance of the two is crazy."
Clark's complexity is also reflected in his eclectic personal style. Sporting a mini-twist hairstyle, he looks like Buggin' Out, Giancarlo Esposito's rabble-rousing riot starter in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. Or maybe a lost member of De La Soul circa '89. "Ever since I've got this haircut," the singer observes, "I've been getting a lot more women fans."
And the day of our interview, he wears a brown t-shirt emblazoned with an Indian chief and a wolf. "Every Christmas, my grandma used to lace me with three or four of these shirts, with bears and shit," he recalls of his mother's mother, a Native American artist from Arizona. "I hated it back then. Like, 'Grandma, I can't wear this shirt to school. This is not cool!' And it's still not really cool. But I don't care anymore."
Currently, Clark lives in a tiny room near the Design District with all of the accoutrements of a hungry, semi-employed artist focused on his craft. The remnants of a Ramen noodle 12-pack and DVDs stacked on the floor share space with the workstation where he builds all of his beats.
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Offering a preview of Fornication on his desktop, he's particularly enthused to play the project's closing song, "Don't Have You," an uptempo track with a hypnotic, insistent beat that echoes Frank Ocean's "Swim Good."
"It's like a confessional," Clark says of the track, inspired by the end of a relationship. "I almost wish I didn't make it. Almost."
After playing "Don't Have You" for his ex-girlfriend, she cut off all communication with him. Still, Clark speaks proudly of the song, which he hopes will build hype for F.U.C.K. when he releases it as a single soon. "This is the song that's going to change everything for me, man."