Rhythm and blues has such a propensity toward garish extravagance when making small statements, whether classic stuff like Aretha Franklin’s cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” or contemporary nonsense like Whitney Houston’s cover of “I Will Always Love You,” that it’s easy to forget the genre also has roots in subtle and discreet music. But an alternative wing of R & B is now developing that uses the more nuanced aspects of black musical traditions.

The primary exponents of this style have been women, a not particularly surprising reaction against the standard treatment of women in rhythm and blues, which usually values them more for how well they work a clingy dress than how fiercely they work a song. In fact, during the last two years or so there’s been a proliferation of mix-and-match B-boytoy groups: SWV, Jade, Blackgirl, Ex-Girlfriend. This foolishness reached a new low with the recent release of Brigette McWilliams’s debut recording, Take Advantage of Me; not that you need to reinforce that message very much, but in advertisements McWilliams wears an outfit so tight it’s not clear if it’s a dress or a cat suit.

Carleen Anderson, Shara Nelson, Des’ree, and Joi have recently released powerful alternative-R-&-B statements that break out of such narrow confines, using self-determination as a platform, not a pose. Nelson’s first song starts with these lines: “I’ll boldly go / Where no one else has / Gone before me / I’ll stand alone / Even when its / Cold outside / Don’t go asking / Me to change.” No problem. Nelson’s attitude is characteristic of the work of these four singers. Neither princess nor butch, they stake their claim to a broad range of topics and emotions, and they do it with such cool professionalism that they don’t have to shout to make a profound impression.

Nelson is the former lead singer for Massive Attack–a British sound-system-type group that pushed Soul II Soul’s trademark laid-back break beats further into dub-reggae ethereality–and she maintains that unique sound on much of her solo debut. Her other major influence is classic Motown; romantic strings and shadowy beats underpin some songs. But rather than indulge in the glib fetishization that occasionally diminishes the music of fellow British soul acolytes Lisa Stansfield and the Brand New Heavies, Nelson uses her stateside influences unself-consciously to leaven the dramatic weight in her songs.

Nelson sings odes to personal independence, but they’re not triumphal. Most of her songs are fraught with ambivalence: she’s a strong woman–don’t mess with her–but she’s afraid of being alone. She offers none of the tidy catharses pop has taught us to expect. Instead she gives us a safe place for quiet introspection. Her voice matches the tone of her music, dark yet burnished, but it can leap into a haunting falsetto that deepens her impact. It’s probably the most intelligent and musically diverse update of Joni Mitchell’s Blue ever released.

Like Nelson, Carleen Anderson first dented the scene with a British deejay-based group called the Young Disciples. Her piercing vocals ignited their “Apparently Nothin’,” perhaps the best bit of pop social commentary so far this decade. She also has unusually good bloodlines for the Disciples’ classic soul sound; her parents, Bobby Byrd and Vicki Anderson, were associates of James Brown in the early 70s. But Anderson’s solo debut, True Spirit, takes a different direction. The sound is sumptuously appointed, up-to-the-moment contemporary pop. There are some topical numbers, but oddly it’s the conventional pieces that work best. Songs like “Mornin’ Lovin’,” “Secrets,” and “Only One for Me” are affecting vehicles for Anderson’s bravura soprano. More topical pieces like “Nervous Breakdown” and “Mama Said” are too busy, and their funky feel is forced and overwrought.

Joi opens and closes her debut, The Pendulum Vibe, with gospely choirs chanting over a funky beat about “freedom” and overcoming oppression, but this is no post-civil-rights harangue about racial or misogynistic injustice. It’s about personal freedom. In “I’ve Found My Niche” she sings in a calm sultry voice, “I’ve made my switch / And I’ve found my niche / Love me for who I am / Because I love who I’ve come to be,” putting her far more out than anything that noted bisexual (and rock-critic darling) Me’Shell NdegeOcello has ever hinted at and laying down an anthemic backing for those struggling against the flow to express themselves.

Joi is less interested in attacking her oppressors than in celebrating her strength and individuality. And what a party she throws. With Atlanta-based producer Dallas Austin she’s developed an ingeniously gritty sound that evokes such minor classics as Aretha’s “Day Dreaming,” Curtis Mayfield’s “Future Shock,” and Sly and the Family Stone’s “Family Affair.” She tops this sound with a keening high alto that’s all over the place but never out of control. This recording will also set off your diva alert, as Joi accents her vocals with enough attitude for a stadium full of snap queens.

Like Joi, Des’ree is big on celebrating individual strength, but she goes at it in the opposite fashion. She’s proper to a fault in her austerity, phrasing, and diction. Whereas Joi’s singing reeks of carnal delight, Des’ree gets only as far as love in the abstract. In “You Gotta Be” she sings, “Love will brings tears,” then all but avoids the subject until “In My Dreams,” a reminiscence about her first crush. If she’s waiting to exhale, she’s not letting on. Instead she either offers sisterly counsel to be strong or announces her firm stance against those who might compromise her racial and gender pride. Despite the rigorous propriety, the album has a smooth flow and a sensuous feel. Her voice is warm, reminiscent of Odetta yet drier. Her spare, often acoustic sound has won her comparisons to Tracy Chapman, though her music is closer to Tuck and Patti.

The records of Des’ree, Joi, Nelson, and Anderson are likely to fall through the cracks. Iconoclastic women rockers–such as PJ Harvey, Sinead O’Connor, and Tori Amos–have gained a small foothold, but like-minded women in R & B often have nowhere to go. Too radical for urban radio, they’re left to rely on word of mouth–unless John Mellencamp comes looking for another duet partner.

But the hype machinery may be catching up. After all, it was only a few years ago that the entertainment world came to appreciate that African Americans can be discriminating moviegoers. And sometime in the last year or two it discovered that we can read and write too. Sophisticated musical tastes? Maybe that’s next year’s big deal.