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1 Thing: June’s R&B Reviewed By Tara Joshi
Tara Joshi , June 19th, 2017 09:15

In her latest R&B column, Tara Joshi considers the refreshing candour of SZA’s long-awaited debut album as well as the last two months of releases

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SZA - real name Solána Rowe - has had a cult following surrounding her after an initial run of EPs that culminated in 2013 with her becoming the first female signing to Top Dawg Entertainment (the home to Kendrick, Isaiah Rashad, ScHoolboy Q, etc). And yet, for all her hip hop elite labelmates, the most salient comparison for SZA’s debut album is the woozy oeuvre of Frank Ocean.

When Endless and Blonde came out last year, Ocean pushed the boundaries of R&B, turning the largely heteronormative genre into something more fluid and ambiguous, replete with meandering music that didn’t slot easily into any one category. Sonically and tonally, in some ways New Jersey artist SZA’s debut album picks up where Blonde left off: it might not be subverting the game in quite the same way, but Ctrl has got those dreamy, indie-style guitar melodies, and that same sense of vulnerability in both delivery-style and lyrical content. Indeed, while Ocean’s open queerness became the talking point surrounding that album, SZA’s open insight into modern-day femininity ought to be the conversation surrounding this. Ctrl offers up a candid, confident airing of insecurities; be that via the prism of relationships - flings, affairs as the other woman, and longer-term romances - or the prism of her own self-esteem.

Though these are hardly unheard of themes in R&B - in this column alone, there are several artists offering tracks on relationships and youthful insecurity - Rowe lends a gritty, surprising honesty to familiar areas. She worries she’s not doing enough with her youth, for example. She also wants to stress on the one hand that she can bring more to a good relationship than just sex – (albeit via a surreal protracted Forrest Gump reference) – but at the same time, doesn’t shy away from the importance of enjoying herself sexually if the prospective partner is a dud (“High key, your dick is weak, buddy / It's only replaced by a rubber substitute, we ain't feelin' you”). Again, none of this is new ground, but the way she approaches it all is decidedly refreshing.

These go-to themes are made especially relevant in the confusing world of modern dating, talking about ghosting in the outro of ‘Love Galore’, while Kendrick alludes to unwisely sliding into the wrong person’s DMs on his verse on ‘Doves In The Wind’. Digital courtship is a recurring reference point on the album: in an age of social media and swiping, never has self-image been more ingrained into dating culture. When she says on ‘Garden (Say It Like Dat)’, “You know I’m sensitive about having no booty, having nobody”, she admits to craving this validation – both in being aesthetically pleasing, but also in having a partner.

Whether SZA is talking about shaving her legs or taking anti-anxiety medication, it’s hard to think of a recent R&B album that has captured the reality of being a young woman in such relatable, frank, yet affectionate tones.

DJ Khaled ft. Rihanna and Bryson Tiller - ‘Wild Thoughts’
(Epic Records)

There’s something about the notion of a DJ Khaled song that’s co-written by PARTYNEXTDOOR, samples Santana’s 1999 hit ‘Maria Maria’, and features Rihanna singing “Know you wanna see me naked, naked, naked”, that is so ludicrous that it could only ever be a gargantuan hit. There are nostalgic overtones here, taking us back to a time when Latin-infused hits ruled the charts (think Enriqué, Jennifer Lopez, etc). The power of those schmaltzy but entrancing licks of guitar is enhanced by the vocals from Bryson Tiller and Rihanna – sweet and tender yet laden with passion, the warm sense of longing between them is exemplified by the sexy summertime video. If you ignore DJ Khaled insisting on book-ending the song with his name-tags, this is pretty glorious.

Yiigaa - Mist

“Old school vibes with a modern twist” is how South Londoner Yiigaa describes her sound, and with her latest Mist EP it’s apparent why: the whole thing undulates with the wavy glitchiness of a current, futurist artist like Klein, while still retaining the glossy touchstones of 90s and early 00s neo soul sounds. The delicate vocals, while impressive, could be clearer in the mix – but perhaps the point is to retain a disarming haziness, with Peckham producer Shax Maja focussing on an overall sound / aesthetic rather than on the specifics of her lyricism. It’s a warm and sweet listen, but it does feel a bit same-y: with the next release, it would be great to see Yiigaa push beyond her comfort zone.

Bryson Tiller - True To Self
(RCA)

The second album from Kentucky-born singer Bryson Tiller is, in a word, boring. Overblown at 19 songs, there’s nothing bad here per se, but - for all the 90s R&B samples (including SWV on opener ‘Rain On Me’), and the glitchy loops on tracks like ‘Don’t Get Too High’ that are presumably meant to recall Timbaland’s best - there is little on True To Self to excite. His vocals - whether singing or rapping - seem devoid of emotional resonance or magnetism, the production (undertaken by a varied cast) is steadfast and largely uninteresting, and compared to his breakthrough Trapsoul, it feels like Tiller is going through the motions here. With such a long record, it’s easy to get lost and stop paying attention – it’s perfectly pleasant background music, but if the most exciting moments are when he’s sampling Brandy then suffice to say that’s an issue.

Kwaye - ‘Little Ones’
(Mind of a Genius)

A track that recalls the likes of Prince and George Michael can only ever be a good thing, and London-based Zimbabwean Kwaye - the first UK signing to LA label Mind of a Genius - has created precisely that. With spacious, 80s-channelling production and a gorgeous voice, Kwaye sings of how prejudice is taught to the detriment of “the innocence of the little ones”. Somehow this isn’t cloying, but it does have a real sense of earnestness that feels more delightfully ‘Earth Song’ than anything 2017 has offered thus far. There’s even a gospel-style call-and-response with a choir at the end that manages to not be over-the-top: rather, the whole thing is crafted with a meticulous sense of poise, and is genuinely quite a beautiful song.

Jorja Smith - ‘Teenage Fantasy’
(FAMM)

While previous single ‘Beautiful Little Fools’ teetered on the brink of dull and done before, Drake collaborator Jorja Smith’s latest is a sweet and soulful reminder of the intensity of high school crushes. The Londoner’s diary-style lyricism rescues what feels a relatively simple track musically: “You were the topic of my lunchtimes / I'd bore the girls about our chance / And get upset when you didn't text back”. Smith posted on her Instagram that she’d written the song when she was 16, and was turning 20 that weekend thus waving goodbye to her teenage years. This feels like both an insightful trip down memory lane and a knowing pseudo-set of instructions.

HIRA - ‘Eve’ / ‘Rarri’
(HIRA.WORLD)

That single ‘Eve’ from HIRA - formerly known as Hira King - is a collaboration with A.K. Paul and producers Craze & Hoax (who’ve worked with Emeli Sandé and Sam Smith) is a solid indicator of what you can expect: that glitchy, glowy sound that Jai Paul brought to life, albeit a little more polished and pop. That’s not to say that what HIRA is doing is derivative – both the single and the B-side are as familiar as they are beguiling. ‘Eve’ judders with the sheen of an 808, a guitar that ripples with galactic lustiness, and lyrics that reference Anita Baker’s ‘Angel’. Meanwhile ‘Rarri’ takes things down a notch: a futuristic slow jam for the nostalgic high school movie trope of teens making out in cars. On the basis of these tracks at least, Londoner HIRA is a mesmerising prospect.

Loah - This Heart
(Ensemble)

Opening her debut EP with the line “Let me introduce my name, been a long time coming” feels telling from beguiling Irish-Sierra Leonean singer, Loah (real name Sallay Garnett). Though she has gathered a frisson of excitement around her name in the Dublin scene over the past few years, this release has been fraught with delays. There’s enough here to say it was worth the wait, however: other artists might have made a MOR mess of the piano-heavy title track, for example, but at her best Garnett exudes something compelling with her voice; smooth, with a sweet ebb and flow like a pool of honey. ‘The Bailey’ ends up overproduced, but ‘Cortege’ is a stand-out, blending her ancestral languages of Sherbro and Mende with those remarkably controlled vocals and lilting melodies. ‘Nothing’’s potent vocals and West African rhythms exemplify the hybrid of sounds that the singer herself describes as “art soul” – but there’s enough melismatic sparkle and strut to merit comparison with older school R&B.

Pia Mia ft. Jeremih - ‘I’m A Fan’
(Wolfpack/Interscope)

Riding on the afrobeats wave, this is actually a straight-up lift from Nigerian artist Phyno’s track ‘I’m A Fan’ from last year – only, it’s not nearly as good. Pia Mia had a huge summer success back in 2015 with ‘Do It Again’ (ft. Tyga and, unfortunately, Chris Brown) but this seems unlikely to replicate the former’s chart heat. Even the cool credibility and assured vocals of Chicago’s Jeremih can’t rescue this feeling like another danceable, but ultimately bland and empty attempt at “tropical house”. Pia Mia’s voice doesn’t sound bad with her admittedly impressive range, this track just feels lazy.

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