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Chloe x Halle
Ungodly Hour CJ Thorpe-Tracey , June 26th, 2020 07:39

Chloe X Halle are back with their second album, and this time they are taking zero shits, find CJ Thorpe-Tracey

Beyoncé protégés. Two words that can probably, by themselves, underwrite a decade up near the top end of the entertainment business. Sisters Chloe and Halle Bailey have been building classic LA careers across both that town’s key disciplines, developing their routes to young stardom, since about 2012.

Southern born (Atlanta) but resident in California, they’re deftly dancing the grey area between music artists, screen actors and life among the fandom. For example, releasing a terrific cover EP that included fairly faithful runs at hits by Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, while at the same time playing twins Skye and Jazz on ABC’s Black-ish spin-off sitcom Grown-ish. Placing themselves in all the right rooms, basically. With the (older and perhaps more long-term interesting) Ibeyi sisters, they appeared on Beyoncé’s Lemonade album and film. They’ve been in several movies and contributed music to the soundtrack of Ava Duverney’s A Wrinkle In Time. And they were involved with Michelle Obama’s charity single.

Chloe x Halle’s 2018 debut The Kids Are Alright still saw them firmly portray themselves as young girls, perhaps even still children, with its percussive indie-pop feel. So although Ungodly Hour is their second full-length record, to me this feels more like a grown-up R&B debut, with righteous nocturnal focus and an exuberant, fierce and intelligent vibe that takes no shit, especially from, well, you know, men.

Beyoncé’s Parkwood empire signed them up after hearing their version of Bey's ‘Pretty Hurts’. Perhaps that’s a better indicator of where they’re headed than much of the rest of their early material. In this vein, if ‘Forgive Me’ is an excellent early track, a door banged open, smart and direct, then ‘Baby Girl’ highlights the album’s weaknesses.

"Then I step onto the patio
Tryna listen to the radio
Tryna play upon my Casio
Even tryna call my romeo,"

Too much, too close. Pronunciation games. Almost proper clever – but not quite. But mainly, the beats behind them are – for now – still too consistent and solid, where some hints of avant-garde psych glitching (or something) could’ve lifted it more.

This sort of thing re-occurs – and throughout Ungodly Hour, despite the strong backbone of very impressive R&B, there’s a risk-averse sense of getting it right, rather than allowing much to soar.

But those are high bars to set, so early in their career: Chloe x Halle have fab, solid voices in pairing. And at this point, with this team, Ungodly Hour has every right to be more about staking the claim, selling the attitude, than creating some kind of unique nuance.

The sisters also have a very decent input into the production – and they’ve self-produced their own material in the past – so although collaborators like Disclosure, Scott Storch and Swae Lee are present and correct, the sisters themselves give off an encouraging sense of full involvement with the process.

The title track leans into a Stevie Wonder or maybe MJ-ish seventh chord arpeggio rhodes keyboard vibe, with an excellent chorus.

I really love ‘Tipsy’ and its joyful, half-joked but fully unveiled serial killer angle on the ‘treat me right’ trope, 'If you love your little life then don’t fuck up," with just enough smirk to keep it the right side of malevolence. "Gonna hunt down your family / Let em know about the tragedy / Who did it? a mystery / But you know that it, it was me."

Swae Lee more than earns his fare on ‘Catch Up’, while ballad-in-miniature ‘Overwhelmed’ – been and gone in less than a minute – is also gorgeous and hints at more.

Even if I’m not fully convinced by the whole of the album yet, the stylings are bang up to scratch. High standard atmospheric pop beats. It just never side-swipes the ear with something too unexpected, which is possibly an issue as we hear mainstream pop getting more and more adventurous in other places. But mainly, the wordplay and relatively conventional structures here would suit more dicking around with the sonic palette.

Expensive and expansive sounding gospel-ish 1980s rimshot ballad ‘Don’t Make It Harder On Me’ is a brilliant highlight – the precocious wisdom of empowered young womanhood pitched perfectly, compassionate without flinching. But then ‘Wonder What She Thinks Of Me’ is irritatingly acquiescent to its own creepin’ boyf scenario.

Ungodly Hour boffs along with sexy aplomb. But this is carefully collated product with its eyes on all the prizes, rather than a space for vivid artistic expression. Give them time, I tell myself. They’re already killer performers. It doesn’t mean their neat juggling of wide-eyed naïveté and knowing swagger won’t triumph, going forward. I’ll be fascinated to hear what Chloe x Halle can achieve as artists, once they shaken off that still urgent need to climb above the parapet.