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Valerie June Contends With a Legacy of Struggle and Sacrifice

While it’s interesting to ponder for its narrative possibility, the idea that an artist could ever emerge fully formed is curious — especially at the moment of their breakthrough. When Valerie June’s official-label debut, Pushin’ Against a Stone (Concord Music Group), started gaining critical momentum in 2013, it was hailed in several quarters as a neatly gestated statement of purpose from a newcomer. In truth, the Tennessee native was already in her thirties, and her career to that point had progressed in fits and starts for several years, during which she hustled to establish herself on the Memphis scene. Along the way, she appeared on a short-lived MTV web series and did “anything that’s not illegal or degrading,” as she once put it, to make ends meet. The iteration of Pushin’ Against a Stone that was eventually released featured re-recordings of songs that had been in the works since 2010; far from being June’s first album, it was actually her third as a solo artist.

That her breakout collection of “organic moonshine roots music” sounded effortless to newly converted fans is a testament to her talent as a songwriter and instrumentalist, but June, 35, knows a few things about time, in particular just how long it can take to achieve something true. Her new album, The Order of Time, luxuriates in patience and the slow burn, drawing power from surrendering to both.

Opener “Long Lonely Road” sets the tone for the album, but it’s not one of sadness, as the title might imply. June instead finds inspiration in her own lineage, reliving the history of generations that came before her, whose sacrifices were made so that one day she could find her own path through the world. Her vocal performance grinds down to almost a whisper as she sings about her formative years, preserving that family history on record (“Pops earned his bread in dust/But his hardworking hands fed us/Sun up to sun sink down/His body worked to the ground.”) Strings, keys, and percussion are all at work, too, combined here and in ever more compelling ways on the rest of the album to form the unique blend of folk and soul June calls her own.

Her voice is perfectly suited for roots music; equal parts twang and drawl, it hovers somewhere between Erykah Badu and Joanna Newsom. At times she lets it creep along, wielding it to pick apart a failing romance (“Love You Once Made”) or to caution against waiting to acknowledge love until after it’s gone (“If And”). The grandeur of the latter track owes in part to a sweeping harmonium melody, which should sound out of place — these days the instrument is more readily associated with music from the Indian
subcontinent than Appalachia — but instead envelops the electric guitar riffs and subtle percussion to deliver one of the album’s most memorable pieces.

The instrumentation is as much a character on The Order of Time as June’s voice. A strong supporting cast of musicians takes on synth and percussion duties while she reigns over the fretboards, playing either the acoustic guitar, electric guitar, or banjo on all but one of the album’s twelve tracks. Her deft hand lends itself naturally to musical styles and traditions that are quintessentially American. But June was initially apprehensive of her own national market, choosing to release Pushin’ Against a Stone in the United Kingdom several months before she brought it back home.

Her guardedness at the time was at once a preemptive strike against being marketed the wrong way as a black artist and a means to flirt with stardom before taking a chance on the kind of fame and visibility that is possible on American soil. On The Order of Time June frees herself from any unease, leaning at will into the blues, country, rock, and even a little pop. Lead single “Astral Plane” reflects this lightness of spirit quite literally, as she implores an unknown entity to look within for wisdom and to trust in patience as an intractable aspect of self-discovery (“Is there a light/You have inside you can’t touch/A looking glass/Can only show you so much”).

She seems primarily interested in going beyond the surface of life’s truisms and taking stock of the lessons learned through careful observation of its patterns and rhythms. Heartbreak is a recurring theme, and June makes peace with the fact that time is just as good for strengthening a bond as destroying one. Her resilience is apparent, and there is a certain quiet confidence to the album’s unrushed pace, evident on songs like “The Front Door” and “Slip Slide on By.” In the latter third there is almost a sense that the record is running out of steam, but closer “Got Soul,” with its opening blast of horns, gives it a welcome shot in the arm. “I could sing you a country tune/And carry the name Sweet Valerie June/But I got soul, I got sweet soul,” she intones as backing vocals, guitars, piano, and fiddle join the mix.
“I could play you, play you the blues/To help carry the load while you’re paying your dues/But I got soul. I got sweet soul.”

 

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Bad Boys Bell Biv DeVoe Return Smoother Than Ever

It’s been sixteen years since we’ve heard new music from Bell Biv DeVoe, so it makes sense for the r&b trio to reiterate their mission statement on the cover of the new Three Stripes: “Our music is mentally hip-hop smoothed out on the r&b tip with a pop feel to it.” That’s the credo BBD have used since they spun off from New Edition in 1990 to release tougher, sexier songs, led by the spiteful (yet irresistible) “Poison” and the horned-up “Do Me!” Back then, the group’s slogan was as much boast as branding — “Poison” talked about sex in ways that were more direct and ugly than seductive — but what it means now is something different.

In 1990, the three genres Bell Biv DeVoe name-checked were mingling on radio playlists to varying degrees, depending on which market you checked. The year-end Billboard Hot 100 had “Poison” at No. 4 (followed by Madonna) and was led by Wilson Phillips, Roxette, and Sinéad O’Connor, while singles by hip-hop crossover stars Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer lingered in the 40s.

In 2017, hip-hop has become its own world, and the “pop feel” that was once so crucial to BBD’s success has shifted. The two hip-hop songs that went to No. 1 in recent months — Rae Sremmurd’s spaced-out “Black Beatles” and Migos’ minimalist “Bad and Boujee” — did so without the support of pop radio, which has dealt with Top 40 radio’s gradual whitening in a quixotic way that often involves rap being part of the mix, but shoved off to the side (e.g., Kendrick Lamar’s verse on Maroon 5’s limp-noodle “Don’t Wanna Know”). R&b, meanwhile, is full of vital albums but light on the pop appeal, with few artists who don’t have celebrity on their side (à la Rihanna and Drake) experiencing the sort of crossover that was the norm in 2001, when the trio’s last album, BBD, came out.

Initially, BBD’s 2017 pop quotient seems to be all-out retroism. “Run,” the Erick Sermon–produced first single, rides the groove of Herb Alpert’s 1979 disco hit “Rise,” the same beat that formed the backbone for the Notorious B.I.G.’s twenty-year-old smash “Hypnotize.” A sample of Soul Train conductor Don Cornelius introducing BBD leads into the lush “One More Try,” where the trio’s vocals are rounded out by the strong harmonies of Michael Bivins protégés Boyz II Men. “Finally,” a besotted collaboration with fellow New Jack Swing lifers SWV, is a backstage flirtation turned into a call-and-response duet, with a chorus that recalls the romantic peaks of Nineties r&b.

But Three Stripes ably shows off the trio’s modern-day charm. “I’m Betta,” a valentine to a woman who’s taken by another man, percolates in a way that splits the difference between DJ Mustard’s slithering beats and the uptempo Nineties Eurodance songs Mustard uses as source material, with Ricky Bell’s lovelorn vocal serving as an excellent fulcrum to his bandmates’ boasts. “Find a Way” struts confidently, its promises of bedroom prowess given extra conviction by a sinewy pulse. “Hot Damn” sounds like a Jam & Lewis–helmed update of “One Dance,” turning that song’s jittery beat up all the way. “All Dat There” is the most contemporary-sounding offering, a chronicle of being brought to the edge of glory over a slow-moving minimalist backing track.

Three Stripes came out at the end of January, a couple of months after the trio performed at the Obama White House and the day after the wrap-up of The New Edition Story, a three-night B.E.T. miniseries that lightly fictionalized the story of Bell Biv DeVoe’s parent group. The detail-rich filmed version of New Edition’s backstory is a fun ride, with re-creations of photo shoots and videos as well as re-recordings of various songs from the group and its offshoots by its cast; it wound up being a ratings hit for B.E.T. (Its fleshing-out of the members’ personalities includes a focus on the business acumen of Bivins, played by Empire star Bryshere Yazuan Gray; the release of Three Stripes off the back of the miniseries furthers that case.) The conditions that allowed “Poison” to become a bring-down-the-house staple don’t exist today, and the alchemy of Bell Biv DeVoe’s sound has changed as a result. But that helps make Three Stripes something more than a nostalgia exercise. Think of it as a lesson: how bad boys can grow into smoothed-out men.

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Thundercat Teams With Kendrick Lamar, Pharrell, Wiz Khalifa, and…Kenny Loggins?

“Everybody knows me as a bass player,” says Thundercat. It’s true, or close. The product of a musical family steeped in Los Angeles jazz history, and a onetime member of long-running thrash band Suicidal Tendencies, the artist born Stephen Bruner has become omnipresent lately, the crucial figure holding down the low end on marquee projects by Erykah Badu, Kendrick Lamar, or his old friends Kamasi Washington and Flying Lotus. “Everybody knows that part of me. But songwriting is a whole different set of legs.”

With Drunk, his new album released February 24, it’s Thundercat the songwriter who asserts himself — along with Thundercat the producer, the vocalist, and still very much the prodigious bass player whose fluency and groove have earned him free range across the jazz, rock, and r&b landscape. But the progression on his solo projects, from his debut The Golden Age of Apocalypse (2011) through Apocalypse (2013) and the 2015 EP The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam, has been in songcraft, revealing a lyricist with increasing thematic range — romantic, meditative, absurdist, goofy — and investment in singing.

“It’s become a part of my everyday, songwriting,” Thundercat says. He’s speaking from some pit stop on tour — “I don’t know where I am; I’m on a bus sitting in a parking lot somewhere.” His conversational voice is a warm, friendly tenor. It contrasts with the singing voice he found in himself and has worked hard to shape: an upper-range signature that gives his songs a plangent, yearning feel and echoes some of the reedy quasi-falsetto specialists of bygone days. As it happens, two of these appear on the smooth, instantly seductive “Show You the Way,” a standout on Drunk: Kenny Loggins — he of 1980s gems like “Footloose” and “Heart to Heart” — and Michael McDonald of Doobie Brothers fame. On Drunk, they share guest honors with more contemporary invitees Lamar, Wiz Khalifa, and Pharrell — testifying at once to Thundercat’s convening power and tastes.

The generation gap between Thundercat, 32, and his elder collaborators is such that some of his younger listeners might barely know of McDonald and Loggins. It popped up at times in the studio too, Thundercat says. “At one moment, Michael told me how he found out about me — it was his daughter who told him about me.” But mostly the connection was smooth, enhanced by Thundercat’s admiration for Loggins, in particular, as a songwriter, which prompted him to seek out the collaboration, and his cratedigger’s encyclopedic knowledge of both men’s discographies.

“I was one of those old-school musicians-slash-producers, I’d go digging for records, that’s part of my upbringing,” Thundercat says, citing fellow record geeks Madlib and the late J Dilla. “And at some point I found Kenny Loggins. Eventually, listening to his catalog, I felt like I’m living this guy’s life with him. There’s nothing left unturned, he’s documenting the way his life has moved. And it spoke to me in a manner that I understood something about songwriting, about how it had to be my story.”

On Drunk, honest songwriting can mean the recognition of loss and loneliness, as on “Walk on By,” where Thundercat sings, “At the end of it all, no one wants to drink alone…. Don’t walk away from me,” before Lamar comes in with an incisive rap on social dislocation and violence that recalls their work on To Pimp a Butterfly. “Friend Zone” is a sardonic lament on that notorious emotional dead end, expressed as a plump-grooved funk anthem; “Tokyo” is a googly-eyed journey into the night amid the taverns and neon of the Japanese metropolis. As for “Bus in These Streets,” it bemoans a problem listeners will recognize: “From the minute I wake up, I’m staring at the screen, watching the world go insane,” Thundercat sings. “Won’t you leave some things to mystery?”

In keeping with Thundercat’s past albums, the sound of Drunk is textured, shaped by lush synth chords and landscaped electronic effects that proffer a modern homage to the 1970s world of fusion and rock that continues to fascinate him. (Jaco Pastorius is a special hero.) But there’s a welcome tension, too, and disruptions in the form of ultra-short songs, some the length of skits, and absurdist touches in the meowing, snoring, and assorted other body-humor noises that punctuate the proceedings. Prone to relatively concise songs, Thundercat trims many here to punk rock length, jamming 23 tracks into just under an hour of music. “This album was a bit of a stream of consciousness,” he says. “I tried to say what I mean and mean what I say, and it will translate in these outbursts sometimes.”

Thundercat doesn’t drink, so anything literal in Drunk (and alcohol comes up a number of times) reflects activities he’s witnessed around him. But the theme is also cultural. “It’s kind of observing and reporting,” he says. “The thing that happens with drunkenness, how it weaves into our life and becomes a coping mechanism — yeah, it can relate to the feeling of now in society.” There’s a metaphor here as well, for information overload and the saturation of bad news. “It can be intense, man. It’s like a bombardment with insanity.”

Honesty, his cardinal principle as a songwriter, has navigational value in this broader world, too. And with his longtime Los Angeles posse — including his brother, drummer Ronald Bruner Jr., and childhood friends Washington and pianist Cameron Graves, among others — in the midst of a creative blast that has earned them national attention after years in the L.A. underground, it’s a good principle for handling celebrity as well. “You get random calls from friends you haven’t talked to in so long, you wonder if it could be because they heard you on the radio.” Thundercat says. “And that’s cool. But I just try not to look at it. I try to protect the music at all costs.”

 

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Calvin Harris Teams with Frank Ocean and Migos on the Killer new track, “Slide”

Apparently, there are few things on this planet that can negate the significance of Calvin Harris’s vestigial relationship drama, or the fact that Migos is finally enjoying a long overdue run at superstardom after being primed for years. But a single featuring Frank Ocean is going to be considered, first and foremost — maybe almost  exclusively — as a facet of his oeuvre. “Slide,” the fresh collaboration between Harris, Migos, and Frank Ocean, doesn’t make the comparison too difficult.

At first listen, “Slide” sounds like a sun-kissed Calvin Harris original, a summer anthem arriving a few months early (and if that isn’t clear, Harris’s liner notes, which contain all eight instruments he used in the song’s recording, really drive the point home). There’s a taste of bedroom pop in the production as the sounds of echoing claps punctuate Harris’s new pared-down approach to EDM’s hi-fi viscera.

And if you were expecting “Slide” to recall Migos’ last high-profile EDM collaboration, 2014’s Carnage-produced, “Bricks,” look elsewhere: while Carnage’s festival trap-tinged beat gave Migos ample room to wax frenetic, Harris’s production on their collaboration (which strikes the ear as a not-quite congruous amalgam of chillwave and Harris’s patent electro house) forces the group to comport. Perhaps that’s why we find Quavo adopting a new, plaintive métier in the opening bars of his verse, or why Offset delivers his best verse in recent memory with surprising coherence.

But upon repeated listens (you will), what becomes apparent is that Harris takes a number of cues from Ocean’s excellent effort from last year, Blonde. The opening seconds provide a flashback to the pitched vocals that permeated Blonde’s standout cuts like “Nikes” and “Ivy”; soft piano riffs dance in and out of the open spaces in Ocean’s baritone, reminiscent of “Pink + White”; and doesn’t that synth seem to almost parody the organ that haunts “Solo”? The more one listens to “Slide,” the more it sounds like repository for Ocean’s voice, which could explain Migos’ masquerade and Harris’ new sound. And it’s a product of Ocean’s reclusiveness — and his finicky creative process — that every song with Frank Ocean on it necessarily becomes a Frank Ocean song.

Maybe that’s why I can’t shake the feeling that, despite the song’s abject catchiness, there’s something that doesn’t completely jive about “Slide”: it is, at its core, a quickie from an artist who famously spent four years on the follow up to Channel Orange, and however unfair comparing the song to Blonde as a work is, it’s also inexorable. It’s jarring to hear Ocean singing in service to a work of such minimal scope: “Thinking about You” has always, always been best understood in the context of Channel Orange, and his best song — and one of the finest released in years — remains “Pyramids”, a single that wears all of its sweeping ambitions on its sleeve. Gone is the imagery that has made Ocean the finest chronicler of young love in a generation, and what is supposed to be Ocean’s star turn on the song is rendered as a lame chorus, lacking all of the effortless authenticity of a Frank Ocean original: “Do you slide on all your nights like this?/Do you try on all your nights like this? (I might)/Put some spotlight on the side/Whatever comes, comes too clear.” It’s almost as if the grossly utilitarian bent of EDM isn’t a hospitable environment for Ocean, despite the genre’s lucid mainstream ambitions.

It’s difficult not to pathologize “Slide.” For Harris, it’s symptomatic of a return to form, a broadcast of his creative pivot in preparation for a banner summer, no doubt. For Migos, the song is symptomatic of a growing attachment to uber-palatable singles, an approach that carried Culture to the top of the charts. But for someone so seemingly hyper-conscious of his legacy, what purpose does “Slide” serve Frank Ocean?

Last Friday, Jay Z made a surprise appearance on an even more surprising venue: the debut episode of Ocean’s Beats 1 Radio show, Blonded Radio. Apparently, Jay has more than a few gripes about the state of the music industry:  “You take these pop stations, they’re reaching 18-34 young white females. If you think a person like Bob Marley right now probably wouldn’t play on a pop station.

“Now every club is a hip-hop club. Every club is a music club. You go in there, you’re liable to hear EDM, hip-hop, you’re gonna hear some soul, you’re definitely going to hear “Poison” around 2-3 in the morning.

“You know, people, like, they wanna shoot for that, and then they’re making music that’s not really conditioned to who they are, who they are so they can reach a certain platform.”

I listened to “Solo” today, an unseasonably warm day in New York. Everyone else seemed primed to take advantage of the weather, too; the Soho streets were teeming with shoppers, the air was filled with heady, throwaway conversation, and amongst all of this, Blonde’s stripped-down album cut soundtracked a sudden optimism: there’ll be more days like this, someday. I’ll have “Slide” stuck in my head until the seasons call for something else, for better or for worse. But I can’t ignore that we have a long way to go until summer.

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José James Blends Jazz Balladeering and Modern R&B Into a Tonic for the Times

A year and a half ago, José James had a plan for his next record. He envisioned a sprawling double album with a yin-and-yang theme — one disc devoted to love, the other to the horror of our times: racism, police violence, economic injustice. It would channel outrage and offer comfort, and it would be called Love in a Time of Madness.

An elegant, Brooklyn-based singer, James has cultivated a dual identity that blends old-school jazz balladeering with futuristic r&b. Earlier work such as Blackmagic (2010) had an experimental edge, with spaced-out production from the likes of Flying Lotus, and subsequent projects flitted about, channeling influences from Jimi Hendrix to Al Green. In contrast, 2015’s Yesterday I Had the Blues was pure acoustic jazz, a set of suave Billie Holiday covers with a hotshot trio including pianist Jason Moran.

After touring that album on the small-club circuit, James was ready to break out from the hushed intimacy and go urgent and loud with a big social-justice project. But something got in the way, he says. It was all just too much. The election campaign had begun; the headlines were getting worse and worse. He found that performing Holiday’s work night after night — and specifically one song, “Strange Fruit,” the devastating elegy for the victims of lynching that speaks of burnt flesh and all manner of violence done to black bodies — brought its own kind of exhaustion.

“It was very difficult to not just break down and cry mid-song, which happened a couple of times,” James says. “You’d read something horrible in the news — say, a ten-year-old kid got shot — and to have that be so close and so emotional, it was a lot. And to see the impact it had on other people, people would be leaving the club weeping.”

Maybe, James thought, the social-justice songs he was writing for the “madness” part of his project didn’t need to happen just yet. “As we got into the political season, it was overkill,” he says. “People didn’t need that from me; they were getting it every day. They didn’t need a reminder of Black Lives Matter, a reminder of sexism. They needed a relief. So I abandoned the more overtly political aspect and started to focus on the love. I think the biggest thing I can offer right now is a little sanctuary.”

The soul music of the 1970s has always been a touchstone for James, and in that same tradition, Love in a Time of Madness expresses love in all its forms. There is affirming, sex-positive funk (“Live Your Fantasy”), comfort in commitment (“Always There”), the desperation of conflict (“What Good Is Love”), and the weird accounting and resolution that follows a fling (the standout “Last Night,” louche and woozy). There is, too, love that’s sanctified: Gospel singer Oleta Adams appears on the closing duet, “I’m Yours.”

“A lot of my love songs in the past have had a rose-tinted-glasses vibe, and that’s cool too,” says James, who firmly established his romantic credentials on his 2013 major-label debut, No Beginning No End, and its follow-up, While You Were Sleeping. “But I’ve been through a lot of love and loss, a lot of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll on the road. This is a broader, more realistic look at love and relationships.”

With James a father and nearing forty, the album also reads as a kind of stock-taking, a turning of the page. But if he’s looking back on parts of his life, his music is moving in a new direction. James was never all-retro; the new deconstructive r&b, with its glitchy soundscapes, has long lurked in his work. But his old-soul baritone and his record on the jazz side of the ledger, including work with elders such as McCoy Tyner and current masters like Moran, has marked him as a balladeer. (So does his contribution to the just-released Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack, a concise version of the standard “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” that echoes Frank Sinatra, one of James’s vocal influences.)

This time is different. Some of the most compelling songs (“Last Night,” “You Know I Know,” “Closer”) stand out for grimy, staccato beats and electronics that offer a sharp contrast to the acoustic canvas of James’s last outing. “I’m obsessed with Drake and all the kids,” he says, citing Kehlani and The Internet as well. “There’s something magical there. Right now my heart is definitely into more electronic stuff and seeing how far we can push this sound and this expression.” Elsewhere, the vibe is classic but the exercise is new — for instance on “Ladies Man,” a very late-Seventies disco-funk jam on which James sings higher than we’ve known him to, holding a falsetto with ease.

The Bay Area producer Tario, who has worked with Miguel and Flo Rida and was James’s main collaborator on this album, says the slippery, effects-rich “Closer” was the first demo he shared with James; it set the tone for the project. “He’s got a beautiful, very distinctive jazz voice,” says Tario. “Meshing it with r&b, more trappy drums here and there, even the funk stuff — everything meshed together so well.”

The album benefits, too, from James’s decision to take himself back to school — the singer worked with a voice teacher, Jim Carson, to expand his technique. “Moving into r&b, I wanted more top range, more flexibility,” James says. “He totally changed my technique, and I think you can hear it. I’m way more confident, singing in ways I’ve never sung before. It’s very relaxed; you’re never stressing or straining for anything.”

As for those social-justice songs he was working on, James is keeping them in his back pocket. The way things are going, an intervention in the spirit of Curtis Mayfield or Gil Scott-Heron may be needed soon enough. “It’s looking that way,” James says. “The only good thing about times of strife is that amazing music and social rebellion happens.”

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Kehlani and Syd Look Back to Nineties R&B to Show How Expansive the Genre Can Be

The primacy of r&b isn’t theoretical. Two weeks ago, after Adele, and not Beyoncé, won the Grammy for Album of the Year — and Song of the Year and Record of the Year — she lugged her awards backstage and said to reporters, “I thought it was her year. What the fuck does she have to do to win Album of the Year?” After this, Adele snapped the horn off her flimsy gramophone and gave it to Beyoncé. It wasn’t the real award, so you can check up to see if this gesture holds once Adele receives the genuine article in the mail.

Beyoncé may not have something to do with every record released in the world, but people don’t think of her as “the sun” just because they love her. She is not an isolated marvel — Beyoncé draws from a community that revolves around her and bears fruit all year long. R&B is as generously vague and fertile as it’s ever been. The genre has accommodated fluid sexuality more comfortably than pop, offered hybrid visionaries a historical tradition to push against, and maintained a consistent level of surprise ever since 1949, when music of black origin was first wrangled into the ungainly folder labeled r&b (after being called many other things). Which walls did Frank Ocean warp? Which body of work did FKA Twigs dive-bomb? And how would you classify Syd’s Fin and Kehlani’s SweetSexySavage? They draw from more than one source but signify as extensions of a musical continuum that is rich enough to feed its own and, yes, Adele: r&b.

Kehlani Parrish, originally from Oakland, functions like an r&b index. SweetSexySavage is her second album, and first on a major label, following a self-released EP and full-length. Kehlani has Beyoncé’s tendency toward both ambition and omnivorous curiosity, writing on almost every track while drawing in a variety of collaborators. Her register isn’t regal — she’s lithe and practical. The title of her new album is a clear reference to TLC’s CrazySexyCool, and she gravitates toward a spring-heeled bounce. Her lyrics don’t try to parse relationships. She’s either on her way or on her way out; going deep into the building isn’t part of the project.

The low-stress chorus of “Distraction” — “Are you down to be a distraction, baby? But don’t distract me” — matches airy, multi-tracked vocals that recall Nineties trios like SWV and TLC. “Piece of Mind” takes the bargain further, going hard into the physical glow of voices while asking politely to ditch any analysis: “I think sometimes the best things are in the unplanned and the unknown/And sometimes when we balance back and we do it/We don’t know how we did it, we just do it.”

One of the most accomplished practitioners of the deceptively elegant was Aaliyah, whose work has come back on the wind. She kept her voice firmly soft while never ceding any emotional ground, rising above us all. Kehlani’s “Too Much” makes this link explicit, sampling Timbaland’s drums from Aaliyah’s “More Than a Woman” and modeling the phrasing of “too much of a woman” on the chorus of the 2001 song.

Kehlani is too exuberant to channel the rest of Aaliyah’s emotional timbre: the detachment, the love of strangeness, the muted anxiety. For that, Syd’s Fin is perhaps the finest update of the original formula. Syd, originally of the Odd Future collective and the band The Internet, has leapt ahead of most around her. Distractingly, she’s referred to Fin as an interim project, a “pop” album that she’s co-produced with biz pros like Hit-Boy. It doesn’t have the emotional impact of a provisional statement — it hits hard.

Where Kehlani samples Aaliyah, Syd drops hints. The bed of “Know,” produced by Nick Green, is an open tribute to Timbaland’s production: hiccups, thumps, and syncopated filaments. Syd flips Aaliyah’s 1996 single “If Your Girl Only Knew” in the chorus: “Don’t let nobody know/Let’s keep it on the low/And as long as he don’t/Long as she don’t/We’ll lay back and play the game.” As an openly gay artist, Syd can do things with pronouns that Aaliyah didn’t, while channeling that same sense of tensile strength underpinning Aaliyah’s songs.

The current political climate — essentially American history dialed up by ten decibels — hasn’t yet brought out as much defiant r&b as plangent songs that stick to their demands. To nurture others is a running theme, perhaps because social media has made yelling at people so easy, and so obviously pointless. Calling a work of art “touching” has long sounded like faint praise, or a creepy euphemism. Now touching, in any of its formations, is a complex political act. For Kehlani and Syd, Aaliyah is a solid reference point for how you can become light enough to float into someone else’s life.

 

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On New Album, Shy Girls Explores the Dark Side of R&B

With two EPs, a mixtape, and endless touring under his belt, Dan Vidmar is well past the introduction stage. Still, the multi-instrumental textures heard across his catalog and the plurality of his stage name, Shy Girls, add confusion to the narrative surrounding the Pennsylvania native. “[Shy Girls] has always been a solo project at its heart, but I’ve always also had a full band live,” says Vidmar. “The guys in the band are also on the recordings and play a little bit on the album.”

The entire cohort, a quartet comprising Vidmar, Akila Fields, Ingmar Carlson, and Noah Bernstein, is wrapping up a tour behind Salt, Shy Girls’ official full-length debut, out on Hit City U.S.A. since January. But the album is a product of Vidmar’s singular vision. He deconstructed his own struggles with universal quandaries — like the feeling that we become both stronger and more vulnerable as time passes by — and reassembled the pieces into a grand, cohesive whole.

Vidmar spent most of his mid-twenties in Portland, watching his adoptive city undergo dramatic changes and waving goodbye to friends who decided that their futures lay elsewhere. Eventually, he too looked farther afield, spending most of the past year in Los Angeles. This repositioning of both physical and mental frames of reference coincided with an instinctive evolution in his approach to making music. “I’m moving on to the next stage of life in a lot of ways, and the things I contemplate and want to write about as an artist have naturally changed,” he explains. Previous efforts zeroed in on specific people and relationships in his life, like the character from the Timeshare EP who doesn’t know him like she should (“Still Not Falling”) or the one whose face he doesn’t want to see around anymore (“Second Heartbeat”). Salt finds Vidmar grappling with broader existential conundrums. “As I get older it feels like everything is moving quicker and then — even at different points of the [same] day — it moves slower,” he says.

The interrogation of time — having too much or not enough or feeling otherwise powerless against its inexorable forward march — is present throughout the album. But that preoccupation runs alongside tales of growth, love, forgiveness, and acceptance, each delivered with the type of clarity that usually, hopefully, follows a period of upheaval. Salt is heavy with this reflection, delivered via deep synths, smooth guitar riffs, and an unexpected but perfectly executed woodwind arrangement on “What If I Can.” Around the time of his breakthrough EP in 2013, Shy Girls was placed in the “pbr&b” category du jour, which swept up artists like the Weeknd and Miguel. Vidmar understands the impulse to pigeonhole but doesn’t necessarily endorse it. “Nobody wants to get thrown into a ‘hip’ [subgenre], because once you get lumped into that sort of a thing, it’s hard to escape when it inevitably dies,” he says. “For me at least, the music I’ve made has always been inspired by many different things that aren’t even r&b-related.”

Classic rock, Sixties folk, and experimental music are just a few; what matters to Vidmar is how they come together. “Why I Love” boasts a dreamy guitar melody that nods to Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” while “You Like the Pain Too” lands firmly in piano ballad territory. Vidmar was already working on Salt by the time he released the 4WZ mixtape in 2015. The self-released tape had four features, including one apiece from rappers Rome Fortune and Junglepussy. This time around, he wanted the album to spotlight a lone voice — aside from the backing support on standout “Trivial Motion,” Vidmar’s mellow timbre represents the only vocals on the album. Jon Castelli helped him achieve the sense of overall unity that characterizes Salt, overseeing recording sessions, co-producing several songs, and mixing the completed collection. “He usually comes to me with a fleshed-out idea: lyrics and melodies,” Castelli says of their process. The two met through a mutual friend when Vidmar was working on 4WZ, and they have collaborated several times since, coming to trust each other’s instincts. “We may tweak it from there, but most of the time I lean toward the artist[‘s vision] so they can get behind their lyrics and get audiences to connect with them. That’s the most important part.”

Vidmar agrees. That curious stage name notwithstanding, the whole reason to create and especially to tour, he says, “is to see your audience and experience something with them together in a room. Everything else is just getting you to that point.”

Shy Girls plays the Music Hall of Williamsburg on February 10.

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The Anime R&B of Baltimore’s :3LON

:3LON Battle (pronounced Elon) was born for this. His natal planet of Mars is in Gemini, and his Moon is in Cancer. Perhaps that’s why his music is so dreamy. His breathy voice pairs well with the heavy industrial beats throughout his debut EP Ronin. Lead single “Many Moons” shifts from an sleepy aura of gently falling cherry blossom leaves to an underground warehouse rave where two familiar strangers embrace. There’s a story behind it, he says: “Basically, this Samurai meets this person he grew up with up, after like, years of turmoil and being torn apart, they’re meeting back up to reunite.”

:3LON will be premiering the much anticipated music video for “Many Moons” this Sunday at DEN$E, as part of MoMA PS1’s Sunday Sessions. He loves New York and can’t wait to play here. “You know like, when you waiting for the train and the last one pulls up and it’s covered in graffiti, you don’t see that in a lot of places. I like the busyness and the lights and the crowds.” Eventually he plans to move here for good.

In the meantime he’s focusing on his output. Ronin, which is now available on Tidal, has an anime-meets-R&B aesthetic. “A ronin is a samurai without a master. I totally relate,” he says. “I’m not trained in martial arts, but I definitely feel like a fighter, and no one is making me conform”. 3lon is tall, bald, the color of honey, and sports piercings in his nose, lips, teeth and ears. He’s a black goth, born, bred and based in Baltimore. Most nights he’s doing the Baltimore two-step at The Crown, a popular nightclub, in thick-soled Doc Martens and incredibly long T-shirts. He was raised on Anita Baker and as a teen, he found himself in Hot Topic every other day, listening at home to the likes of Korn, Fall Out Boy, and Avenged Sevenfold. In his music he crosses these boundaries to blend them.

His creativity attracted the attention of ATM (At the Moment), a Philadelphia arts collective, which is curating DEN$E. The show will include live musical performances, DJ sets, interactive performance, and hardware noise sets, all accompanied by live and pre-recorded visuals. “As a whole, the members of ATM seem to be actively self-historicizing a narrative of queer, brown club music in [the Northeast],” says PS1 curatorial assistant Taja Cheek. “But, they’re also writing a narrative of dance and electronic music that is simultaneously hyper-local and global. ”

:3LON, for his part, hopes that the underground scene of New York City will come out in full force for the show. “I know New York has a cool ass, freaky ass, underground scene. So I’d like to see people who would make me feel I’m not the only freak in the room.”

The DEN$E Sunday Session takes place November 13 at MoMA PS1.

 

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From Missy to Lady Wray: How Nicole Wray Rode Out a 20-Year R&B Roller Coaster

Nicole Wray started her r&b career in 1998, as a precocious seventeen-year-old signed to Missy Elliott’s Goldmind imprint. Her first album, Make It Hot, had a sultry Timbaland-produced title track for a lead single, complete with a slick video featuring cameos from Aaliyah and Ginuwine. “I’d go to school and show my friends pictures of me and Lil’ Kim in a store buying wigs and hanging out with Missy Elliott and Faith Evans,” Wray remembers. But instead of becoming a teenage starlet, Wray went on to endure nearly two decades of unreleased albums and aborted label deals — one disappointing setback after another.

Those trials ended last week, when Wray released her second debut album — this time as Lady Wray. Queen Alone, which dropped on September 23 via the Brooklyn-based indie Big Crown Records, is a gritty but upbeat retro-soul album that highlights her remarkable voice and features backing by the El Michels Affair band. Finally, she sounds at home. “I was in a very happy state of mind while recording this one,” she says. “It’s so organic and it felt really cool and I felt free.”

Wray started off singing at church and had to stop when her parents divorced. She turned to the songs on the radio, particularly Mariah Carey. She’d perform them at home with the hope that “if I would sing loud enough, my dad would come back.” Instead, Missy Elliott showed up at the door. Wray’s brother had passed through a talent show Missy organized, and he told her about his sister’s flair for singing. Missy’s people called Wray’s mother and set a date for an audition, which Wray nailed. “We just kinda took to each other and became friends and she guided me in my career,” she recalls of Elliott. Missy signed Wray as Goldmind’s first artist.

Suga Mike, a producer on Make It Hot, was just as struck as Elliott by Wray’s talent. “At the time, I had my own artist, Lil Mo, and at that time no other artist had that raw, churchy, powerful voice like Lil Mo.” That is, he remembers, “until the first vocal take Nicole did on ‘Borrowed Time.’ That’s when I was like, ‘Wow, this girl has something special.’ She just blew me away.” But it wasn’t enough to keep her on Goldmind. “Missy was taking on a lot of artists and I was getting drowned out and I had no voice,” says Wray. “I wanted to keep my integrity and went my own separate way.” She says she doesn’t resent Elliott, although Goldmind never released a promised follow-up to the debut.

Wray was at “a low point — I had no management, and it was just me in New York running around with one of my girlfriends.” Enter Damon Dash, who in 2004 offered to sign her to Roc-A-Fella, the label he ran with Jay Z. They were eying a move into r&b and wanted Wray to spearhead the charge. Soon she was spending her days in Manhattan’s Chung King Studios, which the producer 7 Aurelius had outfitted into a futuristic playground with smoke machines and blue lasers. The setting was more “like a blockbuster movie,” she says, than a traditional r&b recording environment.

Wray enjoyed her time at Roc-A-Fella — blithely, it turns out: “I had no idea what was about to happen.” A year after signing, Damon Dash and Jay Z would fall out as their egos clashed over creative and commercial decisions and the label would dissolve, leaving Wray’s career adrift and another of her albums, LoveChild, unreleased.

After Roc-A-Fella’s demise, Wray kept busy by appearing on projects like the Black Keys’ indie-meets-hip-hop experiment BlakRoc, taking a trip to Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama to provide backing vocals for the Keys’ Brothers album, and briefly forming the modern r&b duo LADY with the singer Terri Walker before the latter promptly quit. They were impressive credits, but Wray lacked a sense of place.

Queen Alone is the uplifting conclusion to her long journey. Recorded at the Diamond Mine in Queens, the project was fashioned in the style of a jam session: The El Michels Affair looped up grooves they’d created, to which Wray would write the lyrics and melody. “She reminds me of Gladys Knight,” says Leon Michels, who plays drums, guitar, keyboards, and saxophone in the band. “She has that type of voice with raw emotion in her vocal takes. Gladys can still do it and Sharon Jones can do it — it’s real, true soul.”

The result is an album that combines Wray’s honeyed, nuanced voice with grooves that reference classic Sixties and Seventies soul. Songs like the punchy “Let It Go” and horn-laden “Do It Again” come off as equal parts emotional and buoyant, as if you’ve plugged into a lost Staple Singers album. Wray sounds free from the devastation of her many industry setbacks.

Fittingly, the first song she recorded was “Smiling,” a shimmering track with a hook that sounds like a mantra. “I just started humming and singing, ‘Just keep on smiling.’ ” Finally, she can.

Lady Wray and the El Michaels Affair play Brooklyn Night Bazaar on September 29. 

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Out of Bounds: R&B, and Much More, From Gallant

By almost any measure, Gallant is having a good year. The 24-year-old Maryland native is, at the time of our speaking, still riding high on critical acclaim from his debut studio album, Ology, released in April. It’s a record that truly confronts the artist: his anxieties, discomforts, and small joys.

The album is more than its moving parts, but then all the moving parts are what make Gallant so fascinating. Following a solid effort from 2014, the Zebra EP, Ology shows off a more mature sound, in part by finding a tricky balance: It’s music that busts out of genre categories but that is unafraid to pull from its r&b and soul roots — and to find new ones along the way. His writing is both carefully crafted and open to risk (“I’ve been whispering to ghosts lately,” he sings in “Talking to Myself,” a track that adroitly probes inner uncertainties), while his musical palette seamlessly blends elements from different eras: The album’s lead single, “Weight in Gold,” is steeped in Motown shine, while a song like “Counting” feels of a piece with the early Nineties.

Given his ability to ease elements of nostalgic soul into crisp-sounding songs, Gallant should fit right in at this weekend’s Afropunk festival, which he’s playing for the first time. “I’ve actually never been, even as an attendee,” Gallant tells the Voice over the phone. Even so, he’s interested in the festival as a space for an increasingly manifold black identity. “What Afropunk represents is really cool,” he says. “I think it has grown into something that encompasses all of black culture, and it shows that people in this community are more than just one thing.”

Gallant is eager for his songs to find new ears. He talks about how he fell in love with “a bunch of different genres” of music early in his life, which has had a firm imprint not only on his sound, but on who he imagines will listen to his music. “I never really think [in terms of] audience,” he says. “I’m really just trying to reach as many people as possible. I just got back from playing a jazz festival. I enjoy the fact that people might not be able to generalize what a Gallant audience looks like.”

You can hear this in Ology. “Miyazaki” has a jazzy bounce that borrows, lyrically, from Groove Theory’s 1995 hit “Tell Me,” while “Skipping Stones,” featuring vocalist Jhené Aiko, is a classic Sixties-style r&b duet that could have been performed by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. The album is delightfully difficult to pin down, a close listen revealing not just r&b influence, but also disco (“Episode”) and even punk — an overall mix evident on the song “Percogesic,” with its rapid-heartbeat percussion and soaring vocals.

Gallant’s mixing-and-matching is, of course, in good company, with peers such as Laura Mvula and James Blake pushing into similar terrain. But Gallant is particularly good at not sounding like a genre tourist. Ology‘s songs are textured and layered, but also cleanly shaped. Individual elements are given time to breathe: Those drums on “Percogesic” get to stretch their legs; the keys on “Chandra” fill and haunt the track’s otherwise quiet moments. This is where the album shines brightest: when Gallant steps back and lets these musical strands ripen on their own, contextualized but showcased with care. He pulls from a reservoir as wide and varied as the diaspora of black identity itself, which should stand him in good stead at Afropunk, with its young, musically savvy — and curious — audience. “The festival has the same internal bones as Gallant does as an artist,” says David Dann, founder of Gallant’s label, Mind of a Genius. “It isn’t focused on resonating with just a single fan.”

Gallant is happy to talk about himself this way, as an outsider, comfortable away from the spotlight. “For real, I’m a boring person,” he tells me several times in our conversation. When pressed a bit more on his interests, though, he says, “but I can beat anyone in Settlers of Catan. Anyone, for real.” He perks up when I ask him what video games he’s playing (Overwatch for PlayStation 4) and which he’s anticipating (Pokémon Sun and Moon, and the return of Crash Bandicoot). There’s something endearing about this: He’s still a young guy, still growing as an artist; music is music, video games are video games, much more is possible.

When he gets to talking about what’s next, rattling off his tour and musical plans (he says he’s excited to get off the road and put what he’s learned while traveling into new songs), he pauses mid-thought. “You know, I’m getting used to having a lot more artist friends,” he says. “That’s something I never thought I’d have before. Artists who I’m close with and really like working with.”

The freshness of his rise comes across most clearly when I ask Gallant who else he looks forward to seeing at Afropunk. Almost as if considering the question for the first time, he says, “Oh…well, I’m excited, and I’m sure there will be a lot of people I’ll try to catch when I’m actually there. But I was really just going to find a quiet room and play some video games for a while. I’m telling you — I’m really boring.”

He says this last bit convincingly, but what lives in his sound is anything but boring. Ology is an album of questions, many of them rhetorical. One of its tracks ends with Gallant asking repeatedly, “Why don’t we open up?” As the song fades, it feels like an invitation to the listener: It’s Gallant leaving the door open to his world, his honesty. No matter what happens when the music stops, there’s nothing boring about that.

Gallant plays the Afropunk Festival in Brooklyn on August 28.