It’s important to be a lifelong learner. At the age of twenty I would have unequivocally hated all of these albums. Now mainstream rock seems stagnant, and lots of the interesting action is in genres that I would have dismissed. Alternative R&B is one of the most interesting genres of the last decade, opening up new sonic areas to explore, while hip hop is thriving.
When I Get Home
The younger sister of Beyoncé, Solange Knowles hit her stride with 2016’s excellent A Seat At The Table. That record utilised a conventional neo-soul palette, with hits like ‘A Crane in the Sky’. When I Get Home is a much unusual record, experimental R&B built around repetitive song structures and short running times. Solange has cited the repetition of Stevie Wonder’s The Secret Life of Plants and Steve Reich as influences, and they make sense as touchstones for this record.
When I Get Home was written is about Solange’s hometown of Houston, Texas. As well as Wonder and Reich, the record is also musically shaped by the chopped and screwed hip-hop of Houston. The most memorable lines are in ‘Almeda’, a song named for a district in Houston; “Brown skin, brown face. Brown leather, brown sugar. Brown leaves, brown keys. Brown creepers, brown face. Black skin, black braids.”
Repetitive grooves coloured with retro keyboards fuel tracks like ‘Stay Flo’ and ‘Way to the Show’. The approach of mixing programmed beats with live bass and keyboards gives the music personality, and song snippets like ‘Things I Imagined’ and ‘I’m A Witness’ are tuneful.
It doesn’t quite match the excellence of A Seat At The Table, but When I Get Home is a worthy follow-up that takes Solange’s muse in a more esoteric direction.
Little Simz is a London-based rapper, singer, and actor with Nigerian heritage. Grey Area is her third record, but her first since 2016 and a critical breakthrough. The larger budget allowed her to use live musicians, and her socially conscious hip hop is surprisingly eclectic – there’s a jazz inflection to some tracks, and a neo-soul feel to others.
Unlike Simz’ idol Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Grey Area is too edgy for crossover mainstream success. Her vocal delivery is loaded with bite in the feminist anthem ‘Venom’ -“Never givin’ credit where it’s due ’cause you don’t like pussy in power/Venom.” The opening pair of tracks are also filled with bile – on ‘Boss’, Simz declares that she’s “a boss in a fucking dress”.
Grey Area visits neo-soul territory in the closing two tracks, and they add some nice diversity. ‘Sherbet Sunset’ is my favourite track; the keys and chorus give it a neo-soul feel, as do Michael Kiwanuka’s guests vocals on the closer ‘Flowers’.
A charismatic vocalist backed by great production – Grey Area is a terrific record.
Erika de Casier
Copenhagen producer and vocalist Erika de Casier released her debut album Essentials in 2019. Of all the releases covered on this post, past me would have loathed Essentials the most. It’s a collection of mellow tracks that often sound like throwbacks to around the turn of the 21st century, recalling acts like Aaliyah and Janet Jackson. Chill R&B is a good description – de Casier’s gentle voice rides nicely over the smooth music. There’s also some trip-hop in the mix, while the single ‘Do My Thing’ features a 1990s G-funk flavour.
Particularly, past me would have hated the airy lyrics. Clearly, a Marxist diatribe wouldn’t have suited the mellow arrangements, and de Casier has her moments of lyrical insight – one common motif is putting the phone down, surely good advice for this era.
The best parts of Essentials are the lovely arrangements – moments like the busy bass-line under the smooth ‘Puppy Love’ and the tinkling synths of ‘Intimate’. ‘Do My Thing’ is more energetic and immediate than most of Essentials, although the smooth groove of ‘Rainy’ makes for my favourite track.
Essentials is well outside my comfort zone, but the mellow grooves and unassuming vocals are often gorgeous.
I’ve always struggled with dance music – usually I prefer the human aspect of vocals and lyrics, although I enjoy the beauty of classical music and the musical personality of jazz players. Octo Octa has a more human side than most dance music, giving me a way in. Maya Bouldry-Morrison is a transgender DJ whose music expresses joy.
I don’t have enough knowledge of dance music to describe Resonant Body, so I’m going to quote some writers who do:
“Octo Octa has a way of mixing cream-crop 90’s ambient coolness to a most wild neu-queer club metric without being frantic, building layers of release with precision.”Sunni Johnson
It’s loaded with retro-rave pumpers such as Spin Girl, Let’s Activate!, where acid flavours shift into a climbing piano house jam that tempts a third summer of love….. But it’s in the nature-driven tranquility of sole ambient cut My Body Is Powerful and the affirming vocal samples on spiralling single Can You See Me? where Octo Octa manifests the record’s intent, championing and validating her community.Tayyab Amin
I’m never going to be a huge fan of dance music, but there’s enough happening on Resonant Body to hold my attention.