I grew up with a strict definition of soul music. Every Saturday morning, my dad would turn on the radio to WBGO: “Rhythm Revue with Felix Hernandez,”and doo wop, trembling lovelorn crooners, and slick, jittery guitar parts from the late ‘50s through the late ‘70s would fill the speakers. It was the perfect soundtrack to weekend mornings: full of sunshine and nostalgia, at once energizing and comfortably familiar.
Felix still gets into the time machine every week, but soul music is nowhere near static. It cozied up to hip-hop in the 90s before veering cleanly traditionalist in the 00s; the term now really is a vague and inadequate signifier for much of the music made by black artists, whether it be FKA twigs’ electro-horror experiment, D’Angelo’s underwater protest funk or the Weeknd’s pop bombast. In a year full of confused and mixed identity, the need to delineate a genre like ‘soul’ seems like an outdated impulse.
The thing is, though, that classic soul period, of Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight, still informs and even lords over much of music today. Almost every up-and-coming singer’s style can either be read as an embrace or a rebuke of their legendary predecessors. And this week, two young impressive singers make their debut albums, each carrying a unique formulation of what it means to be a soul artist in this age of diffusion. Judith Hill, a Prince protege, turns back to that bygone era with confidence and brassiness. Seinabo Sey, a Swedish outlier, undergoes an album-long identity crisis, in the process questioning the walls of the genre itself.
Judith Hill crashed on the national stage last year as a lightning bolt of R&B purity. She appeared on “The Voice” armed with Xtina’s bratty, uptempo “What a Girl Wants”, and turned it instead into a tender soul showstopper. In addition to showing off her impeccable chops control, it was a shrewd double-layered maneuver: of course I pay attention to more modern music, I’m not some dumb reactionary. But I can make new R&B even better than it is now, by reflecting it through the past.
This refraction—re-routing the modern woman through a nostalgic framework, like an Instagram filter—defines Hill’s enthusiastic and heartfelt debut album, “Back in Time,” which was co-produced by Prince. [Prince himself leaked the album back in March, but it gets it official debut on Oct. 23.] It opens with the crinkling of static and Hill throatily referencing the ultimate forward-to-the-past soul man, Cee-Lo Green; a crisp snare drum stutters in with a clattering fill, a Larry-Graham-esque bass slides up and down like the loading of a shotgun, and the band launches into simmering funk groove worthy of any Prince album.
The next song is even more steadfast in its vision. Its title is maybe THE buzz phrase of 2015: #TURNUP; and it references the jam of our generation, R. Kelly’s Ignition Remix: “from the after party to the….” But while Hill alludes to the present, she’s really sitting in a stew of 70s wah-wah guitars and organs. It’s Sly, it’s Tina, it’s the Isley Brothers. It doesn’t aim for anything except making you dance, and it succeeds wildly.
In fact, most of the album is outward looking and functional. it implores you to dance, or unite, or weep, or remember. Its vision is of soul as a communal experience, a reunifying force in a fractured era, between different races, but mostly between different generations. Forty years ago, Marvin Gaye used R&B to call for uplift both under the sheets and on the streets. “Back in Time” carries the same impulses and is unwittingly confident in its belief that the new generation, and Hill, in particular, is strong and capable enough to carry on the successes of the one before it.
Seinabo Sey offers no such reassurances. Nearly every song title on her album “Pretend” are one-word salvos: “Words,” “Sorry,” “Ruin,” Burial:” they are vague, alluring, tortured. Hill wants to bring people together, but Sey can hardly find herself, or articulate who she’s aiming for.
“Someone just told me to leave all my sorrow / If that is true, I don’t know who to be,” she muses on the second song, “Pretend,” one of the very best songs of the year.
“Pretend” deals with identity crisis lyrically, but also musically. It is steeped in R&B traditions, with its soaring, slightly hoarse vocals and bluesy melody. But it revels in production values that Hill wouldn’t go near: the deepness of the drums and the pounding bass synthesizer veer toward house, and the ghostly, distorted vocal figure just might be snatched up by Skrillex and Diplo tomorrow. For me, the most intriguing part of the song isn’t even any of those bits of defiant modernity – it’s the rhythmic pattern of blips that sit low in the mix, teetering back and forth, not quite exactly on the beat. Are they organically wooden or punched out on Abelton? Are they funky or emotionless? They push the beat forward, both insistently and tentatively, through genres, familiar to nothing but Sey herself.
The musical content veers from Adele reassurance pop to Nina Simone work songs to gospel builds. Each song seems to be a rejection of the last. “I’m lost with no cause,” she says on “Words,” over driving strings and skittish hand drums. “You are not the only / I’ve heard you’re feeling sorry for yourself now” is her own response on the lilting, piano-led “Sorry.”
She’s dominated by conflict, by an inability to commit to anything except maybe ponderous piano. Hill finds an “Angel” for solace; Sey finds demons everywhere she turns. But it’s the nether space where she works wonders – especially on the album’s capstone, “Who.” “Who do you think you are? Who do you wanna be?” is the chant, aimed at her, trying to bring her down. She continues in this voice, which could easily be of an R&B traditionalist scolding a protoge: “This is the space you’ve been given / anything else is forbidden / product of your past / new things never last.”
But the music behind her disagrees. It’s full of bleeps and bloops, synths that jetter and swirl; they mesh perfectly with the more familiar claps and stomps. While expressing vulnerability and disappointment, she’s found her space in between the lines.
So while Hill calls to action, Sey journals; Hill reverts, and Sey melds. I can’t wait to see where they take the genre next.