By Eóin Donnelly
By far my favourite music label, what makes Top Dawg Entertainment so special is the ability of each of its artists- with the exception of the mediocre Lance Skiiwalker, let’s pretend he doesn’t exist- to tap into different moods and experiences. This can be directly contrasted with Drake’s OVO Sound label, where each release intensifies the suspicion that each of its artists are singing off the same vintage 90’s RnB songsheet. On TDE, I have Kendrick Lamar for when I’m feeling like wrestling with the deep duality of the universe, Jay Rock for the gym, Schoolboy Q for when I’m feeling angry, Isaiah Rashad for some chilled out introspection and SZA for straight-up RnB songwriting masterclasses. Of course, the artistic inventories of TDE’s flagship musicians are too myriad to be restricted to one kind of vibe, but broadly speaking it is this diversity of specialisms that makes for such healthy peer competition and innovative results in TDE. November is the debut album for TDE’s latest signee and foray into RnB SiR, and I was halfway through enjoying it for the first time when my inner monologue asked the question: “What makes him special compared to the rest? Why would I choose to listen to SiR over the other TDE artists I love so much?” As ‘Something New’ faded out I was conjuring imagery in my mind of a sophisticated, smokey lowlit bar, playing cards, the craic flowing and cups filled with the ice. “This album is perfect for drinking whiskey”, I thought to myself. I must be a clairvoyant, because with expert timing just 14 seconds into the following song (‘I Know’) SiR’s auto-tune drenched croon uttered the luxurious lines that turned me from curious listener to enraptured fan: “Jameson, ginger ale, straight to the face, wanna taste.” Wow. My favourite drink. I’ll be drinking Jameson and ginger ale until I’m visiting San Junipero. This album really is perfect for drinking whiskey.
Though an outlier in the album’s overall sound, ‘I Know’ is one of the highlights of November. If T-Pain spent a whole summer trapped in a recording studio with nothing but a wardrobe full of waistcoats and 70’s soul records to listen to, ‘Never Home’ would be the result. Its use of auto-tune effects is tasteful and gracefully delivered rather than the gratuitous kind that dominates mainstream RnB. Not since Frank Ocean’s Blonde have I heard an RnB album do so much with so little, and not since Anderson .Paak’s Malibu have I heard the rich, soulful textures of old merged so majestically with the eclectic, malleable edge of modern RnB.
It’s early days, but November has alleviated my January blues enough for me to declare it as 2018’s RnB album to beat. Conceptually consistent yet sonically versatile, SiR’s seminal effort is a much-needed caffeine injection into RnB’s increasingly Xanax-reliant paradigm. On ‘Something Foreign’, SiR surfs on a piano like waves are his natural habitat, while on standout track ‘D’Evils’ he is effortlessly sultry, oozing sex appeal without a single lewd innuendo. We all know less is more. Sometimes things are better left unsaid. The best attraction is when you don’t have to acknowledge it, the kind you can communicate with just a look, the kind of electricity that lasts even when the trip goes. As far as representations of love go, Common’s Go is the purest I’ve encountered. It is a video I want to live in, but there are multiple tracks on November that come pretty damn close.
I don’t know what SiR stands for, if anything, but for now I’ll assume it’s Seriously intoxicating Rhythms. If Schoolboy Q is the amiable yet aggrieved sidekick Vegeta to Kendrick’s all-benevolent, all-powerful Goku, SiR is Gohan, the secret weapon we’ll only notice when his time comes to take centre-stage. More satin sheets than Satan beats and as cutting-edge as it is evocative of nostalgia, it takes dulcet tones as smooth as Frank Abagnale Jr in the face of trouble to transform these serene soundscapes into something ear-grabbing. The repeat button has had more clicks than a school cafeteria since November came out on Friday, so I can only say mission accomplished SiR.
Following a loose concept aboard a spaceship- the album is narrated by a female robot named K- it is indicative of SiR’s unique appeal that his largely throwback sound is utilised in tandem with a futuristic setting. With one eye firmly trained on the past- think Marvin Gaye, D’Angelo & Stevie Wonder- November’s array of gorgeous sounds holds true to a vision that values organic instrumentation above all else. November’s cinematic sci-fi aspect may be much too nebulous to be a TDE film, but like the best movies there is an entire world in this album to become lost in. Just look at that album cover. Am I peering at outer space through a telescope or the microscopic reflection of withering autumn leaves? With an interstellar gaze through autumnal haze, SiR is both looking back at a love lost and forward to the love he is searching for. A student of the game, there’s an entire universe in SiR’s perceptive pupils.
Usually I prefer my RnB a little more immediate, a little less adventurous and esoteric. SiR bridges the gap, captivating with the unpredictable wandering of his sumptuous voice but keeping you locked in for the ride with the alluringly lush sound. Along with Daniel Caesar, .Paak, Childish Gambino, Solange, Sabrina Claudio and more, SiR is further evidence a quiet resurgence of a brand of RnB rarely found outside of your parents’ dusty record shelves. SiR’s revivalism of classic RnB stylings is arguably more expansive than the lot, with additions to the traditional RnB rubric that feel like glorious flourishes rather than superfluous embellishments.
Deciphering RnB’s predominant philosophy is best achieved by borrowing a lyric from its most popular act. As that is right now The Weeknd, consider SiR’s ode to love a rebuttal against Abel Tesfaye’s immortal line on ‘Tell Your Friends’: “They told me not to fall in love, that shit is pointless.” Almost ten years ago, Kanye West’s 808’s & Heartbreak, ironically released in November, changed the course of music with a left-field excursion into unconquered territory that I’d sooner compare in impact to Christopher Columbus than Chris Brown. The 808’s tree of influence- check out my 808’s inspired playlist- was most perceptible in RnB and has borne endless fruit to Drake, Kid Cudi, The Weeknd, Frank Ocean, Future and Childish Gambino among others. However, the health of any genre is measured first and foremost by the wealth of its ideas. SiR’s November represents another rebellion in RnB’s quiet revolution against the prevailing sound and ethos of 808’s & Heartbreak. The sludgy bass and rumbling percussive rhythms are minor concessions of darkness on an RnB album that finally places light over darkness, love over lust and song sequencing over singles chart frequenting. No doubt inspired by Tyler, The Creator’s Flower Boy cut, ‘Summer In November’ is the perfect closure to a neo-soul sensory overload in slow-motion. Never has November sounded so warm, never has November felt so beautiful. Neither has January. Go shine your light in the winter.
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