Pete Tosiello is getting his PhD in Soulquarian Studies.
I tend to feel disoriented listening to R&B lately, but maybe it’s just me, or maybe everything is disorienting because it’s 2017. The pendulum has swung, as pendulums tend to do, so far in favor of atmospheric lo-fi, that what I’d term a conventionally structured R&B record—one with big beats, big hooks, and actual melodic structure—seems a bold, brash statement.
In the aggregate, these are objectively positive trends. R&B stands to benefit immensely from the infusion of live instrumentation and charismatic performers at the expense of interchangeable harmonizers and synthy studio sheen, not to mention the fact that for most of my life soul music as a genre pretended to have no history prior to Jodeci. I think what I’d really like to see is the newfound focus on musicality and performance without sacrificing the pathos and songwriting I’ve been conditioned to expect. I mostly listen to R&B when I really want to feel stuff, so competent, boring R&B leaves me feeling really hollow.
Anyway, I really like Elijah Blake, who like Bilal (more on that later) is a very polished vocalist with strong songwriting chops who was brought to most of our attention on a Common song, of all things. Last seen on last year’s quietly brilliant Blueberry Vapors, he’s decisively an albums guy rather than a singles guy, and his latest effort Audiology might be my favorite soul record of 2017.
Audiology has sturdy hooks and bridges, so it’s probably vulnerable to being labeled a “traditional” R&B album, which is a pejorative, especially when attached to a young singer. But it needn’t be, and all of that’s contingent upon your determination to look at things that way in the first place. Its warmth imbues each track with generous life, and even on the most upbeat songs the production sports a lithe sparseness which gives both songs and singer space to breathe.
“California Livin’” is the first highlight, a wistful ballad with an acoustic expanse such that you could imagine it on an early John Mayer album. It’s also one of Blake’s more accomplished performances given his vocal restraint; it’s such a plaintive, melodic arrangement that I picture virtually anyone else oversinging it, but Blake settles for “elegant flourish.” “Stingy” is the most energetic number, a clean wash of muted horns and live drums deep in Stevie Wonder territory.
“Technicolor” may be Blake’s finest single to date, a graceful electronic production with a show-stopping hook. If anything, its tempo and luster transcend the album, but again I’m most impressed with Blake’s modulation, the way he ensures that it’s the song itself which shines rather than the singer or the arrangement. His is an airy, gliding voice which can hit pretty much any note.
Blake is so proficient and professional that he actually has the capacity to sort of blend in at times, which is another aspect he shares with Bilal. The second half of Audiology is slower than the first, with a bit of a West Coast beach vibe that’s still a bit untapped, perhaps because there simply wasn’t room to explore it with all these good songs. But I don’t find any of the record boring so much as just really earnest. The melodies are complex and subtle, closer to Maxwell or second-wave Soulquarians than anything on the post-new jack spectrum.
“Black and Blue” is the second half’s crowd pleaser, juxtaposing the “Sexual Healing” chords over 808 drums (this, I’ve noticed, is completely de rigueur if you wish for yours to be considered a Good Male R&B Album), but the closer “Momma Knows” may be the true standout. It is, tellingly, Blake’s most impassioned performance, and the choir’s background vocals add to-that-point uncharted depth.
Blake’s downfall might be, paradoxically, that he’s too good at too many things; I could see him carving out a career like Ne-Yo’s, as one of those songwriter prodigies whose greatest success is in conceiving music for lesser talents. But Audiology is great not only for its songs, but for the way they’re executed in an organic-feeling manner that never devolves into arbitrariness. All the pieces fit, and in so doing, Blake’s come into his own.