VanJess - Homegrown
VanJess’s love of 90’s R&B is clear from the first notes of their new project, Homegrown. “Come Over,” the project’s opener, is their take on a sound that was popularized by the female groups that came before them, like En Vogue. Later, on the closing track, “Come Over Again,” they take their own song and bring it a little closer to the modern era, but not without tipping their hats to another of their foremothers with a Faith Evans sample. This is just one example of how Nigerian-American sisters Ivana and Jessica Nwokike - who got their start making viral YouTube videos - find intricate ways to pay homage to the music that raised them on this EP. Another example is the sensual “Slow Down,” which creatively uses a sample of the Wreckx-N-Effect classic, “Rump Shaker.” As singers, VanJess are cool and confident, approaching topics of love and sex from a position of strength. That said, their songs are most compelling when they invite guests like Jimi Tints (“Curious”) and Devin Morrison (“Boo Thang”) to flesh out their world.
Lucky Daye - Table For Two
From “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” to “My Boo,” R&B has a rich history of duets. After releasing his debut album, Painted, in 2019 (and almost 16 years after being straight up disrespected on American Idol), singer-songwriter Lucky Daye is celebrating that history on his new EP, Table for Two. It’s a bold move for an artist we’ve only recently been getting to know to allocate half of his project’s runtime to other singers, but it pays off in a major way. By inviting such a diverse cast of women into his world, Table for Two hosts many different styles, from the Afrobeats-tinged (“Access Denied” feat. Ari Lennox) to the neo-soul (“My Window” feat. Mahalia), to the more contemporary (“On Read” feat. Tiana Major9). Daye is a confident storyteller with a buttery voice, but this project's true success is how he makes room not just for his guests’ voices but also their perspectives on love and heartbreak.
Celeste - Not Your Muse
The first thing you notice about Celeste on her debut album is her voice: smoke-like and reminiscent of Billie Holiday. Not Your Muse is an album that is at its best when all the other components serve to make room for that voice, like on the standout track, “Strange.” The 26-year-old singer has been making waves in the UK for some time, topping BBC’s annual Sound of… poll and winning the Rising Star Award at the Brit Awards. This debut album marks Celeste's official arrival as a noteworthy R&B artist of 2021. With its lush instrumentation, haunting performances, and a flair for the dramatic, Not Your Muse is sure to conjure comparisons to the late Amy Whinehouse; songs like “Love is Back” show a similar affinity for nostalgic and orchestral soul music. However, Celeste makes sure to inoculate the music with her own perspective as a black woman living through some of the strangest times in recent history.
Puma Blue - In Praise of Shadows
To call Puma Blue’s debut studio project, an "R&B album" feels reductive; in addition to R&B, the sounds on In Praise of Shadows can be traced back to everything from trip-hop, bedroom pop, and smooth jazz. As suggested by the title, the album explores some of life’s darker moments and strives to find beauty in them. These moments are as universal as heartbreak (“Snowflower”) and as personal as the near-death of a sister (“Velvet Leaves”). The production is sparse and dry, allowing Puma Blue (real name: Jacob Allen) the space to express his thoughts in a near-whisper. When he repeats “I must be losing my mind” in the standout track, “Opiate,” it’s as if he’s using the music as an excuse to talk to himself. On “Super Soft,” the album’s closing track, each instrument feels as though it’s pushed up against your ear, making the entire production feel as intimate as the lyrics, which were written to help a friend through struggling times. In this way, Puma Blue confronts his dark emotions not by scaring them away but by trying to befriend them, searching for what they might have to teach him.