Review: Cloaked Artists Are Annoying, But ‘H.E.R. Volume 1′ Proved That Sometimes Not Knowing Is Best
H.E.R.’s mystery release made one skeptic a believer.
For the first time since the July release of NAO’s For All We Know, there’s a new captivating voice that’s been frequenting my streaming platforms consistently for the past week. I don’t know who she is—or H.E.R. is, rather—and at this point, I don’t care to. And I’m both surprised at and impressed with myself about it.
See, I have a known disdain for artists that obsess over hiding. Living their lives behind cloaks while their voices hover in the foreground. Ever-present masks both literal and figurative, but mostly literal. The need for heavy smoke during performances and flashing lights that f**k up camera settings when you try to snap a visual keepsake. Dad caps pulled down low and no paps allowed at shows. Shadowy profile pictures and a knack for silhouettes. Making the hunt for their identity an intentionally nagging chore. Faux mystique, I like to call it. Or annoying as hell, as I also like to call it.
We’re all well aware of the intent: to take away the whole visual curiosity thing so listeners can just “focus on the music” and clichéd verbiage like that. Understood. Got it. That’s all good and noble, but if the product is good, it’s good, and no imagery can detract from that through a set of headphones.
So when I saw H.E.R.—a new artist in the reemerging mystery R&B sector who goes by the acronym for Having Everything Revealed (ha!)—pop up on the Internet with her self-titled EP H.E.R. Vol. 1, the eye-roll came quickly. And in hindsight, unfairly so.
Based on the production alone, which she told the L.A. Times she was responsible for the majority of, the RCA Records signee knows exactly what she’s aiming for with her sound and how to rope in nostalgic ears longing for #TBT vibes. H.E.R. Vol. 1 feels like a marriage of the moods between Drake at his Drakiest on Take Care, Teyana Taylor’s slept on VII and Kehlani’s more sinister Cloud 9 numbers. And on the 15th anniversary of her passing, the seductive yet haunting nature of Aaliyah’s legacy laced through the DNA of the project goes without saying. Based on her throwback samples (Floetry’s “Say Yes” lends to “Wait For It”) and brooding production, the nameless singer—internet Sherlocks are convinced she’s former child star and prior RCA signee Gabi Wilson—embraces the essence and earnestness of old school R&B. It’s a welcome halt of pace from our fast lives, where we try to skate over the emotions that she willingly, anonymously, dives into headfirst.
“Uber on the way, my phone is charging, he keeps calling/I wanna pick it up but I keep stalling, I feel some type of way,” she sings on “Wait For It,” with a deep alto that hits harder than the fancy riffs and falsettos of her contemporaries. Her delivery is soft but still strong, and with notes that rarely climb, she’s hard to stir. Her sonic diaries represent the emptying of thoughts clearly and directly, without being overly stylized. On “Jungle,” she trades shoes with the man whose past emoting she resuscitated in feminine form. While she doesn’t deviate lyrically from the original, the energy feels renewed because for much of Drake’s catalogue, we’re missing the woman’s eye. Then on tracks like “Facts” and “Pigment,” there’s a sultriness and sense of need without the desperation. It is what it is: honest emotional unloading delivered through hazy, melodic instrumentals and, at times, clenched teeth. It’s a coming-of-age album, she’d told the Times, and the project traces the fleeting feelings and downward-diving bullet points of a toxic relationship, detailing exactly what she hoped wouldn’t wind up painting her as “that girl.”
Her knack for specifics and tailored delivery puts you right there beside her as the stories unfold. Hands down the EP’s most affecting song is its most simple and direct. With “Focus,” you feel and embody every part of her plea, which is an intrinsic desire to be seen on the most simplistic of levels. Just. Look. At. Me. “Me… Can you focus on me/Baby, can you focus on me,” she coos, yearning for a glance that never comes. Delicate repetition buoys over the oscillating flutter of romantic keys like an idle sailboat at sea, 808s booming beneath the surface. Her voice is silky here, causing me to wonder whom I’m singing this to. It feels that personal, like it’s me who’s begging. I want so badly for him to give H.E.R. those few moments of silent attention.
There’s something special about music that makes you feel things that, in all actuality, are absent. I don’t know love, and definitely not heartbreak. Those feelings remain unfamiliar to me; let alone having experienced anything beyond a little lust and disappointment. H.E.R. has, and it seeps through every pore of the project’s seven tracks in deep, dark shades of blue. Denims for whenever she had to look in the mirror and ask, “What are we doing?” Cobalts for the moments she missed him. Navys for the times he didn’t see her. Indigos for the bittersweet memories and expired good times.
By project’s end, I forgot that I didn’t know H.E.R. because I swore I was her. The project was the placebo effect for all things loved then lost. Her anonymity takes away the what’s, where’s and who’s. What she looks like. Where she’s from. Who she could be singing about and the context for her woes. She simply presents them as is, leaving your mind and your experiences to do the handiwork. I appreciate that disconnect, that opportunity to be left alone in borrowed emotions. That chance to just not know.