In the last year, emerging artists like BJ The Chicago Kid, Kehlani and Ro James have been reviving R&B music, a genre that has long suffered from low commercial support. Now Kevin Ross, a fresh voice out of Washington, D.C., is looking to make his own mark on the art form. His debut album The Awakening, via Motown Records, is a stunning yet understated entrant that doubles down on some of the best elements of R&B and gives them a fresh coat of paint.
As a whole, The Awakening feels like the work of a music lover who let loose to make the music of his own dreams. The foundation of each song is rooted in tried and true R&B, all infectious hooks and simple bass lines. Ross stays squarely in his lane, filling the album with mid-tempo songs that never wander too far from a guitar, piano and drums framework. It’s an impressive feat for an artist’s first full-length offering.
Whereas most first-timers are struggling to find their voice or molding themselves to match other popular artists, Ross displays the high level of musicianship and maturity of a seasoned artist. He pulls from a wide range of influences, from jazz to classic soul to gospel, for the album. While his tone is reminiscent of Mario or Trey Songz, he comes off as an old soul in his lyrics, with depth beyond clichéed love, sex or loss themes. But most importantly, he sings his face off on nearly every track.
His love songs are demure compared to what is common in popular music; there’s no explicit language or boasting about his sexual prowess. Instead, Ross strikes a longing chord, seemingly desperate for the person he cares for. His first single, “Long Song Away,” actually urges his lover to slow down and not rush their relationship. It’s a highly romantic sentiment in 2017, and that same feeling comes through in the song’s production, a wistful electric guitar and a simple bassline that lives in the pocket.
In his search for love, Ross also explores his own shortcomings. On the laid-back “Easier,” his effortless falsetto is technically impressive, as he soars over a lazy acoustic guitar: “And I don’t never want to make you cry / Cuz’ that’s gonna make it hard for you to sleep at night/ I want to make it easier / Easy for you to love me / Easy for you to show me / How I want to be treated / Imma make it easier / Easy for you girl.” Album closer, “New Man,” feels pulled directly out of the age of Motown with its bluesy bass guitar and “crying man” sentiment. “I’m a new man / You said you want a new man / You may not know me / Cuz I’m not the old me / Here I am / I’m your new man,” he croons.
“Don’t Go,” the next single up to bat, feels the most radio ready out of this set with slick production that nods to early Usher and an infectious refrain of a chorus. It’s deceptively simple tracks like this where Ross is best able to showcase his vocal command. The same goes for “Her Hymn,” a gospel-inspired ballad drifting over an elongated grand piano and subdued strings. Ross is a vocal wonder here, with an exacting delivery that verges on operatic.
But what really sets Kevin Ross apart from his contemporaries is his dedication to making inspirational music. From the album-opening “Be Great (Intro)” to the song’s remix featuring BJ The Chicago Kid, Ross is putting out music with a message. The drum-heavy “Look Up” features noted Christian rapper Lecrae and speaks directly to the plight that black people face in the U.S. Instead of wallowing in the hurt and loss, Ross offers hope. The encouraging “Pick You Up” comes next, where Ross sings over a nearly acapella track, showing off the kind of melodic overlaps we’d hear from Brandy. “So don’t forget when life brings you down / It won’t last forever,” he sings. “It’s just for now / Everything will turn back around / So you don’t have to stay on the ground / I’ll pick you up.”
The only real misstep on the LP is the futuristic “In The Name of Your Love,” a song out of place amongst a tracklist leaning so heavily on R&B fundamentals. For a song that pulls in so many of the building blocks of current dance music, it falls just shy of having enough power to feel club ready.
Yet, overall, The Awakening is built on a time-tested formula that has been the bedrock of soul music for generations, one that today’s musical landscape is sorely missing.
Instead of banking on trendy production or gimmicks, the real star of the album is Ross’s voice. He uses his gift with measured precision, confident enough in his ability to find strength in restraint instead of vocal acrobatics. In the 15 tracks that pack the LP’s tight 50 minutes, Ross honors the foremothers and fathers of R&B not by emulating them, but by carrying on their legacy. It’s a charge Ross clearly takes to heart, and The Awakening is a prime example of the greatness that can be made as a result.