Contemporary male R&B is mostly populated by four archetypes: the retro-chic crooner, the womanizing chart-chaser, the experimental seeker, and the minimalist savant. Leon Bridges embodies the first; The Weeknd the second. The third can be seen in avantpop shape-shifters like How to Dress Well and Autre Ne Veut, and the fourth is perhaps best encapsulated by the quiet storm moodiness that pervades Rhye’s Woman. Jamie Lidell, however, has made a career out of spurning these archetypes altogether. Even on his most conventional neo-soul tracks (“Another Day”, “Wait For Me”, “Multiply”), he sounds restless, discontent —like a pop-R&B apostate who’s constantly considering a renewal of his faith. This remains true on Building a Beginning, the follow-up to his 2013 eponymous LP and his most straitlaced record to date. While more deeply entrenched in the soul tradition, though, it’s still a prototypical Jamie Lidell album, one that is laced with sonic idiosyncrasies and structural curveballs.
Just take a look at the track titles and it’s clear what Lidell has on his mind. “Me and You”, “In Love and Alone”, “I Live to Make You Smile”, “Don’t Let Me Let You Go”—all emit a hyperbolic romanticism that harkens back to early Motown, when a lover could either bring about the eschaton (David Ruffin’s “My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me”) or ensure utopia (Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell’s “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You”). Yet this romanticism runs much deeper than the track titles; it’s there in Lidell’s voice —a reedy soul shout that, at its best, yelps rather than bellows—as well as his songcraft.
In “How Did I Live Before Your Love”, for instance, he sings like he’s afflicted by every romantic cliché in the book. He’s not just in love, he’s lovestruck, head over heels, at a loss for words. After a guitar introduction that rings out like a sitar, samisen, and Stratocaster rolled into one, he stares back into his loveless past and discovers how empty it was. “Now that I found you / Won’t you answer this one thing?”, he asks, a crescendo of funk guitar squelches behind him, before launching into his real question: “How did I live with only half a heart?” It’s a track, like most of Building a Beginning, that’s dripping with sentimentalism, but that’s also too high on new-love euphoria to discount.
Throughout, Lidell is often at his best when he composes from his hooks outward. “Motionless”, a gospel-tinged neo-soul strut, is carried by a soaring chorus that seems to blast through the track’s roof to let in a torrent of sunlight. “I’ll be / Motionless / So I can feel you better,” he wails, and what a grand statement of affection that is. I don’t want to move, to speak, to breathe, he suggests, so that I can perceive anything you do with greater intensity. “Nothing’s Gonna Change”, similarly, is defined by the impact of its chorus, and Lidell wastes no time getting to it. From the gun, he belts out the title phrase like he believes the louder he is, the more forceful and vehement, the more likely it is that things will remain how they are.
Of the 14 tracks here, “Julian” may be the most emblematic of where Lidell’s career stands. It’s a hodgepodge of genre elements: funk bass, electro-pop chirps, R&B drum breakdowns, swooning synthesizers, and, of course, soul vocals that are by turns gruff, whiny, impassioned, and plaintive. It wouldn’t fit seamlessly on Multiply(2005), Jim (2008), Compass (2010), or Jamie Lidell (2013), yet it still sounds unmistakably like the artist who made those records. Like most of Lidell’s discography, it seems simultaneously old and new, retro-minded and attuned to contemporary trends. He may not live up to the LP’s title and build a new beginning for himself, but, for those who never asked him to change in the first place, that’s no great failure.
// Sound Affects
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