Nite Jewel’s Ramona Gonzalez has long trafficked in her own very particular brand of minimalist, synth-based lo-fi R&B. It’s exactly the kind of sound you would expect from someone plunking away in the bedroom for hours on end after having been raised on a steady diet of ‘80s and ‘90s R&B of the slightly more melancholic variety. With Real High, she largely retains her well-established formula, having tweaked only the fidelity to ensure plenty of room for each and every element to be heard in its fullest and greater ease of access and immediacy.
That she continues to mine territory long since abandoned by those who, at the early part of the decade, were equally enamored of gauzy, after hours electro-R&B is a testament to her steadfast resolve. For Gonzalez, this type of music was never simply one of the myriad fads that crop up every few weeks or so thanks to the patronage of a seemingly endless stream of increasingly esoteric and highly niche-focused indie blogs. With Real High she further refines this aesthetic, polishing it to a fine glossy sheen. “2 Good 2 Be True” could easily slot in alongside any number of early ‘90s R&B radio hits, all cooing vocals and four-on-the-floor dance groove.
If Liquid Cool was her tentative steps towards a more mainstream sound via cleaner production and more defined hooks, Real High finds her having fully embraced that which its predecessor merely hinted at. Teaming once more with Dâm-Funk, Gonzalez marries her smooth R&B pipes with his penchant for skittering, funky beats to create something that is just as much an extension of their Nite-Funk collaboration as it is a natural evolutionary step for Gonzalez’s sound. “Had to Let Me Go” is pure R&B/pop bliss with hints of a slightly more up-tempo Sade creeping around the edges. With its soaring, swirling ethereal chorus hook, it’s a clear and early highlight on this, her fourth full-length album proper.
At times Gonzalez resembles Erotica-era Madonna in both sound and feel, her voice settling into a hushed, bedroom coo as it’s wrapped in a minimalist gauze of spare synths and equally skeletal beats. It’s never intrusive or in-your-face, instead designed for after-hours listening following a night spent being subjected to the pounding beats and shouted choruses filling contemporary clubs. “I Don’t Know” relies on a glossy, floating melody underscored by a shuffling snare sample and electro-meets-early-‘90s-club-kids vibe. It’s one of several such moments in which Gonzalez spit shines her sound—aided by Dâm-Funk—to create something just that much more accessible to a broader, more mainstream audience. The essential bits and pieces remain; they’ve simply been made more presentable for public consumption.
“When I Decide (It’s Alright)” is built around a wandering synth squiggle and vocals, so light and airy they threaten to blow away should the song pick up even the slightest bit of steam. More than anything, Real High finds the Nite Jewel sound easing its way out of the shadows and into the brilliant sunlight fully formed and ready for greater recognition. By stripping away the obfuscating layers of lo-fi production, Gonzalez does away with the part of her sound that made her unique. Stripped clean, these songs, while certainly well-conceived and executed, lose their inherently Nite Jewel aesthetic and begin to fade into the background. Save a few strong tracks scattered throughout, Real High comes across as inconsequential background music of the aesthetically pleasing variety.