Jessie Ware is one of many female vocalists to rise to fame down to her feature spots, seemingly the go-to point for any budding young singer in the UK in 2012 (and 2011 and 2010 for that matter). But a lot of these vocalists stumble and fall at the first hurdle when they go for the dreaded solo record, simply because their feature spots protected them from the horrible truth that a solo artist needs to own their own record, rather than the producers shaping their sound.
Clapham born Jessie was rewarded with a record contract after featuring on SBTRKT’s jittery bass anti-anthem “Nervous” in 2010. The following year she went on to work with SBTRKT again, with his frequent collaborator Sampha and with dubstep producer Joker, and the dark, bass heavy tracks that resulted showcased the sultry, wispy tone of her voice, both subdued and compelling, commanding even.
But it was on Joker’s “The Vision”, that we first heard her roar, and there was no doubt that Ms. Ware was no mere feature singer. And in true proof of her talent, her glorious solo debut Devotion is a far cry from the UK bass of her prior collaborations, and is twice the record for it. A record of sexy, sensual R&B with more than a few flecks of ’80s soul, it flitters around a few genres, whilst remaining absolutely cohesive and incredibly enjoyable.
When one first hears Jessie’s solo material, the most obvious touchstone to reference is Sade, who’s haunting lovesongery and husky murmurs can be heard often in Ware’s material, particularly in gorgeous single “Running”, in which Ware’s tale of love and war fits the Sade mould like a glove, bringing to mind “No Ordinary Love” or “Kiss of Life”. It simmers in a pool of warm pads before blooming into a passionate serenade, and Ware’s voice is quite simply stunning at the climax. “Sweet Talk” follows in its footsteps later on, but takes on the livelier elements of ’80s soul, with an effortlessly sexy bounce and Jessie lets the phrase “you gimme the sweet talk, and it works for me” roll off her tongue suggestively.
Despite letting go most of the electronic productions she would previously have sat comfortably with, it’s not all downbeat. An early trio of tracks, “Still Love Me”, “No To Love” and upcoming single “Night Light” flirt with funk, new jack swing and rock respectively. The infectious, repetitious groove of “Still Love Me”, the sexy hip hop vibe of “No To Love” and the sassy, anthemic “Night Light” are all single material, and in fact, throughout the entirety of Devotion there’s not one track that doesn’t live up to the last.
As far as standout tracks are concerned, “110%” is the closest thing to the underground dance of her past projects. Ethereal pads are carried by a busy click’n’clap beat, and Jessie’s normally natural, flowing voice is heavily compressed but gentle to the point of almost whispering, and her staccato, mumbled vocals create the effect of her whispering sweet nothings in your ear. It’s not quite a club track, not quite a chillout number, and in this dismissal of fitting a genre, it once again relies on Jessie’s presence to define it, and as her voice finally gracefully elevates in the bridge, definition seems so unimportant.
The majority of the album is produced by Dave Okumu of experimental rock band The Invisible, and that band’s electronica tinged dark pop can be heard most clearly here on the titular opener. The darkest, most sinister track here, it feels like either a confession or a pledge, as Ware murmurs “the end of us never hurt so much, I need your devotion”. Ware gives her most understated performance on the record, and ironically her most anonymous, but the track’s hypnotic, uneasy lurch calls for this delivery. It opens the album in a misleadingly eerie manner, because the placing of the commercial, bright pop ballad “Wildest Moments” straight after is an unexpected and perfectly pitched move.
Going from the album’s darkest moment to its most uplifting shows us Ware’s incredible versatility, and even the slightest change of expression and volume in her voice can give a track new life. More so than on any track she has featured on before, Ware lives and breathes every word she sings. The delicately sung but emotionally charged “Wildest Moments” is, albeit by a nose, the track that shows this most convincingly, and its no surprise that this is because the production is simple, stripped back and the focus is all on Ware, her voice and the words she sings. And boy does she sing them.
We are very much in the era of celebrity producers, and whilst there are many UK female singers making their name off the backs of the Bengas, Skreams and SBTRKTS in the UK electronic dance scene, Ware is head and shoulders above this throng because, as Devotion unquestionably proves, with flying colours, her voice is just too remarkable to hide behind. Any song Jessie sings, she makes her own. In an industry of singers defined by the music behind them, Jessie Ware can only be defined as the best voice of 2012. And that, as talented as Dave Okumu, Kid Harpoon and Julio Bashmore are, is something her producers had nothing to do with.