To a large degree, the last year in music has been about the triumph of the smooth.
To a large degree, the last year in music has been about the triumph of the smooth. Of course, smooth never went away. Within major label R&B, it’s always been a valuable currency, from Luther Vandross to R. Kelly to D’Angelo to Mario to Trey Songz. But smooth has been big in a different way for over a year now, with groups at every level of pop—small bands on indie labels (Rhye, inc.), major country acts (Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert), inescapable radio hitmakers (Pharrell)—declaring musical kinship with the prettiest sounds of the ‘70s and ‘80s: Sade and Steely Dan, quiet storm R&B and yacht rock. Sinkane’s new album, Mean Love, attempts to broaden the pool of prettiness that artists can draw on. He’s lobbying for the inclusion of bossa nova, sweet reggae, and country.
Sinkane (real name Ahmed Gallab) is on the label DFA, co-founded by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, so he has roots in an indie scene committed to vigorous dancing. But that doesn’t tell you much about his music—he doesn’t sound like his label mates in the Juan Maclean, who are also putting out an album in September. Sinkane has little interest in compelling movement. Mean Love is his third album, and it expands the mix of soul and African funk he toyed with on Mars, his previous release.
This is an artist who has never been interested in hiding his touchstones. The first notes on the album sound like an electric keyboard, which set the tone for so much sweet ‘70s soul, and that thing gurgles throughout. (Though at a few points, it takes on a much rougher texture that sounds like it was stolen from a Betty Davis recording session, as on “Yacha”.) The opening song, “How We Be”, moves into a mid-section that riffs off Curtis Mayfield’s hit “Superfly”. The title track, with an easy soul groove, could be from the first couple Mayer Hawthorne albums.
But again, Sinkane’s trying to show kinship between pretty sounds from all over. “Yacha” features some Temptations-worthy call and response, where much lower harmonies counter Sinkane’s high vocal. While this is happening, a heavy Jamaican progression bubbles underneath. This creates a smooth transition into the next track, “Young Trouble”, with its high, wordless harmonies and steady reggae groove. “Moonstruck” builds around a cleanly strummed guitar, evoking the tender fragility of bossa nova.
Of course, Sinkane is not the only one with an appreciation of the smoothness of music from Jamaica and Brazil. For several weeks this summer, the song “Rude”, by Magic!, sported a reggae riff at the very top of the charts. Stealing from bossa nova is common in smooth jazz and “adult contemporary”; Robin Thicke does it at least once an album. Ben Watt, who put out his first solo album in 30 years several months ago, is also famous for his Brazilian-styled guitar playing.
But Magic! and Robin Thicke haven’t recorded country ballads as of yet. Sinkane’s “Galley Boys” relies on one of country’s most devastating tools: the inimitable tone of pedal steel guitar. “If you have to try, maybe you’d better try,” sings Sinkane, sounding like he’s been listening to a whole slew of classic Nashville recordings (plus a healthy dose of Neil Young and the Band).
There are more exciting things happening on R&B’s front lines. The song “Y.A.S.,” from Trey Songz’ recently released Trigga, sounds thoroughly contemporary while channeling a whole world of mean, mean love. (“Y.A.S.” stands for “You Ain’t Shit”.) But Sinkane isn’t aiming for the vanguard. Mean Love never fails to be smooth, and it displays a particular kind of open ear. For some, that will be enough.