Sometimes in music criticism or any kind of writing that seeks to analyze and evaluate the products of our popular culture, acknowledging the strong commercial potential of a piece of art can seem like passive-aggressive criticism. We’re always on the lookout for the “sellout”, and most critics have an ear tuned more to the organic than the produced, a preference for the artist who challenges a small audience rather than welcoming a large one. But what about the artist whose personal tastes and talents happen to connect with a broad audience without compromise or appropriation?
AHI (pronounced “Eye”) possesses a smooth, inviting voice reminiscent of Seal and fuses a strong pop sensibility to a positive, non-threatening political message that nonetheless challenges listeners to be and to work for better. It’s a formula that should bring him broad appeal and maybe even commercial success. The Canadian artist is already well on his way following the independent release of his debut We Made It Through the Wreckage in 2016. That record and its breakout song “‘Ol Sweet Day” gained attention through word of mouth and earned AHI several songwriting awards and an invitation to appear on NPR’s popular Tiny Desk Concert series.
I’ll admit to being the kind of listener who tends to move away from anything that sounds too polished, preferring a rougher edge; that’s just the comfortable habit of my taste. Sometimes, though, it happens that I hear a record that will set off that natural defense mechanism but draw me in. AHI’s In Our Time is one of those. It’s the kind of album that wins listeners over with its hard-won positivity and unapologetic sincerity. AHI is not a complicated songwriter: he wastes little time overworking metaphors, preferring to confront his emotions with an almost journalistic directness. That openness and honesty make him instantly relatable and his songs broadly embraceable.
The album’s opener, “Breaking Ground”, is a case in point. Opening with AHI’s unaccompanied voice declaring “I’ve been told I’m worthless / So much that it gave me purpose”, the song builds into an uplifting groove accompanied throughout by couplets of self-empowerment (“I thought all doors were broken / ‘Til I found one I could open”) and encouragement (“I’m earning the right to say / Anybody can find their way”). The song’s sincere refrain of “I know I’m gonna make it out / ‘Cause I’m already breaking ground” holds promise to inspire multiple listeners.
Similar sentiments follow throughout, as on the avoiding temptations ballad “Straight Ahead” (“Even though you’re on the beaten path / “Trust your heart and don’t look back”), or “Made It Home” (“You gotta set your eyes on something you believe is true / It don’t matter the cost”), or “The Honest One” (“When the answers are loaded / Then my heart will open / I can truly be the honest one”), or “Pray” (“When you can’t do nothing then you gotta just pray”). These are straightforward but effective sentiments made stronger by the musical production surrounding them.
For AHI, our personal journeys are the source of the greatest drama, and his reflections on being a son, a father, an artist and a lover reach for universal applicability. In Our Time has the potential to become another sleeper hit.