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Being Human: Rag'n'Bone Man and the Authenticities of Voice

Human fits alongside the works of Alabama Shakes and Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, but can Rag'n'Bone Man's distinctive gospel-blues voice find a place on the American charts?

Rag'n'Bone Man


Label: Columbia
US Release date: 2017-10-02
Graham's voice is limited only by its width and depth, the degrees of suffering and hope it's willing to approach and try to embody and perform.
Rag'n'Bone Man, a.k.a. Rory Graham, has yet to hit in the United States despite his success in Europe and his home, the United Kingdom, where he won the 2017 Brit Awards' Critics' Choice Award. He's appeared on American television and on the new Gorillaz album. Last year's single "Human" reached #1 on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart in March. And yet his major label debut this past February, also titled Human, hasn't been reviewed by a single major American publication except the binational Guardian.

The irony of this conundrum is that Human stands on the shoulders of American roots music, blending deep soul with hip-hop, Hammond B3 organs with muted drum grooves, and earnest lyrics with a pop sensibility. Though it's more slickly produced, Rag'n'Bone Man's album fits alongside Alabama Shakes and Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats. It doesn't sound out of place next to Childish Gambino's "Redbone" or the gale force post-punk soul of Algiers' "The Underside of Power"; in fact, it may have even more in common with those artists than the retro-oriented Americana scene which updates vintage sounds instead of integrating them into a contemporary soundscape.

Where Human doesn't fit is on the American Top 100, dominated as it has been this year by chilly atmospherics and heavily processed vocals. Most voices on the American charts are either dry and upfront, like Rihanna's on DJ Khaled's "Wild Thoughts", or swamped in a cold echo like French Montana's "Unforgettable" with Swae Lee. The pop version of drill, the rap genre from Chicago, has an arctic melancholy to it, from Lil Uzi Vert and Travis Scott to the Post Malone hit "Congratulations" with Quavo. Kendrick Lamar has set aside the lush production of To Pimp a Butterfly for sparer and harder production on songs like "HUMBLE." and "DNA.", opening more space for his kinetic flow.

Even the Latin rhythm resurgence fueled by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's "Despacito" remix featuring The Bieber is marked by instrumental minimalism and an icy detachment. (I like "Mi Gente" by J. Balvin and Willy William, which is only a little less frigid. They know how to lean on a weird sample -- what is that, a baby crying? --

and a basic mix-'n'-match of the beat.)

At its best, the current pop-rap-R&B protocol gives voice to contemporary sadness, hope, and rage. At its worst, it's nothing but an in-store soundtrack for a Hot Topic in Las Vegas.

Where exactly would Rag'n'Bone Man fit into that? Human is spare enough, but it's built first of all on Graham's towering voice, a tornado spinning at the center of the album. It possesses a quiet, resolute core, emotional gusts, and an earthy pain that spits out dirt as it goes by. Take, for instance, the grain in the singer's voice on the opening of "Skin" and how, in the verse, that grain disappears. Now you're in the calm center. Such a feeling of space and loneliness. And then that drops down another level in the brief pre-chorus: "It was almost love" -- he rushes the repetition -- "It was almost love." Lumped in with vintage-style crooners like Sam Smith and James Bay by the UK press, Graham is much bluesier than either, his voice simply more powerful and flexible. He is, in other words, approaching Adele territory.

Come up out of South England, Rag'n'Bone started as an MC with local drum 'n' bass groups, but his first album, Bluestown, begins with an a capella gospel blues, "Die Easy", which in its first seconds might trick you into thinking it was recorded in Mississippi 1932. After a brief foray into soul-tinged rap, the album settles into retro-style country blues and soul that come across as pastiche, the exception being the jazz-rap mix in "Bottom of the Bottle" and an utterly withdrawn and despairing cover of "St. James Infirmary".

That was 2012. On the releases that followed -- Dog 'n' Bone and Put That Soul On Me, both EPs -- blues and neo-soul are mixed over dragging rap beats. Sometimes Graham's voice is too far back in the mix, as if unsure of its potential. There's no such hesitation on "Reuben's Train", the opening track of the 2014 album Wolves. "Guilty" hits you with Graham's voice like a baseball bat: "It's seven in the mornin' and I'm lyin' in my bed/ A million ways to hurt you runnin' round and round my head", he sings, and you may feel an urge to apologize. A highlight is "Hell Yeah" with its bitter antiwar and anti-religion lyrics wrapped in soul ecstatics that would nevertheless not go over well in church, i.e., "But if we're already going to hell, yeah, we might as well get stoned and crucified." And then, out of nowhere: a solid Vince Staples feature.

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"Hell Yeah" hints at the swooping choruses that populate Human. (For some inexplicable reason, the song isn't included on the deluxe version of the album even though others from Wolves are. So is a cleaner, more assured but less mysterious version of "Die Easy".) Mainly Human cleans up Rag'n'Bone Man's act, planes down the rhythm tracks, and wisely puts Graham's voice front and center. "Bitter End" has some dubious production choices—= 00 the second verse's electric piano, the synth ether -- but none of it can overshadow Graham's enormous voice. "Be the Man" conjures up an innocent, breezy R&B without succumbing to cheese mainly because of the way Graham's voice grounds the song's vows. "Odetta", an ode to the legendary African-American folksinger, the piano-cornerstoned "Grace", and "Ego" form a strong trio in the album's final turn, fusing nearly every Black American musical form among them. The only thing missing is Motown R&B, an absence solved immediately by "Arrow", which, in a more just world, Amy Winehouse would be around to cover.

Guardian critic Kitty Empire wrote in a review of Human:

You might describe Rag'n'Bone Man's appeal as one of honest grit over Auto-Tuned fakery, of time-honoured classicism over plastic evanescence. Another view might boggle at the ossified tastes of the UK listening public, unable to countenance the validity of songs about 21st-century lived experience played on machines. We remain dependent on UK pop heavily skewed towards American roots music, fed to us again and again in slightly different iterations.

The alliances are clear: "honest grit" and "classicism" derive from American roots music, which is historically anchored and speaks more to the 20th century. "Auto-Tuned fakery" and "plastic evanescence" are the stuff of machines and our contemporary post-Brexit, Trump's-in-the-White House kinda world.

Interestingly, Empire's main concern with authenticity isn't its truthfulness as a determiner of quality. Instead, it's authenticity's power to act as a censor against sounds and styles that more accurately reflect the fears, desperation, and fleeting joys of contemporary life. She's not calling authenticity itself into question; neither is she stooping to the familiar critique of a musician's personal authenticity, i.e., their right to sing or play in a certain genre that might not be their own. (Graham is white, for what it's worth.) There's a cultural-capital edge to her argument -- the concern about "ossified tastes" -- and there's also the deliciously backhanded dig at the American musical influence on the UK. But primarily Empire's concern is that she and other Brits do not hear their own contemporary world reflected back at them, particularly the computerized sounds produced by machines as opposed to more traditional instruments like the electric guitar, piano, and organ. (Although each of those can be considered a machine, no? At the very least, a kind of technology.)

What's even more interesting is what this argument implies about familiarity. Here, there are two kinds: familiar musical styles and products, and on the other hand, the familiar sounds and languages and cultural rhythms of present-day ordinary life. What Empire seems to be arguing for is more of a certain familiarity, more of a certain sameness, but it's a sameness defined by the social noise of ordinary living in the UK which, presumably, doesn't sound like rehashed American R&B.

I don't live in the UK so I don't have any opinion on that part of the argument. But it does seem worth considering that Rag'n'Bone Man's music might be more than a reflection of the social values of "classicism" and its attending authenticity -- that it might be, instead, an assertion of those values within a culture that's all hard reflections and plastic surfaces and fleeting attention spans. (I'm not putting you down, Brits. We're just as hard, plastic, and easily distracted over here.) My point is that this may not be a simple story of business-as-usual American hand-me-downs, but rather a conscious decision on Graham's part, one that has everything to do with the blues and gospel core of his music.

Instead of being nostalgic -- the implied message of so much retro music, and one implied cause of those "ossified tastes" -- Rag'n'Bone Man seems more interested in "originarity", distinguished from "originality". This distinction comes to me from the philosopher Boris Groys in his book On the New (Verso, 2014). There he argues that originality is what we expect it to be: a significant difference, unique in relation to others, often for the sake of cultural prestige. "Originarity", however, is "proximity to the origin and conformity with an extra-cultural real" that is universal and singular. In the case of Rag'n'Bone Man, that means nothing less than a spiritual humanism.

Arguably, authenticity in its most elemental form is a search for or a claim to originarity. The difference, though, is the notion of an "extra-cultural real" that is universal and singular, i.e., a realness that transcends cultural differences. The debates about authenticity we often have in music, which are focused on the interplay between genre, style, ethnicity, geography, and race, are firmly grounded in culture, not outside or "extra". They may include notions of originarity within those cultures, but that's still not the same as a universal.

Over the past couple years, I've noticed a slight uptick in the number of pop singers who call upon the blues-gospel voice, that wide and deeply historical battle between Saturday night and Sunday morning which indeed is fundamental to American popular music, but mix it into more contemporary musical settings. It might be the distortion and experimentalism of postpunk, as is the case with Algiers' lead singer Franklin James Fisher and the band's remarkable two albums. In the UK, seek out Jacob Banks and his excellent new EP, The Boy Who Cried Freedom. This is not a voice limited by the constructions of race, or by gender, nationality, or ethnicity. It's a voice limited only by its width and depth, the degrees of suffering and hope it's willing to approach and try to embody and perform.

You're not going to hear that voice on the charts very much, here or in the United Kingdom. As I write this, the Billboard UK Singles chart looks pretty much the same as the US version 1-4 but diverges with "Mama" by Jonas Blue at #5 and "Power" by Little Mix at #6, followed by Rita Ora's "Your Song" at #7, and so on. These are every bit as gritless and ephemeral and forgettable as Montana's "Unforgettable". The Spotify chart for the UK follows a similar trajectory but with less rap.

So I'm not exactly convinced that Rag'n'Bone Man, whose album currently sits at #6 on the Billboard UK Album chart, is anything more than an exception to the current hegemony of airless but sparkling pop. Neither am I convinced that the UK is besieged by authentic rockists who bear no relation or familiarity to the sounds of everyday life. The riff of Ora's "Your Song" sounds like one of the ringtones on my cell phone. It doesn't get more synthesized with "lived experience" than that.

The predominant voice in this pop stratosphere is laid-back to the point of being as emotive as a mannequin. It floats with the heedless current. It's concerned with time, primarily. It doesn't possess a space since it's always moving.

The gospel-blues voice you might hear from Adele, Beyoncé, Banks, Fisher, and Rory Graham, on the other hand, sounds like an attempt to establish a stable center for oneself in the midst of a fast-paced presentist culture. The voice builds a foundation, a lasting space that can withstand the onslaught of that culture.

Neither voice is more authentic than the other, but each produces its own version of authenticity.

The absence of the blues-gospel roar on either country's pop charts suggests that we're not terribly concerned with originarity. There is no extra-cultural real at the top of the charts. It is its own reality, its own authentic real, and it has been for a long, long time.

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