London-based neo-soul artist Jordan Rakei‘s latest album is an elegant, soulful collection of pretty ballads and lovely midtempo numbers recalling outstanding 1970s soul records by angelic-voiced crooners like Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, or Teddy Pendergrass. The beautiful sounds on What We Call Life embrace classic R&B with contemporary soul-pop, a fantastic melding that brings a freshness to a classic sound. A wide-ranging talent, Rakei has created a warm kaleidoscope of sounds on What We Call Life, content to stitch together disparate sounds and instrumentation to develop exquisite harmony.
Before its release, Rakei put out four singles in anticipation of What We Call Life. The first, “Family” is a lovely standout. Starting with a guitar-strumming through atmospheric synths and brushed percussion, Rakei’s gorgeous falsetto caresses the song, which is at once warm and synthetic – live instruments marrying with twinkly synthesizers. It’s a moody, boozy song that gives the singer a chance to show off his full range, from his skyscraper-high falsetto to the feathery tenor he employs when he slides effortlessly down a few notes. As the song builds power, it takes on a lowkey cinematic grandeur.
The album’s second single, “Send My Love”, is a fabulous change of pace, a faster song that takes some of its cues from 1980s urban soul. Beeps and blips gurgle through the sweeping synthesizers as a swaying beat takes listeners to a darkening club; it’s a sleepy dance song, one that is intoxicating and hypnotic. “Send My Love” feels like a loving mixtape to the kinds of music that influenced and informed the music of What We Call Life – a hazy wander through urban-pop of the past 50 years.
On the third single, “Clouds” takes on societal ills and prejudice, stepping away from the sun-dappled romance of the album. Written and released during some of the most turbulent and divided times in recent memory, the song is canny, with a simmering and unsettled production that reflects the tempestuous lyrics that look to stormy imagery to describe the unnerving climate of hate and tribalism. Harsh, tangy bass slam down as Rakei croons dolefully of “White clouds in the sky / Yet the world makes them cry / Black clouds by the moon.” As the song progresses and increases in paranoia, it never hits a crescendo. Instead, it marches steadily.
The latest single, “Unguarded”, is a synth-funk tune with a rubbery synthesizer and gorgeous, lush orchestration that is moving and stunning. Like “Family”, the song is a swirling mass of sounds and influences, sampled vocals, studio-filtered voices, and a stable beat creating a deliriously magnificent and epic track that shows Rakei at his creative best. A chugging ballad, it takes on a seeming hymn-like sound that is elegant and vibrant.
Though the singles are high points on What We Call Life, the album cuts are just as compelling. The title track is a shimmery, ethereal ballad with cryptic, moving lyrics that smolder underneath the undulating wall-to-wall production. “Illusion” is a light, beguiling midtempo synthpop tune that recalls ’80s MTV pop. And the dark and moody “Brace” is a thick, gnarly electronic ballad that boasts a broad soundscape of dark stirring strings and synths.
The talent behind What We Call Life is overwhelming. Aside from being a gifted musician and lyricist, he also has a gorgeous voice, soulful and thrilling. Building on the excellence of his previous albums, What We Call Life is easily one of this year’s best albums.