Gold is an auspicious debut that feels like the beginning of something special.
California-based singer/songwriter Justin Llamas is a newcomer in the embryonic stage of his career, but you’d never guess that from his debut EP Gold. It sounds like the work of a polished veteran rather than a young artist dipping his toes into the vast and turbulent waters of the music industry for the first time. In a sign of the ultra-connected times in which we live, the 25-year old Llamas first earned attention via YouTube for his striking cover of Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go” and a slick and soulful recording of Sia’s “Chandelier” that grabbed the attention of Ms. Furler herself. His videos earned hundreds of thousands of views, landing him a deal with Black Rose Entertainment and the release of his richly promising debut EP.
It’s obvious from the outset that Llamas is a natural talent. In his videos he projects a relaxed charm and an upbeat vibe with the grace and deft ease of an experienced artist who’s never lost that innate joy of performing. Llamas’ smooth voice straddles the line between modern R&B and pop, immediately appealing and supple. Sure, superstars like Ne-Yo and Bruno Mars might come to mind if one were to seek a comparison, but Llamas has an engaging freshness that is all his own, a positive chemistry that you can’t teach.
While it may have been a shrewd move to tackle popular hits on YouTube to gain visibility, Llamas doesn’t rely on the songwriting chops of others for his debut. The five tracks on Gold are all originals, written by Llamas with a polish and keen sense of melody that’s very nearly as good as what one might expect out of some of the biggest pop/R&B hit factories. Produced by Lenny Ruckus and Tim Nurge, musically Gold stays within the lines of glossy modern pop while allowing Llamas’ voice to shine.
“Got It Out For Me” opens the EP with a propulsive electro-R&B groove and a radio-friendly hook that lodges in the brain immediately. It would fit nicely alongside anything heard on Top 40 radio these days. “Last in Line” is built on a classic bass-riff right out of a Ben E. King tune hurled five decades into the present. Llamas’ lyric describes the insecurity and doubt that many of us feel (especially in our youth) while pondering the future, yearning for love and fulfillment, fearing a fate of loneliness: “The last toy on the shelf / I’m left by myself / don’t want to be left behind / don’t want to be last in line." His performance is so unabashedly earnest and sincere that you almost want to yell into the speakers back to him, “Don’t worry, dude, you won’t be.”
The dramatic “Tile Floor” opens with somber strands of gleaming piano that would be right at home in one of Adele’s more grandiose ballads. Llamas delivers a stirring and expressive vocal over a throbbing electronic rhythm, the restless tension amping to a fever pitch as the song winds to its climax. Listen to the gripping urgency Llamas injects during the coda that begins at the 3:06 point: “I can't live a normal life / I'm meant to fall onto… / this tile ground, it feels so right / I'd fall a thousand times for you.” It’s an impressive display of vocal dexterity and emotional gravitas that far transcends what one might expect from the typical fresh-faced newcomer.
It’s easy to understand why Llamas chose the anthemic “Gold” as the title track. It’s a manifesto of purpose, a defiant declaration of goals that might seem farfetched for most fledgling artists at the dawn of their career. “I think I'm ready for the big time baby / can't let this moment just pass me by / I ain't returning to the lowlight baby / I swear I'd leave it all behind / I refuse to go home / until I've found gold.” The track practically glows with the tenacious pursuit of a dream, and why not? You can daydream and do nothing but sit and whimsically wonder what might have been, or you can make something happen. It goes without saying that Llamas is doing the latter. Rapper Amina Harris, a heavy-hitter who has worked with Keyshia Cole and has toured with Lil Wayne, delivers a strong guest appearance that adds an extra jolt of excitement to a song already bursting at the seams with it.
The EP’s unquestioned highlight is the dazzling finale, the ballad “Figure Things Out”. The world is a complex and confusing place at the best of times, and for a young person trying to pry open the door and feel his way through the endless mazes that life presents it can be overwhelming. The confidence projected in “Gold” is nowhere to be found here. “Figure Things Out” is Llamas pausing to reflect on which path to take, and to come to grips with the pressures and anxieties that weigh us all down to one degree or another. His stunning vocal performance is gleaming with sincerity and achingly confessional. Llamas expresses intimate thoughts and fears in a beautifully polished and ornately arranged piano ballad that leaves everything on the table. It’s clearly wrenched directly from the heart with surprising presence and power. “Figure Things Out” ends Gold with an emotional depth far more complex and turbulent than the slamming electro-pop of the first couple tracks could have predicted.
Is there room for maturity and growth? Of course, but that’s only to be expected. Gold is an auspicious debut that feels like the beginning of something special. Llamas’ hopeful optimism and promise sounds like the future, a sweet breeze cutting through the murk of our dark and violent world. He’s not afraid to unclench his heart and express the genuine human emotion that is often sorely lacking in today’s formulaic world of pop music. Keep an eye on this guy. Justin Llamas is young and finding his way, but there is something special there, a glow of talent and personality that’s as impressive as it is endearing. If the right doors open, who knows what the future might hold?