When Kadhja Bonet’s 2016 debut The Visitor came out, it was hard to know what to call it. With elements of soft 1960s pop and soul ballads, layers of classical strings and dreamy synths, and Bonet’s angelic voice, it didn’t fit into a standard box. Neither did – or does – Bonet, who takes issue with even calling herself a musician, much less a singer.
Perhaps, then, it behooves us not to think of her sophomore release Childqueen in simplifying terms. There are still retro elements to it, hints of gentle psychedelia and jaunts into 1970s funk and soul, but comparing Bonet and her artistic output to anything else misses the point of Childqueen: that Bonet not only is one of a kind but knows exactly how to show it. Her music is incomparable by its nature, and aspirationally so in that its eschewing of rigid schemas and genre conformity allows it to tell us about the extraordinary mind of its maker.
There is an airy majesty to opening track “Procession”, a sturdy structure made weightless by vocals and flutes, lightly grounded by snare and cymbal fills. “Every morning brings a chance to renew,” sings Bonet, and the sentiments ring refreshingly true. The simplicity of “Procession” gives way to dazzling, high-drama violins on the title track, their soulful sharpness cut by Bonet’s often elusive voice as it wafts between foreground and background. That voice’s softness can frustrate at times; Bonet leaves us with the sense that she has life-changing thoughts to share, but it can be hard to hear them nestled in so low among so many other instrumental components, albeit rich ones.
“Another Time Lover” does a better job of bringing out Bonet’s lyrics amid electronically enhanced slashes of strings; heavily melodic ballad “Delphine” sees her voice at the forefront, and stands out as one of the more poignant of the album’s tracks because of its emphasis on Bonet’s poetic side, allowing for a more intimate connection to her inner life.
The midtempo energy of “Thoughts Around Tea” moves in synth-heavy circles; again, Bonet’s vocal harmonies are the main pull in the center of twinkling instrumentation, but the words hide in a less-than-discernable haze. “Joy” opens with heavenly a cappella vocals before being joined by a fantasy of flutes and violins, and the track morphs from shape to shape. It feels like a more exploratory piece of the puzzle, and through it, Bonet displays her skill for imaginative arrangement. That leads into “Wings”, and here, Bonet hits peak sonic clarity with an unexpected and mobile melody with an almost cinematic level of intrigue to it.
“Mother Maybe” opens with synthetic recreations of 1970s funk horns; Bonet sings adoring and wonderfully esoteric metaphors (“You’re the quiet forming cloud / You’re the nebula that pulls a glow from emptiness”) and hits some of her most cathartic high notes. The tracks that close out the album afterward, “Second Wind” and “Nostalgia”, are largely the aftermath of this moment of strength, with wordless “Nostalgia” floating into unknown heights as it finishes off the album.
In the process of offering insight into the prismatic mind of Kadhja Bonet, Childqueen sometimes raises more questions than it answers. Her words wrapped in translucent folds of strings and synths, she carefully chooses how much of her the world can know. In doing so, she remains weightless, an artist ephemeral, even as her genre-resistant music makes a serious sonic impact.
If Kadhja Bonet has her way, we will probably never truly know her – there is nothing wrong with this. She will show us only what she wants to show us, and each spectacular release will only deepen our curiosity as to just where she can and will take us next.