The days of Motown may be long gone, but soul is here to stay. Moving past greats like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Aretha Franklin, the genre has seen a recent resurgence as artists infuse elements of hip-hop and R&B into modern soul, evolving the genre in ways that Ray Charles and Sam Cooke would never have thought possible. Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, and Maxwell paved the way for the neo-soul of the ’90s, Adele and Joss Stone are reviving the British soul scene, and James Blake, The Weeknd, and Frank Ocean are subverting the genre through heavy use of vocal effects, electronic soundscapes, and unorthodox lyrical content. For all of the artists mentioned, the music of Motown should be remembered but not reproduced. It’s only through experimentation, personality, and innovation that a genre can remain relevant and popular for the next generation. For some reason, Lack of Afro doesn’t seem to understand this simple fact.
Hello Baby, the Exeter producer’s latest album, was released a month ago, yet it already sounds outdated. On most of the 12 tracks, Lack of Afro sprinkles his mixes with unnecessary lo-fi crackles and the occasional scratch that would normally make the songs sound vintage. However, on “Magic Together”, “Walk in the Sun”, and especially “I Got the Rhythm”, the mix feels thin and distant, with a quality equivalent to someone using their iPhone to record music coming from a phonograph. It’s a not-so-subtle nod to soul music’s past, but the faulty execution fails to translate the sentiment in any meaningful way.
There’s also no need for Lack of Afro to harken to the past, since he makes colorful, progressive soul and dance music when he wants. “One World” is the best example of this, where emcee Herbal T raps about the need for world peace over an instrumental with a tasteful Latin flare. Besides composing the third verse entirely in Spanish, the emcee also brings some of the best lyrics on the album, with heady lines such as “Tooth for a tooth till we’re drinking out of straws/Keep chopping off hands we gon’ run out of applause” and “Toda la humanidad somos primos / Y solo hay una viva que vivimos”, which translates to “All humanity, we’re cousins / And we only live one life.” This song is the only instance on Hello Baby where the guest vocalist’s appearance enhances Lack of Afro’s knack for production, and it’s a shame that Herbal T isn’t featured more.
This isn’t to say that Lack of Afro doesn’t dip his toes into experimental waters on other songs, but the results are not nearly as satisfying. “Walk in the Sun”, a beach tune with a winding horn progression, feels more obnoxious than friendly, with a cringe-worthy guest appearance by Professor Elemental. “Magic Together” fares better, but the cheap funk guitar, the swinging string section, and bongo percussion feels like a bad Earth, Wind & Fire cover. Like all of the other issues that plague Hello Baby, Lack of Afro’s poor performance drains his music of any delight it might have had otherwise.
These aforementioned tracks all stand out because, at his core, Lack of Afro is more of a fan of soul than an artist in his own right. A majority of songs, such as “All My Love”, “Take You Home”, “Nothing Personal”, “Fires Glow”, and “Now I Feel Good” are mere carbon copies of ’50s and ’60s soul music. In each case, the subject matter revolves around relationships, love on the rocks, and family, topics that have already been covered by the genre’s forefathers in a much more interesting and dynamic manner. What ends up making the songs on Hello Baby unique are the guest vocalists themselves, and the quality of the appearances, like many other aspects of this album, is spotty. Joss Stone, Juliette Ashby, and Emma Noble are excellent, but Elliott Cole, who sings on three songs, sounds flat, with no trace of soul or passion in any of his performances.
Technically, Hello Baby is a soul album, but in actuality it’s the furthest thing from it. Lack of Afro’s music, at its best, is a sweet veneer that’s easy to look at but frustrating once one peels back the layers. Without a doubt, Lack of Afro has studied funk, soul, disco, and dance extensively, but it hasn’t seeped into his heart and bones. Music is more than technicality; it’s a feeling, an emotional connection between listener and artist. Until Lack of Afro truly understands that, his music will stagnate and decay, no matter how many effects, instruments, and vocalists he can muster up in the process.