In 2022, the notion of albums is nearly obsolete. Vinyl might still be in the midst of the remnants of its comeback moment, and sure, it doesn’t look like the act of spinning records will go away for good, ever, if only for nostalgia’s sake. However, a world where one single is released ahead of time and then a full set of songs featuring ten or 11 (or more!) new tracks all at once is a relic of the past. For now, at least.
In a lot of ways, that practice isn’t new. Head back to the 1960s, look at things like Stax Records or even the Beatles, and you’ll find that the concept of an album as a concept (and not a concept album) was never essential to an artist’s success. It was always about the Song. Maybe if you had more than one of the Song, you’d throw them together for an LP. But, then again, sometimes, maybe not. These days, it’s almost like everything old is new again. The song is all that matters, as long as it produces streams. Case in point: Does Rihanna even put out full-lengths anymore?
Anyway, all of this serves a prelude only to say that R&B singer Lady Wray‘s Piece of Me finds itself square in the middle of that crossroads. The title track and “Come on In” were both released all the way back in 2019. “Storms” followed those up in 2020. And then in 2021, “Games People Play”, “Under the Sun”, and “Through It All” came out in one way or another. Now finally, in 2022, the 12-track album has arrived even though half the collection has been out for months, while a quarter of it has been available for more than a year.
Where the intrigue sets in lies among Wray’s retro-fitted, groove-happy, 1970s-style rhythm and blues that classic soul fans far and wide ought to love. The stylings here are decades olds, but the drip and drab release approach is modern. Or, well, modern now, even if the era it echoes might have been privy to the same release structure once upon a time.
None of that really matters, of course, when you have music this good. Filled with hardship, heartbreak and occasional hope, Lady Wray has said that she wants to write music to help people heal and these 12 songs accomplish that, if only because they remind listeners that they aren’t alone, even if oftentimes it feels like they are. Take opener “I Do”, which offers a form of desperation on top of warm horns and a low-key funk that sets the tone for the rest of the album. “The pressure makes me wanna lеave / Tryna get the things we need,” she offers on verse two before sheepishly asserting, “There’s no way you should have a doubt / All we need is love to lift each other.” It’s one of the record’s best songs, not just for is silky feel, but for its vulnerability, a trait Wray has no problem exposing throughout here.
“Where Were You”, meanwhile, calls back to Wray’s hip-hop roots with a simple back-beat and is perhaps the sharpest edge that the singer presents in this collection as she talks about “drinking wine in my room, all alone”. It’s the portrait of a woman scorned and it lays out a hell of an argument for why the scorner was little more than an absentee partner anyway. The best part is how hopeful the undercurrent of the song is, this being the moment after Ms. Wray has managed her way back to her feet and is looking at life through confidence-filled glasses. If the goal is healing, that mission here is accomplished.
If the next step is allowing love back in, Wray gets there, too, with the laid-back “Come on In”. Led by some Bill Withers-esque piano stylings and a delicious bass line, the singer invites her unnamed muse to come into her life because they don’t have much time. It’s a tiny piece of brilliance when you consider the contrast between how musically the song takes its time as it struts through the neighborhood. On one hand, she presents herself as impatient, ready for the next dose of love that life can give her, but on the other, she’s as chill as a 72-degree day, sitting in a pool under the sun.
Yet while hope and love is good, Lady Wray is at her best when she’s singing about heartbreak and uncertainty, as is the case with some of the best R&B in history. The title track is a marriage between the best of yesteryear Mary J. Blige and yesteryear soul music. It’s a sad song, complete with padded horns that at least allow for a soft fall from grace, if falling is the only thing left to do. Better yet is the chorus as she proclaims, “I’ll let you take a piece of me / I hope you get the peace you need / And if that’s not enough / I’ll let you go peacefully.” It’s a smart play on words that gives the whole thing an added, appreciated levity.
Other highlights include “Beauty in the Fire”, which features a spoken word section from the singer’s father, Kenneth Wray, and might just be the track the bops the most here. It also feels like a volcano only a handful of days from exploding, though it never does. “Through It All” moves along at a fun, fast pace and comes with a falsetto-laden chorus that ought to be sampled by someone, somewhere, someday. “Melody”, featuring Melody Bloom Bacote, is a welcome change of pace as it’s carried via little more than an acoustic guitar and some killer backing harmonies. Wray is thankful on it, but she’s also passionate about it and the song proves that her voice shines best when there isn’t much else behind it.
That said, when there is music behind it, it’s still pretty great, too. That’s why Piece of Me is a must-listen for any fan of any era of R&B or soul music. It has enough callbacks to the roots of the art, but it also highlights the evolution of where it is today. In some ways, it’s kind of like the way these tracks were introduced into the world — more the Song than the Album. At the end of the day, that’s OK, because no matter what decade of the genre you love the most, this collection has you covered.
Or in other words, be it 1972 or 2022, this is a voice, and this is a record, that is timeless.