There are two videos of Niecy Blues performing in Charleston, South Carolina, way back in March 2018: one is a luxuriantly soulful song called “Christine”, and the other is a guitar-forward R&B track called “Ways”. In the first shot of the latter video, the entire setlist has been written on a whiteboard: the best part of an album that the artist, at some point, outgrew with not one of those titles appearing anywhere in her – until now – sparse discography. It’s been a long road traveled to Exit Simulation, her debut LP, and a breathtaking and immaculate creative statement. In a just world, this record will lay down fire and love in innumerable hearts and minds.
The sub-20 minutes of sound on official releases were already richly rewarding. 2020’s Cry EP blurred the original bluesmen, vocals worthy of Billie Holiday, sine tones Phil Niblock would appreciate, and classy digital interventions, all in service of atmosphere. A one-off single followed this in 2021, “Bones Become the Trees”, which wafted in on the kind of psychedelic electronics pioneered by Broadcast. Beyond that lay just two guest appearances: a fleeting appearance as a female counterpart to a single refrain on “Jewel”, by Khari Lucas’ Contour project, then a weightier presence on the track “War”, on a live-recorded jazz/hip-hop album by Benny Star.
There’s a statement tagged on her Twitter account in which Niecy Blues describes Exit Simulation as: “the little album that could because there were SO MANY OBSTACLES to getting to the finish line. I did it. A dream since I was a child.” It seems the Cry EP’s closer, “Keep Going, Black Girl UR Not Far”, was much-needed encouragement for what still lay ahead. One hopes for all manner of pride and satisfaction to fill her soul: she truly deserves it. While those early live songs show a deeply competent performer, they clearly remain within established genre lines. Exit Simulation, by contrast, marries that competence with the confidence to reject any boundary to her muse.
One moment (“IIII”), we’re in hypnagogic pop territory; the next (“The Nite B4”), it’s pure electronica with Neicy Blues’ voice either blissed-out murmurs or pure rising ecstasy reaching so high it grabs at the hems of angels’ robes. Then it all shifts again (“U Care”), and we’re listening to Amy Winehouse-style dark jazz at its most introverted and contemplative.
Particularly in this current cultural moment, there are a lot of artists genre-hopping, grabbing at sounds without any interest in coherence, respect for context, or insight into the histories that forged them. Niecy Blues’ work, by contrast, is a cascade of dimensions and allusions. The album’s title is apparently taken from a sci-fi novel and refers to “the permission to imagine leaving”. The Cry EP’s cover showed the word ‘cry’ dissipating in gently cracking water as a fire spirit rose from or was reflected upon its surface. Interior images showed it was Niecy herself rising from – or submerging below – the water, wreathing everything here in memories of black bodies disappearing into the Atlantic or emerging onto new shores bound for unforeseeable fates while also hinting at a personal emergence or dissipation.
With Exit Simulation, the sleeve shots render Niecy as a ghost spirit, hologramatic projection, faded memory, or digital half-life. There’s also a reading where what we’re seeing is a black face whitened in a way that recalls all manner of past and present sins against African Americans and their sense of self. The refusal of simple answers, the avoidance of the banal boy-girl soap operas that infest pop music, the record’s sonic latticework reflects that same visual complexity, snaking between reference points all subsumed into a whole that escapes any single definition in a way only the best artists ever reach.
“Violently Rooted” contains a sample worthy of Godspeed You! Black Emperor‘s apocalyptic foreshadowing: “Fear. If I were to control you. I would keep you afraid. I would keep you in a state of fear. And it would be coming through your device, all your devices, it would be online at the checkout – that little video, and I’d wonder, ‘how the hell can a video get in my grocery store?’ It would be a steady stream of fear. I’d be telling you at every opportunity that you are not safe; you are not safe.” It’s an imaginative leap to connect this song, a gently ambient sigh of comforting commiseration from human to human, to this vast societal backdrop.
Even a sub-one-minute track, “Messages From Above”, with its warmly narcotized backdrop, drops us into an eavesdropped conversation or practiced speech that runs something like: “You know, cus once you start losing sight of you, you can hang yourself up – you know I’m never gonna lose me! I love you and all that, but if I lose me, I’m gonna love nobody, y’know? I love ’em and all that, but if I lose me, I’m gonna love nobody.” It’s initially easy to miss how the recording has been deftly manipulated with indecipherable intrusions, certain phrases perhaps looped, and words spiraling out to infinity.
Recorded at home and self-produced, Neicy Blues has retained mouth-to-the-mic intimacy and room resonance while working intense layers of sonic detail. The title track is a playground swing of voices back and forth, resolving in a full choir that swaddles the song in some peaceful place of recuperation. “U Care” is an even more extraordinary wide-ranging work: a trunkful of sparse boom-bap drum machine rhythm over cresting/falling keys; well-deep multitracking harmonies; a throbbing heart of bass or percussion suddenly overcoming the song like a passing train; the beautifully cooed “You-ooo-uuuu…” stretched into a chirruping loop; bird song, revivalist testifying, then a church band and congregation powering through – there’s a host of places and times all wrapped into the end-measures of the song.
Niecy Blues’ restlessness, while gently expressed, contains as much activity as Public Enemy‘s Bomb Squad at their peak. “Soma” rests on vocal loops – “easy come, easy go” – and contains the album’s only fully fleshed band line-up, giving it the full 1970s soul haze of piano, flute, sax, drums, keys, and backing vocals. In the closer, “Cascade”, the vocals slow right down to somewhere in the range of a “chopped and screwed” hip-hop remix, voices warped into languid puffs of warm air. In “Lament”, too, everything feels like it is falling down… Down… Down in a long sigh over a tapping one-note riff that picks at the nerves.
Certain songs are near wordless or circle key phrases, embellishing them, cracking them open, toying with them. “Exits” gives center stage to Mary Lattimore‘s harp, with the vocals a swirl of gusts and zephyrs. A reprise of “Violently Rooted” extracts a choral refrain from the complexity of the original, delivering it over steady organ groans and a bass rhythm seemingly blown on the mouth of a bottle. This is what true creativity looks like. Niecy Blues’ opens up a breathtaking imaginative landscape within each song through which the narrative moves like water, pausing or circling one detail or another, plunging past obstacles, vanishing through cracks to emerge in wondrous new terrain. Exit Simulation is the sound of thrilling discovery and, hopefully, the start of a long and rewarding journey in Niecy Blues’ company.