What It Is, the new album from multi-instrumentalist, producer, and Quantic collaborator Sly5thAve, represents a triumph of musicianship over genre conventions. Sylvester Uzoma Onyejiaka II’s second LP is sleek, polished, and luscious, a gentle display of finesse that pulls from jazz, hip-hop, and electrosoul to build a well-balanced soundscape. A tight-knit crew of longtime collaborators bring smooth vocals and flowing raps to the table, an extra layer of warmth and fluid motion that makes the listening experience even more engaging.
An atmospheric opening, “Boulevards”, features the dreamy vocals of indie soul singer Denitia in the first of her four features on the album, laid back over a steadily building mix of low synths, layered beats, distant guitar, and Onyejiaka’s virtuosic horns. The track flows seamlessly into “Consequence”, which sees those layers solidify into a flute-accentuated core. Halfway through the tune, they unwind once more and dissolve. The sax rises to a freeform fever pitch, an early show of pure skill that sets the bar high for the rest of the album.
As high a priority for the album as skill is variety. The title track delivers on this, an indulgent pop song with a slight Stevie Wonder feel that foregrounds the fresh talent of rapper Scienze and, near the end of the track, singer Lexus musing on weed, sex, and the good life at a mellow pace. Harsher electronics add an edge to “C-Side”, which sees Denitia return, stark, and smoldering as her voice flows over and through the cyber vibes. Rapper and singer Sene croons his way through melancholy “Daddy Warbucks” in satisfying contrast to the song’s vigorous percussion.
An orchestral interlude introduces “Expatria”, a stretched-out, trap-touched piece with Grammy nominee Thalma de Freitas on impassioned vocals. The following track, “The Night”, is another piece of smooth, soulful pop, Melissa McMillan’s voice breathtakingly sensual within a quiet storm of jazzy sounds. A spacy interlude leads into another dulcet Denitia ballad, “Right Here”, followed quickly by “More or Less”. Here, rapper Marlon Craft slings what are easily the album’s quickest verses, and Onyejiaka takes the opportunity to add some fire of his own in the form of a brief, fantastic sax solo. After one more interlude, the album closes as it opens: with Denitia drifting like a mist over wistful instrumentals for the finale “With You”.
At the crossroads of straightforward pop and intense musicianship, What It Is sits comfortably, innovating without taking listeners past the point of having a good time — a move that not all good artists have the sense to make. Sly5thAve, though, has both the wisdom of a seasoned producer and an unstoppable enthusiasm for new sounds. That makes for great vibes, plainly stated, and one palpable in everything from Onyejiaka’s full instrumental foundations, his electrifying sax solos, and his collaborators’ buoyant vocals. This is an album that, for the care taken in its crafting, is easy to enjoy, to listen to straight through and over and over, another promising release from an artist with a knack for both style and substance.