Album of the Week: Various Artists - ‘Saint Heron’

There's no better snapshot of experimental R&B in 2013 than this classy compilation from Solange Knowles, featuring Sampha and Kelela.

'Saint Heron' is the first release from Solange Knowles's Saint Records label, and it's an ambitious one: collecting together the luminaries of R&B in 2013 - including Fade to Mind first lady Kelala, Drake collaborators Sampha and Jhene Aiko, and Knowles herself - the compilation is a time capsule that freezes in the motion the shimmers and shivers of the R&B landscape in its current form. 

It arrives in the wake of Knowles's Twitter observation from January, when she historically gave birth to the #DeepBrandyAlbumCuts hashtag with her calling out of blogs and publications that didn't know the history of the genre, and who she accused of "acting like it just popped off last year for R&B. Like it just got interesting and experimental." You could read 'Saint Heron' as her full stop on that statement: some of these artists just "popped off" this year; many of them have been working on their craft for years now; all of them bring something entirely different to R&B in 2013 while working from a familiar, long-established palette.

The album's primary focus is on the elasticity of the genre, from the somersaulting voices it displays to the way in which the production stretches to encompass influences as far-flung as you can imagine - such as the creeping bass and mechanical pulses of the dance underground all over LA-based duo BC Kingdom's and cult star Cassie's tracks, or the spacious electronica of Spanish producer Pional's deconstruction of South African soul artist Petite Noir. Kelela, as heard on her year-conquering debut mixtape 'CUT 4 ME', entwines her voice so closely with the Fade to Mind crew's sharp-edged production that she's got all the daring and intrigue of a knife-swallower at the circus; meanwhile, the futuristic context of 'Saint Heron' makes Londoner Sampha even more direct and personable than usual. His soft voice sounds as though it's in the room with you, maracas turn next to your ears, crisp piano chords hit close to the bone. Confessional singer Jhene Aiko gets even futher under the skin with her bass-rich cut Drinking & Driving, which creates a jarringly honest self-portrait with its use of a sensual palette to talk bleakly about using sexual experiences to "feel alive" and "feel like I'm still here".

Moments of warm lust and cold experimentalism dance together fluidly across the album, the metallic pulse of Cassie's sparse and poker-faced Indo running headlong into the sample-rich textures and playful call-and-response of India Shawn's I'm Alive. Both of these tracks struggle to stand tall over their entire length, with Cassie's minimalist structure - for the most part she sings, backed by traditional harmonies, over glassy and distant production until the fast-talking choruses inject some urgency into the track - wearing itself out rather than intensifying, and Shawn's "I'm alive" refrain crossing the border from the reassuring mantra to irritating earworm after a few repetitions. Still, both are built on a foundation of exciting ideas: Cassie's voice is thrown under the kind of scrutiny she's hardly ever invited, shedding the armour of lush production and opting for something much riskier. Shawn, meanwhile, invokes the nostalgic effect of piecing together a pop industry heard on the radio, making scrapbook music that pays tribute to it through the eyes of the adoring girl who used to sing into her hairbrush.

While the album sometimes suffers for its lack of direction, it's surely only because so many directions are posed by this collection of forward- and sideways-thinking tracks. With one eye on the low-slung ease of Brandy's understated R&B classics (documented brilliantly here in an hour-long accompaniment mix from the Saint Heron team) and the other eye on an icy, deeply self-aware future, this album is a gilded gateway into some of the ideas leading the charge of R&B this year, but by no means an end point or the apex of what those ideas can achieve. It's a companion piece to 'CUT 4 ME', 'Dual', 'RockAByeBaby', 'Sail Out' and 'Origin', never quite reaching the heights heard on those releases but placing them together in a narrative to indicate what the future might just sound like. 

8/10

Saint Records released 'Saint Heron' on the 11th November 2013.

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