By Thomas Johnson, October 18, 2017 —
Since the 2011 releases of Frank Ocean’s Nostalgia, Ultra and The Weeknd’s House Of Balloons, R&B is easier to categorize than ever. Reductive copycats can generally be lumped into two groups — the irreverent, starkly personal sad-boy crooner à la Ocean or the Weeknd-esque clandestine self-destructive punk. Releases rarely fall in between or outside.
In 2017, a “traditional” R&B album is about as left-field as those landmarks were half a decade ago. Elijah Blake’s Audiology fits that traditional bill and will prove to be one of the year’s best in the genre.
Audiology is filled with grand hooks and show-time production that could make a curmudgeon moonwalk. It’s modern because it employs techniques that dominate charts today, but wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the early 2000s. It’s steeped in history despite its levity, effortlessly conjuring the ghosts of standards like Genuwine and R. Kelly. Blake’s voice falls somewhere between Bilal and Prince, yo-yoing from lofty falsettos to deadpan baritone and back. Standout “Technicolour” actually goes as far as interpolating the opening verse of Prince’s “Lady Cab Driver.”
Blake initially broke into the recording industry as a ghostwriter, helping write hits for the likes of Big Sean, Keyshia Cole and Usher. His ease with the pen is obvious throughout Audiology, where some of the more sly lyrics are delivered with a wink. Blake has a knack for injecting his sanguine ballads with irreverent details, building scenes like a rom-com auteur. On “Rendezvous,” you can practically see him meeting his nameless muse by the stiletto store — right by the family diner, talking slick over a joint.
In search of progression, Blake forewent his contemporaries and looked about a decade into the past. Like the best of what preceded it, Audiology sounds bright, colourful and euphoric when so many others would rather emulate the idiosyncrasies of the genre’s vanguards. Ironically, it’s a singular record for that reason. Elijah Blake’s brand of R&B may not shift the paradigm, but refreshing an established medium is praise-worthy. After all, great music is timeless.