After what seems like a decade of the dumbing-down of contemporary R&B music by up-and-coming acts striving for commercial success, young audiences who appreciate commercially viable soul with integrity have recently witnessed a burgeoning group of artists who respect the genre's foundation of melodic fullness and lyrical substance. Singer-songwriters such as Miguel, Frank Ocean, and Melanie Fiona have garnered both critical acclaim and impressive sales with distinctive hybrids of modern flair and time-tested tradition.
Gothenburg, Sweden native Sebastian Mikael does a commendable job of combining street-smart hip-hop R&B tracks and mellower, adult contemporary slow jams on his debut album, Speechless. While the trade-off of reflective numbers such as the Stax-inspired "Forever" and "Beautiful Life" with sex-clusive, somewhat emotionally devoid tales like "Last Night" and "4 U" is a little bit perplexing, the overall assimilation of radio-ready hooks with an underlying old-school sensibility make the set a pleasing listen throughout.
Many SoulTracks readers were likely introduced to Mikael via his breakout single, "Last Night," a laid back midtempo rider incorporating a substantial sample of Al B. Sure!'s 1988 classic, "Nite and Day." The summer-friendly jam is a fitting opener for Speechless,gliding seamlessly with the singer's supple tenor phrasing and uncomplicated production by Lamb and Derrick "Bigg D" Baker. Even Wale's somewhat trendy rap cameo doesn't detract too much from the mood of the arrangement. It's followed by the funky romp, "4 U," which replicates the go-go style beat pattern of Jade's '90s hit, "Don't Walk Away." Mikael sounds equally comfortable in this uptempo setting, nicely sliding falsetto lines (minus the usual auto-tune) into the tune's rhythm-heavy structure. Although it's disappointing that the female subject's "booty" is the ultimate impetus for him "leaving all my girls just for you," the number is nonetheless enjoyable for what it is: a feel-good, top-down head-nodder with an engaging vocal delivery (now, if only there were an edited version without rapper Rick Ross' unnecessary guest spot).
After the first couple of singles-driven selections, the remainder of Speechless provides a nice glimpse of Mikael's ability with straight-ahead, heartfelt material. The aforementioned "Forever" is the standout. "We've been to hell and back and here again/Enemies, the best of friends, we'll work it out," he croons with earnestness during the song's emotive chorus. Co-producer TJ adds bluesy inflections to the guitar-tinged arrangement, serving as a nice backdrop to the urgency of the story line. Elsewhere, the hard-to-resist groove of "Thinkin' About You Girl" brings to mind the late Guru's Jazzmatazz, atop which Mikael employs a lightly seductive plea to his dream girl: "Tell me that you were meant for me/Baby please, sell me a dream." Meanwhile, the atmospheric beat-ballad "Lose It" (penned by the singer) meshes dreamy high notes with a potpourri of echoing synth lines and sound effects that underscore the cut's concept: "Time is not of the essence/See, I wanna waste it all on you."
Tapping into a more acoustic vein, the last two entries on Speechless—"Crash" and "Beautiful Life"—draw a pleasing conclusion to Mikael's relatable artistry. The former begins, sans beats, with an understated verse placed over nimble guitar strains and a subtle keyboard ostinato, while the closing "Beautiful Life" explores universal questions of self-image and personal direction amidst a simplistic percussive template that allows plenty of room for the guitar lines and Mikael's tender performance to shine through.
While Speechless won't win a slew of awards as a result of out-of-the-box song structure or unconventional vocal approaches, it will hopefully introduce a younger listening demographic to melodic authenticity and a well-tempered production approach which complement the singer's style. The album is a solid showcase of a sentient vocalist who wisely takes a few cues from the current musical landscape without letting it overshadow his individuality. Recommended.
by Justin Kantor
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