Bringing Warmth Back to Soul: The Retro-Futurism of KING’s “We Are King”

020416- King's "We Are King," courtesy artist

Jon's Take


R&B is changing.

This is because music is changing, of course, and we never really go too long stuck at just the same sounds, but also R&B is changing because it’s a strange genre designation that means a lot of things and nothing. Rhythm And Blues once meant the music that Little Richard and Chuck Berry and other black artists of the pre-integration South made, before people started calling it Rock and Roll when Elvis did it, but somehow that label is also applied to Usher, and Marvin Gaye, and The Weeknd, or maybe the R and B in R&B have gone the way of KFC and SAT. It’s a genre that maybe just means melodic songs performed by black musicians, except when it isn’t.  but also could sometimes mean hip-hop beats without raps, or the most soul-churning synths of depressed kids on laptops, which seems to be its most common association at the moment.

We Are King - KING

KING definitely takes its cues from those last two styles, backing the vocal duet of incredible Amber Strother and Anita Bias with some impressive synthetic production from the group’s third member and producer, Amber’s sister Paris, that squelches, hums, and whirrs in ways that would make for impressive ambient EDM. But what sets it apart, what makes it feel so, paradoxically, new are those vocals, which take their cue from a relentlessly old style of R&B.

The vocals on We Are KING, the group’s first full-length album out this week after a more than 4 year break since their debut EP, sound like disco, in the all of the best ways. They sound retro, warm, smooth and silky, escaping from the dark atmospherics that have typified the genre of late. Like the best of the genre, KING is bedroom music. But that comes with a feeling of joy and, dare I say, love, as opposed to the erotic despair that has been the province of R&B recently. Bias and Strother evoke Donna Summer, or maybe Janet Jackson, perhaps not in the sounds of their individual voices, but in the inviting soulfulness of their singing style. They are light and airy, high pitched without sounding empty, like a taste of honey more than a shot of drank.

The production, though sounding very rooted in current trends, does an impressive job of backing up the retro vocals with a beautifully warm sound. Little bits of pop hits from decades past sneak into the textures—a flourish from an electric piano, a handclap or bell-like chime, and even the occasional saxophone seeping in. It creates, rather than a collection of songs, a constant vibe, a welcoming and sensual one, that wraps you in a blanket.

KING (from left to right): Amber Strother, Paris Strother, and Anita Bias
KING (from left to right): Amber Strother, Paris Strother, and Anita Bias

The lyrics are as sweet as the sound—seemingly unironic songs mostly about innocent and almost childish love. “There’s magic in everything you do, supernatural/I’m in love with everything ’bout you, and I wanna stay here,” tells the chorus of “Supernatural,” one of the three songs comprising the group’s initial EP from 2011 that is featured here in an extended form. The extended version of the song includes an extra two minutes for a plaintive intro that starts on piano, before expanding outwards into a beautifully full texture of harmony and countermelody, organic instruments twisting around shimmery synths, that melts into the beginning of the track. It’s We Are KING’s best song, and it exemplifies what makes the group’s sound work so well.

KING exemplifies the best of pop, the sheer abandon of beautiful melodies, the conquering of heart and soul over your mind. But if it loses its mind, its brain remains intact. KING is relentlessly smart music, with a technician’s ear and a precise focus. Everything sounds intentional and meticulous.

Listen: “Hey” (Extended Mix) – KING

“Hey,” another song that has been extended from the 2011 EP, highlights the best of Strother’s studio and multi-instrumental wizardry in its added coda. For the last minute and a half that closes the album version of the song, the paired voices that had been spinning around each other in round begin to subsume into the synth-y backdrop, become almost part of the atmosphere as a retro-futurist synthesizer takes lead.

KING does an incredible job of using the studio like an instrument, but in a way that never loses sight of the organic power of the human voice. The album sounds like it comes from several decades ago and the future while remaining grounded in the immediacy of now. It’s a dream that invades your ears and fills the room. It’s sexy without being dirty, and soulful while still being cerebral.

I’ve written before about the moment we’re in, when the spacey synths that bubbled up in R&B’s underground have taken over the mainstream. It’s also a moment when hip-hop has taken the best parts of R&B for itself and R&B is beginning to take it back. The meaning of this already perhaps meaningless genre is in flux, but even in this moment of change, KING stand apart with a sound all their own, even if they do it not through a flash of novelty, but through digging up roots that became buried.

But most of all, they do it with sounds that are just immensely pleasing to your ears. What more could you ask for?

We Are King - KING
We Are King – KING

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