Our Take: Chris McClenney Proves His Promise on Debut EP “Portrait in Two”

Chris McClenney © 2017
Chris McClenney © 2017

Alex's Take


Jazz, soul and R&B music are arguably among the most emotive genres. Born out of the black experience, they are passionate and deep-rooted, existing because of the need for expression. Often characterized by songs that portray life’s difficulties, they are all sophisticated and complex varieties of music. Chris McClenney is a 23-year-old artist making “music for the soul,” according to the “genre” section on his Facebook page. An artist so young claiming to create authentically poignant music raises unavoidable uncertainty, leaving McClenney with a lot to prove, to say the least. He independently released his Portrait in Two EP on January 13, and the 11-track set shows genuine promise in regards to McClenney’s self-proclaimed genre and style. Jazzy, funky and soaked in soul, the project gives us a look into the future of R&B/Soul music.

A singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, McClenney holds nothing back on Portrait in Two, but the EP also manages to feel effortless, with grooving beats and silky vocals. McClenney’s voice shines over the music while the beat commands an attention of its own through deep bass, thoughtful synths and plenty of piano. Modern electronic influences are evident on “Headlines,” the most popular track off the EP – it exemplifies classic R&B while tying in modern day production with memorable results. Lyrically, McClenney confronts new contemporary tribulations, offering a juxtaposition to his not-quite-vintage sound.

When I see you a vanity lurks in your eye
Just a glimpse of the feeling you’ve been trying to hide
Know you’re stressing ‘bout people don’t try to deny
‘Cause the hue of the envy is rooted in your timeline
Listen: “Headlines” – Chris McClenney

The addiction to social media and the need to know what’s going on down to the second is a problem unique to this generation, but McClenney avoids clichés by opting for clever wordsmithing, an honest reflection, and ultimately a confrontation, of the issue.

Portrait in Two offers thoughtfulness in spades, and while the spoken word intro and interlude tend to feel more unnecessary than fulfilling on first listen, they show us an unfiltered insight into McClenney’s worldview that eventually becomes appreciated. “Consciousness (Intro)” feels the most honest, as it unfolds into a battle between the angel and the devil on McClenney’s shoulder that likely took place throughout his creative process.

You never practice piano
You’re falling behind
You need to get a real job
Chris, can you hear me?
Chris McClenney © 2017
Chris McClenney © 2017

Looking further down the tracklist, “Pearl” is a song about wavering love and need. McClenney’s first official single, his vocals communicate passion and true emotion, backed up faithfully by deep bass and funky guitar riffs. Here, his mature lyricism comes through once again, making seemingly simple feelings and extremely saturated subjects sound fresh and original.

(I’ll always remember)
The butterflies when we had our, first kiss in LA
(I’ll always remember)
It was summertime and I could feel the heat in the eyes you gave me
Do you remember the promises made to you the first night I stayed?
I’ll never surrender, you know together we’re better
(I’ll always remember)
Listen: “Pearl” – Chris McClenney

Not bound to lyrics and vocals when it comes to making music, “Untitled (Funk #2)” is presented as an instrumental just above the middle of the EP. A pleasant surprise and a clear standout, it stands up to its poetic counterparts with a grooving bass underline that will undoubtedly get your head bobbing and feet tapping. Presented without vocals aside from background chatter, it feels like an interlude in the best way possible – a welcome break built from straightforward and well-composed music.

Coming together as an introspection, a critique of society and a musically imaginative collection, Portrait in Two shows range and dedication. It has the ability to feel intimate and personal, as well as expansive in both subject matter and production. Throughout his debut, McClenney’s proves his commitment to making well-rounded and pensive music that reflects the world we live in today, while also reminding us what we love most about old school jazz and soul.

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cover: Chris McClenney © 2017

Portrait in Two – Chris McClenney

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