Rahel’s sexy, innovative Alkali is part of a new wave of R&B, but let’s not make up a silly name for it

The teenies have been lousy with indie rock bands trying to tap into their nostalgia for 90s R&B. What it takes to make something that authentically nods to the capstone days of SWV and Xscape is not just a heartfelt knowledge of that moment. To craft the perfect paean, you have to be able to take what influenced you in your youth and advance its narrative. Lo Motion/Camp & Street singer Rahel accomplishes a feat that a multitude of so-called alt-R&B artists have been trying to do since that sub-genre name was coined. Artists have been futzing with the commonalities of R&B for decades, but when it was Jodeci, we just said they were doing something new. With artists like Awful Records affiliates Abra and Alexandria and a slew of others who were featured on FACT’s 10 R&B Artists to Watch in 2015, listeners and critics are finally ceasing to look at mutation as the alternative and acknowledging that striking distance with commonality is about innovation, not aberration.

Alkali does this not only in the billowing romantic textures of the beats, but by employing a narrative structure and shirking the über-raunch or utter scorn of R&B au courant. Do your things, Ty Dolla $ign and Keyshia Cole, but there is still room for sweetness to take back some of the reigns. The album is packed with crystalline amorous yearning, made only more heartfelt by Rahel’s impressive vocal range — we knew how low she could get when she appeared on LE1F’s 2013 cut ‘Damn Son’ but, here, proves she can knock a gorgeous, thick falsetto out of the park, too.

Executive produced by The-Drum’s Jeremiah Meece, it is more than just a record — it is a mood piece. Each track delicately intertwines, but not just through smooth sonic transitions. Its lyrics are just as tactile and its sequencing (intentional or not) tells a story of shaky, swelling love and obvious — but disappointing — heartache. The uncertain, sticky-sweet ‘Bae’ – a duet with fellow Camp & Street signee DonChristian – is a blooming cloud padded by the pair’s vocals that become increasingly more manipulated as the track progresses. Sentiments like, “Kiss me on the stoop / In the cold” and “Put me on your list / I’m waiting for your lips” conjure the satisfaction of allowing yourself to just want someone. But Alkali is more about what happens and how you feel when you don’t get it. There is quiet, beautiful desperation in tracks like the sumptuously percussive, ghostly-vocaled ‘Flutter’ — “Why can’t you see it? / I only see you” — and in the giggly, coquettish, we-grown-now spoken interlude on the breathless ‘Restless’.

That doesn’t mean the album doesn’t have moments of more suggestive sexiness. Its lead single ‘Serve’ is a skip dinner, head straight for dessert jam, embellished by Rahel’s murky murmurs of, “No starters, I want you on my plate.” But if this is the part in Alkali’s story where its protagonist finally gets her man, it just goes downhill from here, romantically-speaking, before a triumphant end. Songs like the Khallee-featuring ‘Hello’ and album closer ‘Easy’ (produced by The-Drum) are both surrealist, but where the former (like ‘The Break’) are about feeling gutted, ‘Easy’ is about brushing it off when it’s not up to snuff. “Telling you boys, I’m yours / While you hide behind the clouds,” Rahel sings. “I don’t want that / I don’t need that / Give me feedback.” It may start with beseechment for attention, but the album concludes with self-preservation. The entire product is about love, whether it’s on a crush or developing one on yourself, its immersive sound guiding you to and from those points. With its beauty, innovation and descriptions of staid passion, this is a new wave. Let’s just not make up a silly name for it.

Photo by Lindsay Keys.