A lot of our readers are sick of Drake, and we get it. That said, he's the most popular artist in recorded music today-- like it or not, huge artists make the world go round. Still, while blockbuster albums get everyone talking - and writing - it's the smaller releases that fly under the radar like a stealth bomber that seem to pique my interest and stick with me long after I’ve seen the Views and lived The Life of Pablo.
Allow me to introduce Snoh Aalegra.
After meeting her on Common's Nobody's Smiling, I've kept a watchful eye on the Swedish born singer, and even interviewed her. She's appeared on "Senorita," a standout from Vince Staples' excellent Summertime 06, and has already released a project of her own. While her work has always impressed me, it didn't seem to stick with me on a deeper level. I kept with her, though, because it felt like she was developing something special (shades of Anderson .Paak).
It turns out that my patience was rewarded, as I found that special something on her latest project, the Don't Explain EP. There hasn’t been a project I’ve listened to more over the past four weeks, but sometimes the hardest things to see are right under your nose. Don’t Explain has been the soundtrack for many a Metro trip, many a late night walk around D.C. and many a post-gym relaxation session, but it wasn’t until yesterday when I reached Drakexhaustion and immediately turned to Aalegra to recharge that I realized the importance of this project.
While I’ve been presenting Snoh as the alternative to Drake so far, the reality is there’s some very striking similarities in the liner notes. The Don’t Explain “mini-album” features production from Frank Dukes, Boi-1da and DJ Dahi - all three worked on Views - along with Aalegra’s mentor No I.D. and a John Mayer guitar feature as a kicker. It’s no wonder the production shines. With those names attached you'd expect dynamic, larger than life beats, but this has a completely different feel. The instrumentals are rich and vibrant, yet so understated, allowing the album to flow like water.
To quote Brendan, "In Your River sounds like a Bond movie set in Cuba.'" He's right, "In Your River" is captivating, as is one of my favorite tracks, “Charlieville 9200." The production by Dukes and Boi-1da is airy and light but you can still feel it, like the mist after a spring storm. That mist is cut by some crisp drums which give the song a great 1-2 punch and then the outro, which features James Fauntleroy contributing guest vocals, is intensely intriguing. It both takes the record in a different direction and segues into the next track, “Home,” perfectly. I always seem to start my listening session with the intention of only listening to “Charlieville 9200,” but before I even realize it I'm well past "Home" and nerding out at the breakdown at the end of “Don’t Explain.”
I rarely listen to albums from cover to cover, but with Don’t Explain it’s almost an unconscious decision. Once I start, I can’t really seem to stop until the project is complete. “Under The Influence” and “Under The Influence Pt. II” are great examples of why. “Under The Influence Pt. II” is one of the most memorable moments on the album; just a few songs after being served a shaken Martini in Havana, I’m transported to a smoky jazz club as Mayer delivers an effortlessly emotional solo.
While I dig the instrumental cut as a stand-alone, if I skip part one, where Allegra's hazy, emotional vocals really set the stage, it doesn't pack the same punch. The relationship each track has with the track that follows -- sequencing! -- is an essential part of Don’t Explain and makes the body of work a truly cohesive effort. When I think of Dukes, No I.D., Boi-1da and Dahi, I think of huge, giant moments, but Don’t Explain provides something different. There is no huge explosion, just a very slow burn.
The production is a highlight, yes, but Aalegra's contribution can't be understated. Where lesser singers would get swallowed up by this caliber of production, Aalegra excels. Her thick vocals are always brimming with emotion and serve as the glue that holds the album together. She’s the one constant on a project that's constantly evolving. Her vision, though, is the talent I admire most. Aalegra doesn’t sound concerned with being a mainstream star, with belting out high notes and making every track all about her. Instead, she works with the production, not just over it. Throughout the nine tracks she leaves room for drum breakdowns, changes and accents in the instrumentals - even a strictly instrumental track. Rest assured, she'll leave her mark - "In Your River” would be nothing in the hands of another singer - but she's bound and determined to do it her way.
Interestingly, if you cover up the names attached and muffle the hype, this release is eerily similar to the one that's getting all the attention at the moment. The beauty of music, however, is that we can enjoy both the blockbusters and the hidden gems. We don't have to choose.
I'm not choosing Snoh over Drake, or Views over Don't Explain, I'm just trying to share some music I love. Regardless of fame, if the music is great it deserves our time. Make time for Snoh.