Raised in Stockholm but currently based in Los Angeles, Persian R&B singer Snoh Aalegra has given us some of the most emotionally available, haunting vocals of the year.
Formally releasing music since her poppy 2014 EP, There Will Be Sunshine, Aalegra made waves in 2016, with Don’t Explain, an album which summoned neo-soul influences and showed off her breadth of talent. In just three years, the singer-songwriter has worked with both Common and No I.D., and found her voice sampled on Drake’s “Do Not Disturb.”
Aalegra describes her music as “cinematic soul,” and on her debut album, FEELS, she follows that blueprint to a T, with a cinematic element marking the difference between Aalegra as just another songstress and a creative force in R&B.
Let’s start with the obvious: Snoh Aalegra has a gorgeous voice. The critical question facing her debut is not “Can Snoh Aalegra succeed as a singer?” Instead, when you have so much raw talent at your disposal, we have to ask, “What can Aalegra achieve, artistically, with her singing?” After living with her debut album for a few weeks, and using it to ease me through a full day of migraines, I can say with full confidence that Aalegra has succeeded as an artist.
FEELS is immediately explorative, a record that demands several listens not because it is heady, but because the luxurious production insulates you in Aalegra’s world. Only after that first immersive listen, though, will the album's central theme—the importance of space to communicate a journey—seep into your soul.
On the intro track, “All I Have,” Snoh uses vocal stacking to build a distance that is meant to be broken. That is, coming into a consciousness of yourself, your emotions, and your capacity for love. On “Sometimes,” she carries over the atmospheric tone and emotional depth from the intro, along with a superb feature from Logic, to emphasize the space between the listener and Aalegra’s voice. The space after Logic’s feature is used to approach us with a confession: “Sometimes life just happens to me.” When paired with her drifting vocals, however, this serves to highlight her lack of emotional agency.
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In fact, almost all of the features on FEELS address Aalegra’s emotional availability in some capacity. Vic Mensa, while attempting to patch her broken heart, validates her woes on "You Keep Me Waiting," and in the video for “Nothing Burns Like the Cold” we find Vince Staples, eyes glazed over, sitting ten paces away and never breaking her gaze. Staples delivers a succinct verse about Aalegra’s cold heart while inviting her over to talk, ushering the album along in his pragmatic Vince Staples way.
Between menacing horns, twinkling keys, chilling strings, and funky scratches, “Nothing Burns Like the Cold” elevates to the album’s standout track.
Even still, the curse of the album is instantly recognizable: FEELS was made for the patient listener. This is a full body of work that isn't meant to tumble down the album-to-playlist pipeline, and so we must wait. Our ears have been trained to expect instant gratification, so it’s easy to get frustrated, but I promise that the emotional swells on this record are worth it. The greater payoff is a record to live and grow with, one that will continue to surprise you and connect with you from week one to week 52.
Don’t let the distance put you off; where Aalegra wrestles with her emotions vocally from afar, the instrumentation on this album overflows the gaps. The seemingly endless floating of the first arc of the album is offset by the creeping bassline on “Worse.” Aalegra’s voice relays more of its earthy timbre, instantly hooking the listener with her seductive cadence. As FEELS unfolds, the drums become more engaging, backed by rhythms on clavinet levels of funky.
The fog begins to clear on “Out of Your Way,” where Aalegra’s vocals are on full display, and aside from “Fool For You,” this is the lone moment on the album where her whole heart is on the line—by itself—by way of giving us every unfiltered note. In many ways, FEELS is an album about risktaking and deciding when a risk is worth the potential cost. FEELS becomes an intimate look into Aalegra’s battle for vulnerability, which is in itself a very vulnerable offering.
As hip-hop and R&B fans, we’re accustomed to watching our artists grow and become comfortable across a series of projects, but here, Aalegra has distilled that process into her debut album. Even at her most distant, FEELS never hits the point of inaccessibility, and even during moments when I felt impatient while listening, I still appreciated Aalegra’s willingness to give.
Talent means nothing without proper execution and to that end, Snoh Aalegra’s creativity is what will give her more than a fighting chance to become an R&B mainstay.