The love song may well be the best genre of song. At least, that’s how I see it.
When we want music to be vulnerable, smile-inducing, pensive, relatable, complex, and easy to sink into, the love song satisfies each of these categories. Love songs just work.
They strike a chord in me that can change my mood regardless of how Bipolar is treating me on a certain day. There is a genuine joy behind a quality love song which reads as ephemeral. The brilliance of the thing is that it takes a universal feeling and gives it a new language. Where gastronomy reinvents the way we conceive a meal, the love song reinvents how we conceive one of the most sought after emotions.
When I hear a love song, no matter my romantic affairs, I want to dance. When I hear a love song, I want to twirl around my apartment with two finger widths of dark liquor and become weightless. When I hear a love song, I forget I have deadlines and copy editing work, and I remember what it means to feel pure joy and smile for the simple fact I’m good at it. When I hear a love song, I know what it means to be alive and to live for something. I don’t need to be in love to feel the thrill of budding romance and late nights unraveling a person in my chest.
The song does the work for me. I’m there; I love it there.
“There” involves myriad types of love. After all, there are so many ways to be in love, and, consequently, so many ways to communicate that love to an audience. But few have nailed the art of the love song like our effortless loverboy Smino, our smart and sheepish Ravyn Lenae, and our sprung-as-ever Rex Orange County.
These three artists work together to craft the guidelines for the modern day love song. Whether we’re talking rap, R&B, or the tender amalgamation of the two, these three names have tapped into what makes love songs such artful and wonderfully vivifying things.
Smino stands out as an auteur of love simply because his romantic side is effortless, natural, and craftily woven into his music. Even the dirtiest of lines—promises to annihilate the pussy, if you will—are delivered with a tender candor that makes him out to be a sly lover and nothing more. Truly, it is how he peppers love into his music that makes his brand of love song so striking. His latest album, NOIR, is a wine-drunk, dark red, plush affair that has love written all over it in fine print. As we know, everything is in the fine print.
NOIR opens with “Kovert,” with the voice of a woman speaking of what “Noir” means to her. She speaks slowly, obviously directed to be convincing and sultry in her approach. Thus, Smino grants himself the essence of femininity and that energy carries the album.
The record is as much about Smino as it is about the woman Smino is so fascinated by. When the woman on “Kovert” speaks, we feel as though we are being lifted and examined by gentle, inquisitive hands. It is the same feeling we get when a lover opens us up for the first time; gasping for air and wanting more intimacy in the same go.
NOIR is riddled with Smino’s natural romanticism. We have “I got a boo, and she good to me” on “Kovert;” sweet calls from his girl that he’s her “Lil’ baby” on “L.M.F.;” and promises of mesmerizing women obsessed with astrology on “Tequila Mockingbird.”
The list of references goes on, but the structure of these “love drops” mimics how love creeps up on us and brightens our days. Your partner crosses your mind for the most fleeting of reasons, and everything feels okay for that second because you’ve got each other. In much the same way, Smino works love into NOIR as a sporadic thing to bring us joy.
A touch less brazen than Smino, Ravyn Lenae takes a far more coy approach to her love songs. Her smart and jazzy Crush EP opts to pepper in affirms of agency and self-love (“Night Song”) along with Steve Lacy-helmed duets (“4 Leaf Clover”) and ballads about the pursuit of intimacy.
Lenae, 20, makes herself out to be one for pining, but not one to be crossed. She takes the lifting and unraveling sensation established on NOIR and turns it on its head to be a sensation of coming together and working in unison with the person you love (“Computer Luv”). There is, of course, a joyful kindness to Lenae's approach. She is patient with her lover, though they are unjustly playing games. Ravyn Lenae is unbothered and unfettered on Crush. She believes in love and believes that to be enough.
For a majority of the EP, love certainly is enough. Despite her frustrations on “Sticky,” we immediately go into “Closer,” which as the parenthetical title suggests, is an ode to the love giving her a headache. The magic of “Closer,” aside from Ravyn’s impeccable and cascading vocals, is the fine details that work much like Smino’s scattered mentions of romance. She sings: “You take me, tickle til' I laugh / I love it when you take me 'round your boys like I'm your girl / I love it when you run your pretty fingers through my curls,” and it is within these small adorations that we can build a truly loving soundscape.
Ravyn’s writing on Crush is dynamic in the way falling in love is dynamic. She begins and fixates on the little things; the tiny gestures and furtive movements that make love specific and worthwhile. That is her ethos.
No one else will ever run their fingers through her hair in that same manner, and it is the cherishing of that simple act that makes her a master of the love song. Her care for the minutia makes her a brilliant writer and allows us to relate and smile along. If it’s not hair and curls, it’s some other drop in the ocean of giving that brings us closer to her music.
Rex Orange County
Rex Orange County has been in love for almost the entirety of his popular career. His adoration for his girlfriend, Thea—also an adept singer—has been well-documented. Not to mention, he wrote all of Apricot Princess, his present opus, as a love and apology letter to her. That is, Rex Orange County excels at love songs by amplifying the fleeting (“Nothing”) and adding in the importance of growth (“Untitled”) to make his music holistic.
Apricot Princess—also titled after Thea’s pet name—is proof that the love song is the perfect invention, for the album not only features sprawling declarations and an expansion of the sheepish delivery of both Smino and Ravyn but also has Rex taking the blame and admitting to his flaws.
The record demonstrates how love can warm us, but also push us to be better people. It’s the decidedness of Apricot Princess that makes it such a romantic force, as it opens with “Yeah, I wanna show them / That this ain't a fantasy, she's my best fucking friend,” mimicking how headstrong we can become when madly in love.
Outside of his records, even Rex’s singles are love-forward. 2017’s “Loving Is Easy” is blissful and giving. The ethos of the track is simple: love is easy so long as you try. Moreover, his most recent song, “New House” takes the sublime specificity of Ravyn’s writing and ups the ante. It also plays as a matured response to “Loving Is Easy,” beginning “It doesn't come that easy anyway.”
Yet, nothing here is downtrodden, as he sings, “I can see us in a house next year / (You'll be) making your mind up / You can figure out what goes where / (And stay) keeping it real with me all the time / All the while, they can't touch me anyway / So I'll be holding it down with you every day.”
It’s the dream of the song that makes it a perfect love song. Not every listener is moving into a house with their beloved, but you’re lying if the idea of decorating a place with your favorite person doesn’t spark pure joy. And that’s a love song in general: it brings you nothing but joy no matter how you’re feeling. It makes you dance. It makes you drink for joy. Jump for joy. It takes the hyper-specific and makes one love story our love story, and ain’t that a beautiful thing?