In 2013, the GRAMMYS added a new category to their existing slate of awards: Best Urban Contemporary Album. Not unlike every move the GRAMMYs make, fans and media members roundly criticized this decision. It reeked of the show’s history of relegating traditionally Black music to its own categories while continuing to under-acknowledge its importance on music as a whole. “What the hell does ‘Urban Contemporary’ mean?” people pondered incredulously, before ultimately deeming it a meaningless moniker.
Seven GRAMMY ceremonies later, I’m still at a loss for how to interpret this supposed genre of music. And yet, I can somehow say with great confidence that The Juice Vol. II—the sophomore project released by the anonymous R&B duo, Emotional Oranges—feels like the first project reverse engineered explicitly to win this award.
To the extent this sounds like a backhanded compliment, it’s not. The actual music on The Juice Vol. II is good—great, even. It just feels produced. It’s not that the seams are visible, it’s that the seams are so invisible, this perfect stitching becomes a distraction. Listening to Vol. II feels like looking at a photograph so flawless, you can’t help but think about the steps that went into retouching it.
For a more concrete example of this, consider the song “West Coast Love.” Built around slick production that easily recalls late ‘90s R&B, the song aims to tug at your basest cravings for nostalgia. The lyrics conjure imagery of blacktops and after-school activities. At one point, they even explicitly ask you to ponder: “Oh, how the time goes by.” When the song directly interpolates A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It” for its hook, all signs point to this being overkill. Except, it works. The song is so pleasant, the nostalgia just washes over you. It’s like a great Super Bowl commercial: Clearly manipulative, but so well-made you don’t care.
Across the project’s eight songs, comparisons like these come naturally. “Don’t Be Lazy” is a catchy, mid-tempo song sounding like an out-of-touch music supervisor would cherry-pick it for the background of a movie scene marked “nondescript, late 20s house party.” “Just Like You” scans like a marriage between The xx and Phil Collins, except it mostly sounds like Majid Jordan. On their own merits, both songs are great. They just sound so manufactured; their moving parts start to become visible.
Partly, Emotional Oranges bake this feeling into their brand at large. Because they’re anonymous, they need not worry much about infusing their music with authenticity or personality. Instead, they possess the freedom to serve as vessels for perfectly contoured songs. Two projects into their career, however, you start to wish these goals weren’t mutually exclusive. If a song like “Iconic” needs vapid lyrics like the following to be an earworm, then perhaps the earworm isn’t worth it:
“She got me like ooh / ain’t no tellin what I might do / to a girl like you / tell your girlfriend to come, too”
That it took two full projects for me to pick up on the fundamental flaw in Emotional Oranges’ formula is proof that it works. Sonically, you could maybe criticize Emotional Oranges for leaning a little too heavily on their inoffensive mid-tempo, but that’s about it.
I’m not sure I’ll ever understand what the term “Urban Contemporary” is supposed to signify, but whatever it is, Emotional Oranges are the genre’s finest ambassador.
Standout Track: “Not Worth It”Best Bar: “In the shadows of my father, watched all his mistakes / I did my best to learn from ‘em, changed my motivation”Favorite Moment: The interpolation of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It” on “West Coast Love.”