For the last four years, we’ve seen a young Gabriella Wilson take over the R&B world. The former child prodigy and four-time Grammy-winner—also known as “H.E.R.”—has been everywhere, whether it’s in Youtube videos of her eating Filipino food or her electric performance at the 2020 NFL Super Bowl. The young artist’s newly-released debut album, Back of My Mind, is dazzling. Each song couples unconventional production with sharp vocals. Granted, H.E.R. has always been gifted; we saw that when she sang Alicia Keys’s “No One” (while also playing it on the piano) on The Today Show when she was only 10 years old. But she has evolved. Her songwriting is special. And she has nailed the art of modern pop in the way she glides between singing and rapping seamlessly. She is a musical genius.
The album starts with “We Made It,” an ambitious declaration of H.E.R.’s arrival. It is celebratory and yet it never dwells. It bounces around with transitions as smooth as butter. The layering of Wilson’s voice combined with the layering of sounds is spectacular, with a shower of drums and a hard-hitting beat coupled with Wilson’s potent vocals. “Trauma” is the next standout; H.E.R. explores past traumas with scintillating rhythm. This is followed by “Damage,” a funky single about allowing yourself to be vulnerable in a relationship while having to be aware of the possibility of your partner taking advantage of your emotions. The album takes a twist in “Bloody Waters,” where Marvin Gaye vibes meet a Thundercat bassline.
The kaleidoscope of sounds and moods is elusive, though. Just when you think this album’s going in one direction, it goes the opposite way. This becomes even more evident in the album’s second half. “Did You Mean It” builds upon the aforementioned relationship issues, and H.E.R. showcases her writing ability. She candidly discusses facing a liar who broke her trust in a relationship. She then follows that song with “Paradise,” a hip-hop song about dreaming of a partner. The next song, “Process,” features lots of wordplay as H.E.R. ponders a relationship’s “process” and “progress.” The LP then starts to settle down. “Exhausted”—a stripped-down, poetic track—shines in this stretch.
And indeed, just when you think you have a feel for how the album will end, it transforms. The last two songs shift the album back to the feel of the opening song. “I Can Have It All” showcases quality studio production. And finally, Back of My Mind bows out with “Slide.” H.E.R.’s flow is better than ever in this hit single. And it’s a solid ending for a solid album. To be fair, I started listening to Back of My Mind last week. My perspective will evolve. I might even edit this review! For now, there are parts of the LP that feel disposable—so it isn’t one of my favorites—but I respect it. H.E.R. showcases a rare ability as a multi-octave singer; a groovy pop artist; a makeshift rapper; and overall as a multi-faceted R&B artist. There are things she can work on. Then again, she is only 23 years old. And I know that she can do even better. Still, Back of My Mind will generate waves in the pop world.