Part 1 of H.E.R.s ‘I Used to Know Her’ project was released earlier this year – six tracks which mixed rap and soul, using electronic beats and classic neosoul sounds like a modern Lauryn Hill. The second part of the project combines her previous style with real instruments, to carve out a soulful sound that is distinctly her own.
On ‘Carried Away’ the beauty of her voice and the acoustic soul of the guitar hooks us from the start. Singer Gabi Wilson wanted to play real instruments and show other women in soul that they didn’t need to be pigeonholed or stereotyped. She’s spoken of how producers would scoff at her guitar, shocked that a young black woman would want to play. You just have to read the ridiculous Pitchfork review of this project to see how biased some listeners can be towards a woman using the guitar. For me, H.E.R.’s willingness to experiment makes her a far more interesting artist.
Wilson took advice from those who had carved out their own distinct way before her. “Alicia Keys told me that when it comes to music, all you need is three chords and the truth,” she said in an interview with Apple Music. “I think you can apply that to life, too.” She may not be aware of the connection to country music but she knows the importance of authenticity in any genre.
‘Can’t Help Me’ creates a stunning sound, reminiscent of India Arie at her best. The song is about the difficulties of a relationship – how sometimes you can lose control and become someone you don’t recognise. She admits, ‘I’m singing because I’m done screaming out’. Music is a release.
Piano ballad ‘I’m Not Ok’ is filled with fear about being separated from your loved one, admitting her weakness and vulnerability in the long distance relationship. Trusting someone is hard. The simple, direct emotion of the song is its strength. Take You There is classic soul seduction, her voice sexy and sweet in equal measure.
The strummed interlude Going echoes the earlier problems of long distant relationships and separation caused by life on the road. Hard Place, like many of these songs, starts with slow strumming of her guitar and then builds into the most beautiful song on the record. She recently performed the song ‘Fate’ on Jimmy Kimmel, and while it showcases the dramatic shimmer of her voice, musically it does owe a debt to ‘Earth Song’ by Michael Jackson.
Final song ‘Lord is Coming’ begins as a spoken word lament against racism, materialism and the evils she sees in the world. It blossoms into a gospel song, seeking salvation from above.
H.E.R. is only in her early twenties and by using a stage name she protects herself and protests against the overwhelming demands of social media and online fame. Music is more important to her than image or fashion (although ironically her ‘anti-image’ has become an image in itself). The bewitching songs on ‘I Used To Know Her: Part 2’ suggest she is more than ready to step forward into the spotlight.