Andy Butler is a DJ, producer and creative mastermind behind NYC house/disco collective Hercules and Love Affair, who recently performed in Amsterdam as part of the Electronic Beats Presents series. Butler is also curator of the latest installment of !K7’s DJ-Kicks, released this past October.
Jessie Ware really couldn’t have come from anywhere other than the UK. Sound-wise, the country has a history of creating a very particular kind of R&B, and that’s something I can’t help but notice coming from an American perspective. Listening to Devotion for the first time I was reminded, in a very specific way, of when I first heard Massive Attack. As a kid, this attitude-laden but still subdued quasi-hip-hop represented an intriguing alternative to the gaudy home-grown rap I was used to. When Tricky first came out in the US it was nothing short of startling to hear a British rapper make a really dark, groove-oriented record borne of a completely different life experience—a different sense of race relations, even—to US hip hop artists.
The difference between Tricky’s blunted, insular angst and the P-Funk-sampling of L.A. rappers like Dr. Dre and Snoop is radical. Even back then I remember thinking to myself, “Why aren’t the hip hop producers over here doing this?” It may sound strange but I see Jessie Ware as emerging from the same broad British tradition as Massive Attack, Tricky or, to give another, more conventional example, Sade. It’s smart music from an outsider perspective that has afforded the artist an opportunity to really ruminate on the art of R&B, as if being one step removed from a particular historical context has liberated divergent potential for the genre. I was talking to one of my co-producers just yesterday about how with Hercules and Love Affair, I always attempt to incorporate singers from a genre outside of house music. “It’s a weird idea,” I said, and he looked at me and replied, “Isn’t that the whole idea?” And it’s true: very interesting things happen with outsider participation and perspective.
On a more simplistic but no less important level, Jessie knows how to handle that most clichéd of pop forms: the love song. She performs her emotions on Devotion in a sophisticated fashion. Her maturity as a twenty-seven-year-old manifests itself in her restraint: she doesn’t strain to be a pop diva and despite having a great R&B voice, her vocals are never allowed to overshadow the rest of the production. Unlike Mary J. Blige—to take an obvious example—where the voice dictates the mix, the elements in a Jessie Ware track are far more synergetic. This holistic approach works particularly well because the production is so attention-worthy, and it’s clear Ware’s attuned to the developments in bass music happening around her in the UK. Bristolian producer Julio Bashmore produced “110%”, and you can hear his boisterous house hallmark embedded beneath the track’s soulful veneer. “Still Love Me” is another example of standout, ultra-contemporary production, with its rough-grained and glitchy touches, loads of space between the musical components and a thick sounding and muscular bass line. It doesn’t require a great narrative, because that’s not where the focus is. And some of her lyrics are actually very poignant, at least to me: “Maybe in our wildest moments / We could be the greatest, we could be the greatest / Maybe in our wildest moments / We could be the worst of all,” from “Wildest Moments”, is an interesting articulation of what it’s like to be in a certain type of relationship. Perhaps this directness and turn of phrase comes from her experience as a journalist? It’s certainly a rare quality in pop music where the main currency is sentimentality.
The way that Ware handles relationships on the record chimes with Hercules and Love Affair to a point. There’s an overpowering theme of longing, of yearning. She often writes about being put in a compromised position in a relationship, which is the central thrust to one of the albums biggest tracks “Running”. The fact is, a mirror is held up to you when you’re in the midst of a difficult situation with someone you really love. You get to see all your flaws and you can see all of who you really are. Identity is formed through your interaction with other people and, while I think it’s a great source of creativity, it rarely survives being translated into music, because it usually collapses into triteness. This has turned people off love songs, particularly within the R&B format; it’s like, I don’t want to hear another slow jam, you know? However, Ware is doing something that demands more of your attention than traditional hip hop. It may not be immediate enough for America, but that’s our loss because there’s a lasting quality to Jessie Ware. For many of us, she’s not going to be someone we forget. ~
This piece appears in the latest issue of Electronic Beats Magazine.