BY STEVE ERICKSON| When the singer who calls himself serpentwithfeet (his real name is Josiah White) released his 2016 debut EP “Blisters,” it was a genuine UFO. If you need a genre tag, one could call him an R&B singer, although he describes his music as “pagan gospel.” In any case, his vocals push a melodramatic impulse toward near-operatic tendencies, and he frequently sang over samples of classical music.
The fact that he’s an openly gay man with a pierced septum suggests a certain distance from gospel itself, at least as much of Christianity currently defines it. But African-American singers like Marvin Gaye, Al Green, and Prince have combined a yearning for the flesh and God throughout their work, with the latter two eventually choosing religious conversion (despite a host of extremely sexually explicit lyrics from Prince). Last year, Canadian R&B singer Daniel Caesar’s “Freudian” suggested a return to this vein, with gospel samples and references strewn throughout. Its title track, however, ended the album on the words “Mama, I lost my faith.”
The second single from “soil,” serpentwithfeet’s debut album, is steeped in the duality of sex and religion, with a particularly gay angle. On the surface, “Cherubim,” whose title refers to winged angels, sounds like a gospel song, from its title to the use of choral vocals and the chorus “I get to devote my life to him.” It takes the language that a Christian might use to describe being “born-again,” including references to worship, and employs it in a love song to a man. Similarly, “Slow Syrup” uses references to rapture and salvation to describe being stuck in the “friend zone.”
The album takes for granted that even the smallest elements of serpentwithfeet’s life merit immense gravity, along with a sense of humor. “Waft” takes this tendency to the point of parody: it builds up a huge amount of melodrama with lyrics about not wanting to date a man because he wears cologne. “Mourning Song” speaks about the performative nature of grief toward a dead lover.
There are no credits for samples of other recordings on this album. Serpentwithfeet produced or co-produced every song on it and played keyboards, too, but he also worked with four co-producers: mmph (who released an EP of experimental electronic music last spring), Clams Casino (who has worked with well-known rappers like A$AP Rocky and Mac Miller), Katie Gately, and Paul Epworth. All of them get credited with keyboards and drums as well, with Gately getting listed for backing vocals and “live sampling” (whatever that means) too. The orchestral sounds on this album are convincing but seem to be electronically generated, and the masses of vocals are probably serpentwithfeet overdubbed.
In a statement in his record label bio, serpentwithfeet says, “I’m constantly talking about how black men are always manspreading… For a long time I was interested in what would happen if we rebelled against that and we were small… I have practiced that smallness and quietness and that’s fine, but now I don’t want to be that delicate.”
“Soil” explores an African-American male identity that’s both forceful and femme. In American culture, this is not very fashionable right now: the British singer Benjamin Clementine or the queer white one-man band Perfume Genius might be the closest comparisons. The most popular solo male R&B singer right now is the Weeknd (aka Abel Tesfaye), who started out making excellent and sonically adventurous mixtapes. But his explorations of the emptiness of drug use and casual sex devolved into a shtick where he embodies a cruel, substance-addled misogynist on album after album to diminishing returns. Serpentwithfeet makes his personality felt in a way that’s over-the-top without ever coming close to machismo.
The shock of the new that I heard on “Blisters” continues on “Soil.” Serpentwithfeet has created his own musical world, one that sounds like nothing else out there. Even calling his music R&B feels vaguely racist, although that’s the genre to which it fits closest. But “Soil” has a sonic vocabulary all its own, based on vocals layered a dozen times so that serpentwithfeet can hold a dialogue among himself, synthesized orchestration, and booming percussion.
Its gospel influence recognizes the importance of the church to African Americans but also takes its reference points in a direction friendlier to gay men than Christianity historically has been. “Soil” is an album with its own vocabulary, and it demands that listeners accept serpentwithfeet on his own terms. At a time when it often seems like new music just consists of repeating cool influences from the past in various combinations, he delivers true innovation.
SERPENTWITHFEET | “soil” | Tri Angle/ Secretly Canadian | Jun. 8 release | secretlystore.com/soil-serpentwithfeet
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