By Niy BirdenThere’s a certain magical occurrence that happens when soul and jazz is formed. Something almost more magical than R&B itself. And Leon Bridges certainly knows that.
It is safe to say that Leon Bridges won’t be abandoning the genres for a while-in fact at this point it almost seems as if he is set out to master it. Not only was his debut album a cornucopia of early R&B that shaped American music’s history, but his original compositions within it were written in such a way that would make one wonder if they were instead covers of actual songs done before his time.
It would be hard to say that he is in the top list of mainstream R&B artists right now, but only due to the fact that his sound is so authentically vintage that it doesn’t necessarily par up to the modern techniques of musicians on the charts currently. But he isn’t so far-off with his sound that he is an oddity or unworthy of the same praise. He’s simply in his own carefully-crafted lane. And this lane is becoming even more intriguing recently.
Leon first burst onto the scene with his nostalgia-infused debut Coming Home, which spanned a few hits such as “Lisa Sawyer”, the title track itself, and “River”, which was accompanied with a political and sentimental nod to religion. His noticeable adornment and affiliation with Motown-everything gave him a special place in the industry. Oddly enough, Leon- who was born Todd Michael “Leon” Bridges in Texas, was studying to be a dancer. But a chance with a friend in possession of a guitar and a few gigs created the triple-threat we have come to know.
His new fascination with the time of old-school Detroit even contributed to his stage name, Leon, which is the same name of the famous actor who has portrayed many musical icons such as Little Richard and David Ruffin, ironically enough both from the same eras. Even more ironically enough, the resemblance between him and the actor Leon certainly makes the transition believable. After changing his name and cutting a few demos, Coming Home blew up on Soundcloud and propelled him to performing on Saturday Night Live and getting nominated for a Grammy, amongst working with other well-respected musicians.
His ability to carry songs such as River with one backup vocalist and himself on guitar proved his acoustic soul roots. Which is why his sound overall works so well. With or without accompaniment, Leon is truly a vocalist.
With his new releases, :Bad Bad News” and “Bet Ain’t Worth The Hand”, Leon has adopted a more contemporary approach to his vintage soul aesthetic. Instead of checkerboard prints and poodle skirts, his new musicality seems to have moved towards the passion, pain and pleasure of the 60’s- 80’s, a time when disco and rock formed together to create a new sound that would single-handedly change the mindsets around Black music. It’s very obvious that Leon likes the classics.
Bet Ain’t Worth The Hand is an amazing new avenue for Leon both musically and vocally. In past collaborations, Leon’s voice has generally stayed the same with its slightly rough foundation and smooth vocals that sound authentic to the Motown sound that he emulates. But in ‘Bet, the pain of the lyrics are emphasized with each soaring note that Leon pushes. If Maxwell, D’Angelo, Curtis Mayfield and even Childish Gambino circa “Redbone” had a lovechild for this one song, it would come in the form of Bet. Interestingly enough, Curtis is indeed credited as a writer on the song. Some of the melodies and vocalizing almost directly resembles his own work.
The additional soft jazz that morphs into a slow, but still attention-grabbing R&B further emphasizes the pain and virtue of the subject in the song. “Don’t get your feelings broken for nothin’” is a direct testimony to either himself or the love interest he is lamenting to. But with the additional voices crying out in unison, it sounds truly painful, and makes the listener also regret whatever heartache the singer is about to bring to the love interest.
Bad Bad News however, is obviously the standout track.
The beginning speaks for itself. 4-on-the-floor drumming with bouncy snares, a lead muffled organ looping an infectious cycle, a brass section, and one of the best basses that has come out of a mainstream R&B musical release in years, all give an early sign that this is a feel-good record and any other use for it musically is strictly banned for taking away the sake of the context. Leon comes in, confidently stating:
“Ain’t got no riches, ain’t got no money that runs long
But I got a heart that’s strong and a love that’s tall
Ain’t got no name, ain’t got no fancy education
But I can see right through, a powdered face on a painted fool”
Leon then taps into a sound that we’ve seen come back to popular music- thanks to acts such as Bruno Mars utilizing call-and-response in funk tracks, further emphasizing the intent of the song for audiences:
“Let me slip through (Let me slip through)
Why you tryna hold me back? (I ain’t)
I’m just tryna move up front
Lil more of this, lil less of that (Can you feel me?)
Let me come through (Let me come through)
I’m tired being in the back (Aight)
I’m just tryna move up front
A lil more of this, a lil less of that, yeah”
With closer attention, the roots of his mother’s Louisiana upbringing also are voiced in this part. Second lines- local musical parades based around a brass band and call and response songs- are a very big contribution to jazz and funk, and it is something that has been attributed to mainly male musicians who are in the genre. This hidden brotherhood is heard in the backing chants by Leon’s singers, which, given the right context, actually falls very well within the theme of the song. In the video, Leon also does well of showing the live sound effect of the song with him dancing and singing in a large room full of musicians, all playing around a simple recording setup. The nostalgia and nod to his contemporaries basically overflows in the shot and the sound itself. And the jazz guitar solo makes the environment feel even more real.
The chorus arrives and holds a sense of purpose for both the artist and the listener, and when considered, can give relation to the state of affairs here in America. In the past, Leon has not vocalized his thoughts on racism or poor communities through his music, except for in River, a music video which features various subjects finding solace in the harsh environments and situations they are in. One of the most daring and heartbreaking scenes is of an African American male walking away, bloody, from a cop-filed street. He returns home, and is in tears, while his toddler is alone, crying. Eventually, the toddler makes his way to the father and he is embraced and held by him, lying on a bed-less mattress in a very bare room. It does not end happy, in fact it cuts to other subjects of the music video. But it is assumed that despite this very terrifying and disheartening moment, the father is assured in at least one thing, it being his son and what he is willing to do for him.
There’s a good chance that Leon isn’t referring to this concept, however. In the music video, aside from seeing Leon dancing and singing with the musicians, we see a woman in distress, for two reasons: she can’t stop sporadically dancing, and an unrevealed man is following her. Throughout the video, we see her making her way around a city, dealing with the stress of finding the stalker and having to hold back dancing. Eventually she is overcome with tears. In the end, she finds the man, stares him down for a second, and eventually takes a heavy breath and walks away. Whether it is a commentary on the sudden exposure within the #MeToo movement or not, Leon is definitely giving the concept of happiness being formed from hardship. Something that, like him, is not being given proper air time for mainstream music.
There is without a doubt that Leon’s new sound will be quite an adventurous and career-defining one for him. His ability to contribute music to various genres that he has based his artistry on is both courageous and admirable, and seems to be serving him well as musician. Leon’s sophomore studio album Good Thing is expected to release May 4th.