Debut EPs can go one of two ways. Either they serve their purpose as a fully rounded introduction to an artist, or they actually undermine their credibility by being too much, too soon. But don’t worry. One of the most exciting talents in music’s debut offering fits into the former bracket perfectly. It is, of course, Lila Iké.
Lila Iké The ExPerience, released via In.Digg.Nation Collective and RCA Records/Sony Music Entertainment, is nothing short of revelatory. Musically bang up-to-date yet fascinatingly inventive, expertly constructed and with Iké showing the full length, width and depth of her skills. It is also impossible to box in, although if pushed it would stand as a 21st century Neo Soul affair. The ExPerience is perfect, without exception.
The EP opens with the 2019 smash Where I’m Coming From, with production from the ever-excellent Kasadie Jones. It’s a fitting starting point, as it not only lyrically introduces Iké to the listener, but musically sets the ambiguous and intricate tone of the whole project well.
On the face of it, the main musical devices are ostensibly Roots: the keys are on a bubble rhythm, giving that instantly recognisable, edgy offbeat stutter. The bass is interesting. It takes the Roots/Dub device of a syncopated riff that drops the third beat, but on the first bar of each phrase it drops both the third and the fourth; moreover, it rhythmically mimics the melody at times, taking it into Rocksteady territory. There’s some Dub use of reverb and samples/synths present as well. But breaking down Where I’m Coming From even further reveals multiple influences aside from Roots.
The drums avoid a one drop altogether, with the kick hitting directly on the first beat of each bar and nothing else. Coupled with this is the focus on the hi-hats and snare. But the latter instrumental lines are more complex still. Jones and Iké have stripped them right back, often with just the snare on the upbeats, or a hi-hat-snare riff. But at certain points the hi-hats break into semiquaver buzz rolls, with the snare on the ups plus a distorted synth snare catapulting itself in. It’s all a bit borderline Trap, but with the riffs and buzz rolls at a much slower pace.
But were taken back to Roots with the occasional lilt of a melodica and blast of horns – and this and the Trappy percussion is perhaps the best instrumental manifestation of the track’s message: a nod to heritage (“looking back at where the journey began”), but firmly centred in the present; charting a developmental passage of time and growth. It’s an extremely smart, well-constructed track with a fascinating slice of instrumental anthropomorphism to boot.
Next, and Solitude moves the EP away from Roots and into a more 21st century Neo Soul territory. The composition and production from Ziah, JLL & Iotosh first hones you in on the bass. It centres around the root chord’s triad with a flourish in the closing of each phrase; a more traditional Soul technique versus the heavily melodic and syncopated style used in Roots. Iotosh and Lamont “Monty” Savory’s gently strumming acoustic and electric guitars reflect this also, with the former doing notated then running arpeggio chords and the latter performing whining riffs with distinctly Funky bending.
Percussion-wise, and Solitude is stripped right back to intelligent unfussiness. The snare is on a rapid, semiquaver brush and percussive clicks focus on the upbeats. This sparse arrangement gives the other instruments room to breathe, but still provides enough momentum to keep the track going in places, before falling back for a metaphorical pause for thought. It also allows for Sean “Ziah” Roberts’ violin to take centre stage as a counterpoint to Iké’s stunning vocal. It’s a masterstroke: it flits in occasionally during the early and middle parts of the track, but then returns with force towards the end. Roberts gives an exceptionally well-performed solo – full of expressive vibrato that mimic’s Iké’s own, pointedly built crescendos and delicate glissandos. It almost has the feel of something from the late Jazz violinist John Blake, in its intensity and almost mimicking of the human voice. The sum of all these parts is an extremely brooding, simmering and sublimely constructed modern Neo Soul cut. Phenomenal.
I Spy was the last single to drop from the EP. And with the production talents of IzyBeats at the helm it was always going to be stunning. You can read Pauzeradio’s full review of it here. It’s a glossy mix of Roots, Afrobeats and RnB, with the latter being a fascinating splash of the Ambient, brooding Toronto sound pioneered by Drake.
For example, Iké and Beats have split the chorus’s arrangement into two. Part one is shimmering yet haunting, with the percussion cut, the synth organ given prominence and the bass gliding around Iké’s melody. But the part two then goes hard on the Afrobeats via the driving percussion. This descriptive use of arrangements fits the sensual lyrical content well. Then, just for added ‘Toronto-ness’, a heavily Ambient bridge sees the decay on the snare ramped up along with a high pass filter, the rhythm goes half time; the choral backing vocals become even more layered and the whole thing feels otherworldly. It’s a gorgeous composition and performance from Iké – and a genius move by In.Digg, releasing it before the EP.
The impeccable Winta James and Lamont “Monty” Savory make their first production appearance on Stars Align. It uses the basic riddim featured originally on Protoje’s Bout Noon, and more recently Mortimer’s No Lies. But Iké, James and Savory have taken the composition several steps further to the side of these predecessors. The deep, persistent Hip Hop drum arrangement remains, compounding the sensuality set by Protoje’s original cut. The kick hits the first downbeat; the hi-hats run a semiquaver riff and the snare accents the ups. The bass, meanwhile, is more Roots that Hip Hop – running a consistent riff that drops a beat at times, and also up an octave on what you may normally expect. This creates the effect of keeping the track light, but also honing the ear in on the persistent drums. The airier bass also serves to give more prominence to the whining, Isley Brothers-esque electric guitars.
The dampened and reverbed treble clef piano riff increases the spaced-out, chilled feeling even more. But the overall arrangement differs slightly to Protoje’s original: the stripped-back bars used as his verse have been moved to the start, with the heavily layered chorus sequence remaining the same. Where Protoje’s second verse stripped the percussion right back and had an acoustic guitar gently riffing, Iké’s does the same percussive trick but includes dampened electric guitar chord on the offbeats to enhance the atmospheric feel. The same arrangement happens on the third verse, but with the guitar’s presence increased and a distorted, forceful synth snare adding a Trap vibe. The acoustic guitars from Bout Noon appear on an instrumental bridge at the end. But Protoje’s bridge, where the dampened piano takes centre stage has vanished. Overall, this musical realigning of the basic riddim serves to make Stars Align’s sound more Ambient, otherworldly and borderline Toronto RnB than Bout Noon – and marries with the celestial body-led theme perfectly. Ingenious.
James returns on Forget Me. His style is always utterly fascinating, because (much like Iké) he refuses to be boxed in; check Nattali Rize’s latest cut Worldwide Rebellion as a pertinent example. Here, the Toronto RnB droplets found on Stars Align are more emphasised, accompanied with other factors in play. The drum line is Afrobeats, with its snare hit direct on the second beat and then the offs between the third and the fourth. The bass is Roots and percussive buzz rolls firmly put some Trap in the mix. But the use of haunting electric guitars brings some Soul in, as does a reverbed organ.
Then, unexpected stabbing horns on regal riffs add a Roots/Ska dimension – but they’re gone as quickly as they arrived. Replacing them are heavily reverbed and dampened keys, on an unsettling double time riff, which marries with Iké’s furious singjay at that point well. Strings then enter, building on this – and the track reaches a crescendo, both musically and lyrically. But it’s the production which brings in Toronto RnB values: James’s use of decay across some of the instrumental lines creates the recognisable, unnerving feel of the genre. Also, the dB engineering doesn’t focus heavily on the bass, allowing the other instrumental lines to be finely tuned to fully encompass this disconcerting feel, too. Forget Me really is James on top of his game, and it perhaps encapsulates what a 21st century Neo Soul track should be about: taking current genres, amalgamating them with some more traditional elements to create a wholly unique sound. Uneasy bliss.
Second Chance was one of Iké’s earliest releases from 2018, with Alfred Simpson doing production duties and Aswad providing a sample from Love Fire. It’s the most Roots and Dub heavy track of The ExPerience, with all the familiar devices present: a bubble rhythm, a more walking bass than it is syncopated, heavy doses of breaks, reverb and synths and a one drop led by a furious snare. But Simpson has taken the sensibilities of the genre and messed with them somewhat – putting some heavy high-pass, dB engineering and EQ on the horns – so they sound almost if they’re coming from another piece of music, but butting into this one without its permission. It’s another fascinating musical anthropomorphism: the horns reflecting the voice of Iké’s lover, droning in her ear that they’re sorry and begging to be taken back. It’s a strong track, and its inclusion in the EP important – as it’s perhaps the heaviest, most obvious nod to the fundamental genres that have played their part in shaping Iké as an artist.
Lila Iké The ExPerience closes with Thy Will. It sees Iké team up with mentor Protoje. And as such, it’s not only an appropriate conclusion to the project but musically it cements her place in the Revival movement – as the track is a perfect, experimentally ambiguous masterpiece, using Sly & Robbie’s Baltimore Riddim. It is, of course, Roots-driven with its tinny keys’ bubble rhythm which is at Dubbier times reverbed, decayed and tempo’d-up almost out of existence. The drums hone in on the upbeats via the snare, and Ska-like horns punch in and out. The call and response backing vocals nod at the Soul/Gospel influences the genre has. But the bass refuses to drop a beat, which forces the track to move away from that stuttering, offbeat-driven Roots vibe into something heavier. This, coupled with the kick hitting on the beats and the hi-hats incessant one-two-three makes Thy Will at Roots-Hip Hop hybrid. It’s powerful, resonating stuff and a fitting conclusion to the project.
It would be remiss not to mention the quality of the backing vocals on The ExPerience. The highly skilled percussionist Hector Lewis lends his equally skilled vocal to Thy Will, with producer Ziah showing his versatility on Solitude. But the inclusion of two of the industry’s best, Sherita Lewis and Chevaughn Clayton, on Stars Align and Forget Me cements the calibre of the project. Both are now accomplished solo artists in their own right: Lewis released her groundbreaking debut EP Conversations in Key last year, and Clayton most recently did the stunning collaboration Live Another Day with Kumar on the Kulture Walk album. And their talents raise the quality of this EP even further.
The thematic content is extremely well-crafted, too – taking you through the full journey of a relationship, not often fleshed out to this extent in musical form. From the ‘first date’ Where I’m Coming From, the EP moves into the emotion-pondering Solitude, musing about Iké’s feelings. I Spy discusses the cementing of the physical side of the blossoming relationship, before Stars Align encompasses the spiritual. But The ExPerience takes a mood shift in Forget Me, dealing with the breakdown of the connection that at first had so much promise. Second Chance does what it says on the tin – that moment many of us may have had when we think of someone: “can we fall in love like we did before?” And in a final and ultimately humble yet self-empowering move, Iké’s personal and musical resolution concludes where it should: that the one true relationship many of us should have is with Jah – with whom our real trust should lie. It’s unusual to see this level of detail on one subject mapped out to this extent; clearly demonstrating the highly personal nature of the EP. But Iké’s skill as a lyricist has turned her experience into a literary masterpiece set to music. And Thy Will also serves a dual purpose: being a closing to the EP, but a clear interlude in Iké’s musical journey – hinting at the more conscious, message-led music we can expect in the future. Genius.
But it’s Iké’s vocal which drives the project, and the wrap-around skills of In.Digg show the label at the height of its powers. Because The ExPerience has been finely tuned to be the perfect introductory vehicle for the singer. The mix of genres and styles gives Iké the chance to flex hard the full range of her vocal talents. It was clear from her previous work that she had a sublime voice. But on tracks like Thy Will she fully explores her full range, drilling down into an upper-alto range while also flipping into a high soprano via her head voice. Forget Me lets her play with intonation and dynamics to hammer-home the lyrical content – using both in line with the music to create orchestral peaks and troughs. Her singjay is pitch-perfect, utilising both repetition and rhythmic improvisation to emphasise her syllable delivery. And her skill in terms of breath control to manage the lyrical phrasing, and vibrato application at just the right times to evoke feeling, is not only technically brilliant but audibly emotive. Utterly compelling and bearing all the marks of a gifted artist.
Lila Iké The ExPerience will no doubt stand as one of the strongest debuts, and EPs, this year. Expertly crafted using some of the best yet daring production talents in the business, it paints a vivid and dazzling picture of the potential of Iké as an artist. She has one of the most recognisable and unique voices around, coupled with a searing quality of lyricism – and both these talents are realised in full, here – in both her highly skilled vocal performance and the construction of the EP as a whole project. If this is Iké giving us an introduction to her artistry, then a full album will surely be deft-defying. Momentous work. Lila Iké The ExPerience EP review by Steve Topple (14th May 2020).