Sevana: Be Somebody EP Review by Mr Topple for Pauzeradio.com.
Let’s get the formalities out of the way first. The incredible Sevana has finally released her latest EP, after teasing us with a single earlier in July. In no uncertain terms, it is a triumph.
Sevana Be Somebody, released via In.Digg.Nation Collective and Six Course/RCA records/Sony Music Entertainment, sees Sevana put pen, heart and soul to music and paper, with six tracks co-constructed with various producers. From the off, this is her project – not least co-writing all the tracks, being the creative force and co-director of Be Somebody’s first two accompanying music videos and being co-executive producer with Protoje. But it is the EP overall which is truly remarkable..
It opens with the title track, featuring production and all instrumental performances from Charlie Pitts and Benjy Gibson (two of the four members of Brixton, UK-based Funk/Soul/Hip Hop hybrid band Bamily). Be Somebody encapsulates the whole essence of its namesake. Because while the track sounds Soul, it’s inherently influenced by other genres, too.
It’s dominated by several features, not least the ambiguous bass line. Borrowing a drop-rhythm from Roots/Dub, which skips the third beat of every bar, it also works around the root triad of each chord progression – a style of melodic arrangement in Reggae, before Rocksteady brought in more diatonic/chromatic melodies. But the rhythmic pattern has more of a Funky Soul swing with its dotted notes, as opposed to a more walking line you’d expect in Roots. This clever arrangement amalgamates the feel of both genres well.
The drums are less straightforward. The kick works across a dotted arrangement, at its foundation a ‘oneeeeee-twooo-anddd-(three)-and-four’ sequence, which in another life is not dissimilar to an AfroDancehall clave (or back further in time, a Boogaloo rhythm because at points it’s also almost a motif of the bass). There’s additional syncopation at the end of certain bars – and a nod to Roots as it also sometimes drops the one. Meanwhile, the hi-hats and snare perform choppy licks; all very Hip Hop with the occasional roll at the end of a bar which also brings in tom-toms.
Then, the electric guitars make up the third dominant feature. One line is heavily wah-wah’d with the mid and treble of the amp turned up, and it strums constantly across four semiquavers, giving the track an incessant pace. Again, this is almost as if Sevana, Pitts and Gibson have taken the idea of a Roots skank (that dotted, offbeat rhythm) and embellished it – leaving the most subtle but noticeable of nods. Another guitar line riffs almost out of earshot, with the feel of something summery and almost Isley Brothers-esque. Separately, two lines of keys feature: one, a dampened electric organ running smoothed-out chords, and another, more high-passed piano sound which runs a responsive countermelody to Sevana’s. Add in some reverb, and Be Somebody starts the EP as it means to go on: a 2020 Neo Soul track, with the influencers being Roots-derived sounds. Glorious and atmospheric.
Next, and Sevana moves into the realms of pure but sensible experimentation with Phone A Friend. Producer-supreme J-Vibe (behind Kaylan Arnold’s stunning track At All, among others) is back with bang and again pulling no punches. His distinctive ability to expand above and to the side of standard Roots is once more witnessed here.
Some ‘usual suspects’ in terms of Roots are in play – but heavily messed with to sound far away from Reggae. The rounded, 808-like bass is highly syncopated, running a semiquaver-led drop beat rhythm which pursues a frantic pace throughout, elevating the relatively slow BPM to feel double the time. Meanwhile, the kick assists with this, hitting directly on every quaver beat. The only indicator of the real BPM are the keys. They run a bubble rhythm, but the production and engineering of them is such that they’re high-passed, tinny and raspy with a heavy dollop of reverb thrown in. They occasionally hit stark, searing chords which are then elongated via reverb and decayed quickly into oblivion. On top of this, the hi-hats and rim clicking snare are rudimentary, with the latter marking the two and four of each bar along with some snaps. These nods to Roots and Dub coupled with the mashing-up of the BPM via some clever rhythmic arrangement, has created a track whose head tells you it’s Reggae, but whose heart seems to want to be in EDM. Much like label-mate Lila Iké’s Roots/Reggaeton/RnB hybrid I Spy with IzyBeats (who features later on Be Somebody), Sevana and J-Vibe have created a track wholly ambiguous – yet again ingeniously pushing musical boundaries.
The scorching Mango, with its equally sizzling video, sees Sevana team up with producer Jean-Andre “J.L.L.” Lawrence. It’s a lightly-touched yet thoroughly scintillating throwback to some Old Skool Dancehall vibes (pre-AfroDancehall, where the lines are blurred). Crucially, the accompanying video takes on this vibe with its 70s-style use of a faster lens speed, desaturation of colour and softening. But yet again, the song is not quite what you’d expect.
The opening, with some Calypso-esque, dampened but strumming electric guitars from Lamont “Monty” Savory (who produced Iké’s EP cut Stars Align) sets the airy, breezy tone well. They continue throughout the track – running a persistent, tightly-clipped and staccato skank. Their acoustic cousins then ripple in and out with arpeggio chords at points across the track, nodding to more lilting RnB. The inspired use of (what sounds similar to) a bottle bell synth brings the track back to something more tropical – and then the Dancehall kicks in.
You can’t ignore the huge, vibrating and EQ’d to almost distortion-level 808 bass – working off that go-to, three-beat, two phrase clave (‘oneeeeee-twooo-and’ x2). But Sevana and J.L.L. have used it selectively so as not to overwhelm proceedings – yet enough to plant the track firmly in the genre. Hi-hats and the snare take their lead from this motif, with additional buzz rolls dropped in. The brief klaxon synth is brilliant – and the whole arrangement is phenomenal, creating an extremely fascinating sound that sits between RnB and Dancehall. Particularly impressive is that none of the elements are overkill: it’s delicately balanced by Sevana J.L.L. to glide between sparse RnB and intricate yet still light Dancehall.
But then out of nowhere, there’s an absolutely stunning bridge as well – which goes full-on powerhouse, 90s ballad. It starts with just her vocal, arpeggio-running guitars and the kick, before bringing in frantic hi-hats/rim click snare and some screaming, rasping, Soft Rock electric guitars. All this is set against her slowly building vocal which increases in pitch and dynamics, before additional backing lines come in even higher; reaching a lustrous crescendo before the ‘Dancehall style’ comes back in. Sevana channelling one of her inspirations, Celine Dion, perhaps? Either way, it’s perfect – as is the whole track. Utter genius.
IzyBeats is perhaps one of the world’s most in-demand producers, having previously earned a Grammy with Koffee and thoroughly impressed with Iké and I Spy. So, him and Sevana teaming up was always going to be thrilling. And the end result, Blessed, certainly is.
Completely different to I Spy, Blessed sees the fascinating juxtaposition of traditional African musical flavours with something more soulful – with flickers of Gospel from Sevana herself.
The track opens with blocks clicking a dotted crotchet-semiquaver-crotchet rhythm which stays on repeat throughout – starting on the off before, and then hitting, the downbeats. Djembe tinker in the background, transporting you to the Motherland. A deeper-pitched one (or tuned kick) is utilised across the track, running a four-beat quaver rhythm, beginning on the third beat. This accenting of the middle part of the bar creates breathing space at the start; allowing Thomas Broussard’s gently flowing guitar to come in, marking the first beat then doing spaced-out arpeggio chords and a laid-back riff – again, continuously across Blessed. This unfussy rhythm section is a staple throughout – and Sevana and IzyBeat’s delicate hand has the depth of creative power to know not to overcomplicate things further.
The drums are sparse, not entering proceedings until the start of the chorus. Hi-hats literally just do the briefest of rolls, coming in on the first offbeat of bar one of the two-bar phrase. But they vanish as quickly as they appeared when the second verse begins – and don’t even feature on the following chorus. And that’s it. This simple yet effective arrangement has been cleverly done so as to allow Sevana’s vocal to shine.
Her backing vocals are also central to Blessed. Inherently Soul, they consistent of multi-layered harmonies, working off responses to her main vocal call. She also employs a secondary solo line, which improvises over the main one that keeps the basic melodic structure. But further to this, Sevana unleashes the Gospel-tinged side of her voice for the first time on Be Somebody. She growls and burns as complex runs are scattered over Blessed’s main melody. Her use of diatonic notation set against the more chromatic, semitone-shifting melody is also exceptionally good. And the whole package is a well-conceived, smartly stripped-back composition for Sevana to bounce off.
Next, and the track If You Only Knew is a melting pot of Roots sensibilities and Sevena’s Soul-come-Jazz vocals – with production from Kelsey González of Free Nationals. You can read Pauzeradio’s full review of it here. Like much of the EP, what stands out he sheer quality of the musicians which take If You Only Knew to higher plains. And this in turn brings in additional influences from other genres.
González’s bass is the centre piece of this. It’s the track’s driving force, not least because of the engineering by him and Itai Shapira, and mastering by Chris Gehringer, which have given it comfortable, but not overbearing, prominence. But González is clearly a skilled musician, as it’s his technique which also cements its role. He seems to use a pick, as opposed to fingers, which serves several purposes. Firstly, it removes some of the smoothness of the bass, giving it an edgy feel and creating more staccato notes at points. Secondly, this technique (due to the hand resting on the redundant strings) means only the intended notes sound. All this in turn leads to the feeling of momentum across the track. It’s glorious to hear such skill in a bass, and refreshing to also auditorily observe this technique applied to Roots. Of course, it should be expected from González, given Free National’s Funky Soul origins.
Then enter Vicky Nguyen’s Wurlitzer, another joy and more nodding to If You Only Knew’s Soul overtones. Its use is unfussy – working around root chords, but with the delicateness needed from Nguyen to create a mild vibrato and sheer resonance. Paul’s drums also showcase his skill, as the intricate, stuttering, offbeat rhythm is no mean feat to achieve and maintain – but he does so with metronomic precision. Back to González, and his bubble-rhythming guitars have almost a Surf Rock feel about them, with some elongated use of tremolo and that slightly raspy yet still delicate timbre, probably created through tinkering with the mid and treble on the amp. Add in Ramon Ginton’s contradictory additional guitars, which have more focus on the bass of the amp to create a warmer, richer sound – and these delicious juxtapositions add depth the arrangement. The end result is unpretentious yet expertly crafted and delivered class.
Be Somebody concludes with Set Me On Fire. Protoje, central to both Sevana and Iké’s meteoric rises, co-produces with J.L.L. again and also Paris La Mont Dennis II. And it is perhaps the most revelatory track of the entire EP.
Effortlessly fusing elements of Hip Hop, Soul and Jazz, at times it feels like the Trip Hop of the 90s has been reimagined for the 21st century. The drums pensively tinker, the focus being the hi-hats and snare which skip beat one, but hit the rest with some offs as well – while the kick double-hits the breath they take on the first beat. It borrows overly from Hip Hop, but is performed and engineered to be far less abrasive than the genre normally would be. Meanwhile, Donald “Danny Bassie” Dennis’s delicately-plucked bass mimics the kicks double-up on beat one, before running three beats before and across beat three. His style is very effective, working across fairly staccato notes which crescendo and decrescendo in line with the ebb and flow of the song. These two unrelenting yet almost sombre elements provide forward momentum and counterbalance the other, more intricately scored instrumental lines.
Dennis II’s piano runs a separate, Jazz-feeling and sympathetic accompaniment to Sevana’s melody, working around a combination of chords and right-hand melodic runs and riffs. Again, the focus isn’t on grandstanding and boldness; his performance is measured, sitting between mezzo piano and pianissimo at times – which brings home the Jazz as opposed to an RnB/Soul line which would be harder and more incisive. Savory’s guitars are a gentle yet persistent inclusion. And to finish this off, J.L.L.’s soulful string arrangement, with the violin performed by Sean “Ziah” Roberts, is gorgeous. It waxes, wanes, whimpers and sobs – performing an effective secondary backing vocal line. The attention to detail in the switching between staccato and legato to convey emotion is absolutely worthy of an orchestral arrangement. And like Dennis’s bass, the light and shade in dynamics, and here also vibrato, are very moving.
It’s hard not to lavish too much praise on Sevana, the producers and musicians for Set Me On Fire – as it is, in every sense, stunningly executed. But her performance on the track is nothing short of perfection – and perhaps encapsulates her as a vocalist across the EP, best.
Sevana is, in no uncertain terms, almost precociously gifted – Set Me On Fire showcasing every last drop of her talent. In terms of range, she is completely comfortable in a middle alto, where her husky yet still annotatively sharp (pitch and quality-wise) voice can growl and mourn equally. She then rises up to a high soprano, maintaining a chest voice with a crystallite clearness that is as piercing as it is regal. She also utilises her head voice extremely well – employing it at times in her mid-soprano range for emotive effect, before breaking into it again higher up her register – and flitting between it and her chest voice seamlessly, often across the same note or syllable.
Her vibrato is deep and resonant, in terms of sounding like its coming from where it should be (the diaphragm, as opposed to the vocal cords). She also controls it well, having the ability to sustain a straight tone before breaking into an expressive quiver, often delicately altering the rate of it, too. Sevana’s breath control, like her vibrato, also shows her technical ability – as she is able to maintain the lyrical phrasing appropriately, without taking breaths where they would mismatch with her words. Runs are rapid, melodically in pitch and with every note accented appropriately so as not to allow them to turn into uncontrolled vocal glissandos.
This level of vocal skill is consistent across the album. But it is perhaps her interpretation of Set Me On Fire which is the most haunting element of her artistry.
In the space of four minutes, Sevana covers an artist’s palette worth of emotion – leaving you as a listener feeling some way as bereft, devastated and drained as her lyrics describe: the almost prostrated tragedy and shock of the opening verses and first chorus, where she replays out the trauma of this toxic, abusive and damaging relationship; the slight but gradual building of raw hurt on the second bridge and chorus as the instrumentation briefly strips back; a rapidly rising and angry third bridge where the seeming resoluteness of what’s happened to her takes over, to the final, almost indignant yet dignified peak before a determined, unflinching and poised end – gentle yet scalding. Sevana delivers a huge, emotional bombardment with all the civility and grace of someone who deserves so much better than what’s been meted out to her. Searing in its honesty and brutally moving, her performance is a masterpiece.
Set Me On Fire is undoubtedly the jewel in Be Somebody’s crown. But it reflects the standard across the entire EP both musically and artistically – and also lyrically. Sevana has built an extremely heartfelt yet succinct narrative across the six tracks, which catapults you from the humble self-confidence and hope of its opening song, via the range of feelings experienced while deeply in love, personal growth and faith, to the potentially ruinous conclusion – but one that doesn’t leave you feeling that it’s the end.
There’s a broader point to be made with Be Somebody, too. And it is that between Sevana and Iké (and most likely Protoje’s upcoming release as well), the In.Digg camp is redefining the sound of modern, Revival-led Roots. Gone are the more obvious elements of Hip Hop that stood out in the early days. And in its place, you have two women; both vastly different artists, but who both have pushed Roots-derived music forward at a pace. The sound now is utterly 21st century Neo Soul: the amalgamating of devices, sounds, techniques and vibes from Jamaica with heavy doses of RnB, Soul and Jazz (nb. in the 90s replace ‘Roots-derived music’ with ‘Hip Hop’ and you have Maxwell, Erykah Badu and D’Angelo). Other artists have also done this (Dan Gio’s Emotional Tide EP being one example). But with Sevana and Iké it feels like a pivotal, precedent-setting moment in the movement. And of course, these are just EPs. You can only dream what their full albums will be like.
It would be contradictory to say that ‘words cannot express just how good Be Somebody is’ – because you’ve just read them. But the EP is infinitely remarkable and compelling. Musically ingenious and artistically mind-blowing from everyone involved, it is a testament to In.Digg’s skill as an outfit that such a revelatory release has been conceived. Meanwhile, Sevana has firmly cemented herself as one of the most powerful and talented artists to emerge from Jamaica – ever. In December, Be Somebody will surely be seen as one of the EPs of 2020, if not the decade. And its content and Sevana’s performances will linger on in the memory long, long after that. A once in a life time moment in music.
Sevana Be Somebody EP review by Mr Topple (31st July 2020).