Kaleem Taylor's Surface is Refined, Radical & Retro-Futuristic R&B
Evan Dale // April 11, 2019
It’s nearly impossible not to praise our current era of vocally-dominated traditions as one of the most important and transcendent in R&B and neo-soul’s histories. The stylings are more wide-ranging and explosively popular than they’ve ever been, pushing experimentally outwards without boundaries and drawing to them fan bases from every corner of the globe. But even in such a gloriously acclaimed and inventive era, there is undoubtedly a constant desire for R&B’s original golden eras. Something about the sonic texture, the brash forwardness, and the raw emotion seems almost impossible to achieve today without a certain level of forced creativity.
Recently however, towards his new EP, Surface, London’s Kaleem Taylor has proven himself priceless in his knack for merging the retro nuances of the late 90’s with the boundlessness and experimental genius of the modern scene. His bold and powerful vocal approach is something yet to be seen at any point in at least the last decade, shifting between wavering lows and shattering explosions of falsetto without ever losing his severe emotional evocativeness. Nearly a half hour of retro-futuristic auditory aesthetic that bridges the gap without ever being directly comparable to anyone or anything to come before, Surface is especially key and bound to be influential if only for its pure individuality. But, it’s much more than unique.
Kaleem Taylor is a master of merging incredibly clean production with organic instrumentation, granting Surface an unfakably timeless touch. He also holds in his arsenal a classic R&B pen that seamlessly tells relatable stories of love, lust, and loss. But, at the end of the day, it always comes back to his voice. That’s not at all a sleight to the rest of his skillset, instead just a reaffirmation to the individuality of his delivery. And that delivery in and of itself is not only impossible to explain but also incredibly wide ranging. There are no comparisons to be drawn, so if you want to know what we’re talking about, take 25 minutes of your time, light a candle, draw a bath, pour a glass of white wine, and absorb everything there is to be absorbed about Kaleem Taylor’s Surface.
Not Alone leads off the project in the same way that it led off his march towards its release. Dreamy synths and heavy trap drums build a foundation for Taylor to deliver what is still one of the most shocking and rare R&B tracks in recent memory where our protagonist, struggling through heartbreak, loneliness, and trust issues, conveys the emotional breadth of such difficulties with each and every breath.
Fault, Taylor’s second and last single release towards Surface follows suit chronologically but brings something altogether different musically. A simple piano riff and some intermittent claps quickly evolve into heavy layers of production and a heartwarming chorus. It’s an uplifting track of acceptance and perseverance where once again, the message would be conveyed even if the lyrics were not taken notice of.
And in that sentence exists the true genius of Kaleem Taylor’s unique aesthetic. There are very few artists with a wide enough range and honest enough delivery to exude the very emotions of each and every track without having to say a word. And even though he successfully does both as well as just about anyone, his one-of-a-kind approach to modern R&B makes him a one-of-a-kind force.
Five new tracks round out the rest of the project. Too Much (which is not a remake of Drake & Sampha’s R&B anthem from Nothing Was The Same) is the most downtempo and acoustically in-touch track on Surface’s playbill where production – though still noticeably present – takes a back seat to a gentle stream of piano keys and a low-key exhibition of Kaleem Taylor’s highest range. Who’s There rides the kind of production that makes us wish we were closing down a club in New York City, putting our all into the dance floor and getting the most from slow jams only of the caliber that Who’s There brings. Surface – the project’s bannerhead track is as smooth and middle grounded as it is subverse, mysterious, and liquid – reminiscent in production aesthetic to a beat that PARTYNEXTDOOR would be happy to add a verse to. Let It Fall is a certain display of Kaleem Taylor’s ability to remove himself from the R&B realm and dive deep into neo-soul, more heavily defined by instrumentation, slower cadence, less-sexually centered thematic direction, and brash experimentation. It’s probably the most unique track to come from Surface and an early front-runner for our favorite takeaway from it all. If You Still is built on a minimalist hip-hop beat that allows Kaleem Taylor to close out Surface with his bread and butter – his voice – at the focal point of it all.
Surface is anything but surface level. It’s a wildly experimental, in-depth and one-of-a-kind delivery from an artist who like so many others, walks the line between modern R&B and neo-soul, but unlike any others, does so with obvious influence and homage to the texture and reality of R&B’s past moments of genius. In result, Kaleem Taylor emerges from Surface a frontrunner of influence and innovation across the spread of the vocally-dominated traditions. At a time in music history where unique voices and new sonic textures are held at unattainably high regard, Kaleem Taylor manages to grasp them both with ease, only allowing himself to break his stern focus on artistry for the sake of his emotional breadth and understanding – perhaps the two pillars of the kind of music he was born to make.