It’s a New Zodiac for R&B with a Golden Era Twist | Phabo’s ‘Soulquarius’ Debut
Evan Dale // July 20, 2021
There have been a number of solo singles since 2017 from Phabo, the LA songwriter who has spent the greater part of his creative career behind the curtain – behind the lyrics – of a slew of fellow soulstresses and R&B kings on their own rises. But now is a different season – a different zodiac – a different moon rising for music: Soulquarius. It’s his debut album, and for those that don’t know, the songwriter is also one hell of a vocalist, igniting reminiscence of R&B’s Golden Era with his crystalline pitch, of the 00’s by way of his addicting, lighthearted melody, and of the rangy, indefinable spectrum that Neo-Soul brings in tow today through the rangy, indefinable spectrum of his own sound. That era-transcending auditory aesthetic comes from the broad skillset that he’s refined through the last number of years, collaborating with artists like Kehlani, Kyle Dion, and Jahkoy as a pen for hire. On social media, he wears his badges of relative anonymity and high-profile songwriting credits with pride, handling himself as @whoisphabo and subtitling as ’The Pen.’ But through Soulquarius – a lengthy, bold debut – vulnerability, creativity, and subsequently Phabo’s own bodacious take on a classic sound gone modern – one born from the tip of a pen, but meandering through a sound much more nuanced – takes center stage, bringing also under the stage light a newfound moment – and ultimately a new zodiac sign – for R&B at large.
It’s the carefully curated balance between the then and the now that could only come from a student turned teacher through such a debut. Where some Soulquarius inclusions like Supermodel and Slippery feel pulled straight from the acoustic stroke cloth of the 90’s, others like LNF touch the Lloyd-esque era of addicting hip-hop cadence, while a track like Palm Trees channels the genial modernity and balancing softness of contemporary Neo-Soul transcendentalists like SiR and Frank Ocean. Through the entirety of the album, Phabo wastes no breath on anything short of a flex that he not only understands and writes – transcends – R&B music through its historic ebbs and flows, but also crafts it all to perfection in the blendaline kind of way that ultimately makes for a sound never heard before.
Much of that complexity is owed to the length his debut album grants him to explore anything and everything R&B has ever stood for; what it’s ultimately trending towards. Romance, sensuality, heartbreak. These are the touch points of thematic discourse that Soulquarius exhales. They’re also the kind of things that – aside from the album’s many sounds themselves – attract any listener from any R&B epoch before. But it’s also the length of Soulquarius that grants it room for experimentation and fluid self-discovery. 16 songs over 40 minutes grant a lot of room to search for an inner identity.
The album is a journey, liquidly maneuvering through eras of R&B without losing its sense of identity; silkily weaving together pieces of Phabo’s own self for a finished product exhibiting his complexities and sensitivities in relation to the intricacies of R&B’s hallowed, oft-grey-area sphere itself. Creatively, such intricacies are many for Phabo. An established songwriter to some of R&B’s most influential modern names, his poeticism is never in question, submerging his listeners beneath a weighted cloak of landscapes spanning from the bedroom to a palm-strewn drive to an intergalactic future for the soulful and sensual. Words alone transport Soulquarius’s listeners to a space of Summertime romance, beach vacations with a lusty partner, and an exploration of love in the digital age. His voice speaks for itself, beaming the project in golden soul with the kind of vocal prowess that makes the realms of Soul and R&B also the playgrounds for many of the world’s most talented registers. And the production, handled executively by Louie Lastic – who has also worked with GoldLink, Masego, and Kali Uchis – tethers the entirety of the album with a touch of particular early 00’s softness. From its congenial intro, The Phabo Show granted life by Alex Vaughn, to its outgoing anthem, How’s My Driving? – which subsists as a blueprint conglomeration of Phabo’s many stylistic explorations – the debut feels nothing like a debut.
Instead, Soulquarius bleeds of the kind of veteran confidence required to pull into focus such a rangy, yet tight-knit project; expected from such an underlying force of modern R&B, working for years to refine a sound all his own.