Gabriella Wilson – the remarkable San Francisco Bay Area artist from known by fans and meme appreciators as H.E.R. – is having a transcendent 2021. In March, she won a Grammy for ‘I Can’t Breathe’, her heartrending protest song written in response to George Floyd’s murder. Then, in April, she collected an Oscar for ‘Fight for You’, her stirringly soulful contribution to the film Judas and the Black Messiah. Given that she also performed at February’s Super Bowl, kicking things off with a pin drop-brilliant ‘America the Beautiful’, this stunningly accomplished debut album almost feels like a victory lap.
This isn’t the 23-year-old musician’s first substantial body of work, but both 2017’s ‘H.E.R.’ and 2019’s ‘I Used to Know Her’ were compilation albums, each uniting a pair of previously released EPs. ‘Back of My Mind’ has no mid-album join and feels completely cohesive. Unfolding languidly over 79 minutes, it doesn’t so much expand H.E.R’s musical world as enrich and refine it. Working with producers including Kaytranada, Drake collaborator Hit-Boy and Rihanna hitmaker Mike Will Made It, H.E.R. really doubles down on her dreamy downtempo R&B.
Though she never threatens to break a sweat on ‘Back of My Mind’, there’s definite light and shade here. Ty Dolla $ign adds texture to the vibey title track by echoing and flanking H.E.R. on key lyrics. ’Damage’ uses a smart sample from Herb Albert’s quiet storm classic ‘Making Love in the Rain’ to build an ’80s throwback bop with shades of Sade. ‘Come Through’ is so precision-tooled for balmy summer evenings that it’s a shame Chris Brown has to feature on it. Two late-album tracks co-produced by H.E.R., ‘Hard to Love’ and ‘For Anyone’, prove she’s just as comfortable emoting over nothing but acoustic guitar strums.
However, the standout track that best exemplifies H.E.R.’s swelling confidence is ‘Cheat Code’. This mellifluous neo-soul gem sounds like a more subdued moment from ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ – it’s that good – and actually samples ‘The Sweetest Thing’, a song Hill wrote and performed for a ’90s rom com. When an artist can pay homage to their heroes in a way that feels audacious yet faithful, it’s a sure sign they’ve hit a creative sweet spot.
The album’s most political moment arrives in the form of ‘Bloody Waters’, on which H.E.R. calls out “corporate racists” and laments the fact there’s still “no conversation” about “reparations”, presumably for historic wrongs committed by white America. She’s equally spiky but a little more specific on ‘We Made It’, which includes a triumphant rebuke to industry insiders who questioned her potential. “They said I won’t come up with the family and cop a couple Grammys,” she sings. “All the things they said that I can’t be, revenge taste just like candy.”
However, much of the album finds H.E.R. grappling with romantic difficulties. Though she launched her career in 2016 as a rather mysterious figure, even keeping her face hidden in early promo photos, H.E.R. is strikingly direct when it comes to writing about a relationship (or perhaps relationships) damaged by distance, infidelity and complacency. Comparing herself to The Other Woman on ‘Mean It’, she sings stingingly: “Maybe I should be more like her / Just forget about what’s right, just forget about my worth / Maybe I should be heartless too.” Towards the end, this fraught subject matter runs the risk of becoming repetitive: by the time she sighs ,“Ooh – I need a new bae” on 19th track ‘Exhausted’, you might be tempted to reply: “Have you tried Tinder?”
In all honesty, a little bit of pruning wouldn’t go amiss here. Holding a listener’s undivided attention for 79 minutes is tricky, even for an artist as talented as H.E.R, and the 2019 single ‘Slide’ feels tacked on at the end. It’s also a shame H.E.R. doesn’t show off her stunning guitar skills more often. After delivering a searing solo on opening track ‘We Made It’, she only really lets rip a couple more times. When her bluesy guitar work dovetails with blasts of brass ‘Don’t’, it conjures up a Prince-like musical thrill.
Still, these minor complaints hardly diminish H.E.R.’s achievement here. ‘Back of My Mind’ is a dazzling debut from an artist who’s so in command of her own sound that it’s almost jarring when “Exhausted’ includes a shout-out to producer Darkchild. Most exciting of all is the bright future surely ahead of her. “Twenty-three, ain’t got no time to waste,” she sings on ‘Find a Way’. “No GPS – I bet I find a way.” On this evidence, only a fool would doubt H.E.R.
Release date: June 18
Record label: MBK Entertainment / RCA