With dreamy experimental production and standout Tyler, the Creator features, the L.A. singer’s latest is an affecting document of how pain can smolder beneath a veneer of nonchalance.
For much of Los Angeles-based R&B singer Snoh Aalegra’s career, the names of other musicians have qualified her own. She was inspired to become a musician after hearing Whitney Houston sing as a child. She was mentored by Prince in the final three years of his life. Last week, a tweet calling her a new generation’s Sade gained so much traction that Aalegra felt compelled to clarify that she isn’t.
It’s true that Aalegra’s golden-toned, jazz-inflected vocals make the Sade and Amy Winehouse comparisons easy. But it was sometimes hard to tell what made her earliest music distinct. On 2016’s Don’t Explain and 2017’s FEELS, her voice was often overpowered by extravagant production choices. She changed course on 2019’s -Ugh, those feels again, paring back the reverb and backing vocals to make room for irresistible pop hooks. Still, the lyrics at times felt anonymous. Her latest album, TEMPORARY HIGHS IN THE VIOLET SKIES, is her first project that sounds entirely her own. With exploratory production that’s as expansive and dreamy as it is frenetic, it’s an affecting document of the pain smoldering beneath Aalegra’s curated veneer of nonchalance.
Aalegra works with a number of new producers here, including the Neptunes and Tyler, the Creator. The resulting sound is both free-associative and boisterous, a haze of ambient synth decorated with pitched vocal flourishes, syncopated ad-libs, and zig-zagging beats. Listening feels like plunging your hand into a jar of marbles or swimming in a bioluminescent bay, an immersion in a world of glimmering baubles. Aalegra counters the experimental production with the most gracefully restrained vocal performances of her career. She sings the titular phrase on “We Don’t Have to Talk About It” with so much poise that you’re ready to overlook the hurt along with her. On “In the Moment,” one of two excellent songs featuring Tyler, she sings with the ease of butter gliding across a hot pan, alternately proclamating that she would die for her lover and that she’d be alright whether they leave or stay. Tyler’s verses raise the stakes, calling out her inconsistency and aloofness.
Opener “Indecisive” establishes the tension between Aalegra’s outwardly blasé attitude and the angst she’s quietly processing within. “See, I don’t really care/Now I start to sound like you,” she sings, swathed in echoes of synth and a beat that rushes forward like a child down a hill. It’s a declaration of independence that almost immediately betrays itself as overcompensation: a way to avoid feeling hurt by a partner who actually doesn’t care. Throughout the album, Aalegra makes refrains out of ambivalence: “I get it/Some things don’t work and that’s the way love goes,” she concedes on “In Your Eyes.” “I’m not tryna make you be mine,” she sighs on “Taste.”
But she can’t stop herself from expressing the depth of her desire, as on highlight “Tangerine Dream,” where she remembers the exact time of the flight that an ex was also on, or on “Everything,” when she sings about the way a lover’s hands feel on her face. The moments when Aalegra’s facade slips are compelling for their specificity and emotional heft, but also because they supply the album’s context and dimension, the true intimacy of knowing everything’s not OK. She could benefit from trading a few more generalities for evocative details. Though the depth and fluidity of her vocals provide texture as often as meaning, a few lines do fall distinctly flat: “I’ve always been a worrier/But I’ll always be a warrior” stands out as a false dichotomy of convenient wordplay. “Let your muse be your motivation/Picture perfect like a painting” feels similarly likely to be yelled by a SoulCycle instructor.
Around the time of her first project, Aalegra described her music as “cinematic soul,” and the descriptor has never felt more accurate. Any one of these songs could accompany an Insecure montage of rekindled love, impossible daydreams, or bittersweet nostalgia. In place of distinct characters and narratives, Aalegra deploys violet skies and neon peaches, geese flying south for the winter, love that hits like a flash flood—a language of natural phenomena and upheaval located within and beyond her own heart. It’s evocative and complex enough to establish Snoh Aalegra as a name worth remembering, even as it leaves you wondering what it might sound like when she finally faces the full extent of her feelings.