The biggest difference between vocalists and rappers? Vocalists are outright perfectionists to a tee.
Whenever something actually happens, we do a rap column here at the Houston Press. It’s called New Houston Rap because it’s about the latest rap coming from the city, the sounds that arrive the loudest, the songs that you probably should input into your life right this second and more. We also do a column titled Sounds of the City, in which we spotlight the city's vocalists and bands more guided by R&B or pop. This is your disclaimer to understand why both are separate and not included with one another.
Why the separation? Because there’s no Drake effect here, no faux Bryson Tillering. There are no pop assembly-line machines in Houston the same way there are rap assembly lines. Vocalists are tied into the belief that a full-blown project will move them out of initial comparisons with other established acts, whereas rappers are looking for one song as a jumping point. Solange’s A Seat at the Table, which was easily the most important thing to come from a Houston musician two weeks ago, took four years to make. Singers can hoard music for years, years, and they get a bit of a pass for it. Why? Perfectionism. Rap? Rap is in such a fluid, “in the moment” spectrum that Dante Higgins is already gearing up to release his third project of 2016, a full-length album at that after two solid EPs.
Bobby Earth somehow is the middle ground between both. A perfectionist who is zeroed in on making the best possible Neptunes/The Internet-adjacent music he can. Because that’s what he’s fallen in love with. It's a far-cry from sampling Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" five years ago, when he was adjusting to finishing up life at HSPVA. Nope, Bobby Earth is now a full-blown adult and a Neptunian on the low.
Once every few months, Bobby Earth will release something new. He’ll align himself with whatever zone he’s locked into and then attach a label to it. Some production will be set aside for a slew of rapper friends such as Brice Blanco and Tim Woods. Some will be given to Peyton, to let her angelically sharp voice twinkle over, or to Lita Styles. The good thing about studying a bunch of drum kits and sonics from the likes of Pharrell Williams is that Bobby Earth has become a disciple beyond measure.
Well, a disciple on two fronts. One, Earth can now put his production persona front and center, much as Pharrell did in the first half of the 2000s. He won’t outright rap on the tracks he keeps for himself, but he makes certain that whenever he’s about to step into artist mode, he’s as easygoing and simple as can be. Earlier this year he released “Can You Feel It Too?” a send-up to every song from The Internet about love and initial attraction. What also helps is that Earth can literally reach out to members of that particular band for influence and guidance.
Bobby’s Progression EP arrived two weeks ago and deserved to be written about on a number of levels. If you're a sucker for anything that reminds you of summer love, Progression is for you. It’s not just limited to falling in love or having a huge crush on somebody in the summer, but for all seasons really. The silliest notion is that Bobby makes pretty specific music, wide-eyed, woozy R&B and only woozy, wide-eyed R&B. When it’s for himself, as is the case with Progression, he can add a few more elements to throw you off.
The tape’s closer, “Space Trip,” operates with a sketchy synthesizer, then spools out into a bass-guitar number about leaving the planet. “Denton” forces Bobby to travel and admit to liking big butts in a rather goofy way alongside a xylophone melody that’s the distant cousin of the Rugrats theme. It’s a neat little juxtaposition compared to “Airplane Mode," where Earth needles his lady to put down the phone and quit worrying about the outside world. If Bobby wants to continue pedaling the big wheel of Bobby’s World, he’s gonna want companionship, without the sleaze and psychological twists to get there. He’s earnest and modest with his living, social media being his only concern initially because it takes away from getting to know a woman.
“Earthlings are stupid, I only hang with the aliens,” Earth contends on “Space Trip." By that logic, everyone he crafts music with is an alien. Every woman he meets, befriends and ultimately falls for is an extraterrestrial being. Because they’re special, and so is he. It’s a hell of a lot more fun than scumbag & B, where a male singer usually pines for a woman by listing all of her insecurities. How do I know Bobby Earth will probably give you a hell of a first date? ’Cause he’s at least aware of Aziz Ansari’s comedy and telling your parents, forget this — I’m going to Mars.
SONGS YOU NEED TO HEAR
ASHLEY TOMAN, “Own It”
Hand-claps, up-and-down vocal runs, we’ve finally got a straight-up pop record in this city. Toman’s lead single is about self-empowerment, especially in a topsy-turvy world where identity is literally fluid day by day. “Take who you are and make it personal,” she sings on “Own It." “Love and like what you’ve got.” It’s kind of autobiographical in a way. For a singer who has spent plenty of time trying to nail down a signature sound or something that sticks, “Own It” speaks to what she’s grown to be: a pop singer with a pretty big voice who can’t help but enjoy traditional R&B records from time to time.
ELLE, “Gotta Go”
Feel like it’s been forever since we got these ballads dressed up as breezy pop records for singers. The contrast displayed in Elle’s “Gotta Go” video shows the Houston-to-NYC (and back) singer essentially bracing and protecting herself from heartbreak. The couple in the video? Happy days turn sour and our lead is singing on the floor, surrounded by rose petals. “I’m tired of your childish games, I gotta go,” she sings. “Before you make me cry.” The art of letting go in love is tough to predict, even harder to execute. In song form? Elle pulls off a Simone Biles-style somersault and sticks the landing.
GENESIS IVER, “Come Over”
Scumbag & B, a.k.a. Bryson Tiller’s Guide To Winning Over Your Ex, has re-emerged en vogue over the past few months, if not a year or so. Genesis Iver has all but ditched straightforward rapping and has copped to this sing-rapping form that allows him to bend melody at his will. He’s nowhere close to doing what Tiller does, especially in regards to infatuation and love. Being a ’90s kid, he decides to pitch woo while flipping Aaliyah and Drake lines for “Come Over.” Why? Because it’s a pretty linear concept that’s far more Six Degrees of Separation (in Drake’s head) than you’d think.
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What kind of perfectionist is Lee-Lonn? The kind who will release a freestyle about always catching a woman at the wrong time and then disappear to California, Atlanta or Alaska for a few months. “Plantains” riffs off of that “Living Single” leak that supposedly belonged to Big Sean or Chance The Rapper. Lee-Lonn stops wanting food to be the code word for a phone conversation ending. He thought the first kiss was it, but then emotions and feelings evolved. Now? He’s casually frustrated and smitten. That’s the way initial love goes.
VARRIE V., "Jump Up On It"
Even creating reggae-tinged dance numbers takes a little bit to perfect. Varrie V., one of Houston's burgeoning pop acts, who has often hinted and teased upon something bigger, released "Jump Up On It" during the waning days of summer. Dylan Cohl winds up all of the drums and horns to the right pitch, leaving Varrie V. to drop able-bodied come-ons and shoutouts to the melanin on her skin. If reggae clubs on a Saturday night were still a popular thing, "Jump Up On It" would ring off properly.