True, The Suffers released their debut album and managed to not only woo me, you, your mama and your cousin toot, they were properly rewarded across the globe. A multitude of artists adhered to the single-versus-project method, even though acts like Bazooka Loe gave us EPs to chew on. Jack Freeman released a series of songs geared toward activism. Lee-Lonn kicked freestyles about love, both old and new. WOLFE de MÇHLS crafted a debut album built around smoking and touching various pieces of a mental kaleidoscope. Singing in Houston has never gone away; it just happened to be buried underneath the gamut of rap that holds and shakes the city until it can’t breathe.
Think about this for a second. Letoya Luckett is preparing her third album, with a single that latches onto Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life.” Did you notice when it happened? Or that it even existed? Probably not, but it’s really fascinating. Whenever an R&B artist endures a breakup (or, as in Luckett’s case, a rather public divorce), or minds immediately begin to yell and jump that the great “catharsis” album shall come around. Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear stands as the standard for breakup albums rooted in so much pettiness, but it’s not the absolute best; that honor falls to Bill Withers’s +justments. Why? Have you heard “Ain’t No Sunshine”? For all the pain Marvin endured to make an album that would satisfy his alimony payments to Anna Gordy, Withers just cut everything to pieces from a failed marriage and birthed a broken-man staple.
Luckett’s latest, "Back 2 Life," is not necessarily aimed at her now ex-husband, but it's rather open-ended and ripe for interpretation. Bobby Earth, on the other hand, would rather not even appear ready for a breakup. He’s too focused on being in love.
Earth, if you recall, is the head of the busiest R&B outfit in Houston. He and the Milky Wayv collective have released four projects in 2016, each no more different than the next. He allowed a few rappers into his bio-dome with Tope Raps Vol. 1, but the best of Earth came from steering not only himself but his counterparts. Eros tag-teamed with Jen Miller to create “Blind,” which in turn spooled three separate remixes out of it. There was Earth’s own node to dreamy love and spacial production, Progression, in which he adopted a lover-man persona while scoping out various plots of earth to two-step with his woman. However, his signature move in 2016 wasn’t just getting the Milky Wayv on the same page; it was securing even more room in the galaxy to allow Peyton’s voice to find new peaks and valleys.
Peyton’s voice, even in the early incarnations of Milky Wayv, stood in a different space. It was thin yet assuring. Always available to assuage and disarm any nerves, Bby Pey took Earth’s soundscapes — built upon cloudy atmospherics, snapping drums and handclaps — and managed to sit directly on them. Her album, Peace In The Middle of a Storm, came out last month and on its face feels closer to a Toro Y Moi release. Inside, where the singer-songwriter shares space with no one, she tiptoes on airy lyrics about love, battling demons and searching out freedom.
“Here’s another song about water,” she sings on “Pey-2-O,” in a clumsy yet endearing manner. The good thing about the Milky Wayv kids is how they’ve managed to express themselves as musicians while also being in on the joke. Goofy choruses get attached to these woozy, warm productions and verses, well within their nature. “Ride,” the project’s most beloved single so far, paces itself along an electronic keyboard, video-game sprites and a chunky bass line, before Peyton finishes it off by flipping Big Moe’s “Just A Dog” toward the end.
The small allusion to Houston’s rap/R&B past may be the lone crossover moment on Peace In the Middle of a Storm, but that’s essentially how Milky Wayv want to play it. For all of their influences, they aren’t exactly wedded to them. Remember, I remarked that Progression was Bobby Earth’s attempt to make an album adjacent to the creations of The Internet. Peyton’s project is something completely different, built for live performances inside of satellite art installations while you wonder, aghast, who soundtracked this. By the time she slips down into eerie slow-jam territory with “Carnivore,” she’s effectively given you what you need to see, all the while making you wonder what’s next from her.
The Milky Wayv built 2016 with one thing in mind: keep pushing the sound. It brought in Lita Styles to make whispery, door-knocking R&B (“Outerspace”) and gave clearer room that whenever you walk in the room, you’re creating. That’s it. No restrictions. Let Bobby Earth, Peyton, Eros and crew help steer you in the right direction. It helped direct them for 2016; there’s no reason why it shouldn’t in 2017.
SINGLE OF THE WEEK
ASHLEY TOMAN, “Beautifully Broken”
We’ve talked up Luckett's new single, which you can hear above. That is more of a comeback record with a small reminder of things we also love. Toman, the 2016 Best New Artist winner at the recent Houston Press Music Awards, follows up the pop-tinged “Own It” with a piano-driven ballad that feels like it could easily have landed on the Gilmore Girls reboot. “Beautifully Broken” manages to follow all the steps necessary to be a big ballad. Saccharine moments of uplift? Check. Rousing close that makes it feel genre-less? Check check. “Sometimes a heart needs to be cut open to find what’s beautifully real,” she sings. You may want to use that for an Instagram caption or a Facebook status whenever you’re in the mood to feel deeper than you already are.