Atlanta-based singer/songwriter Raury seemed to come out of nowhere. Before he had officially released more than a couple of songs he was out touring the world. Now, just a couple of months after his nineteenth birthday, he’s releasing his debut full-length album, the earthy and spiritual All We Need.
Raury’s music is like a post-hip-hop version of American blues, gospel and folk. He’s got a soft and boyish tenor that he surrounds with choirs, acoustic guitars, organs, strings, horns and other resonant accoutrements, but he also balances the more traditional aspects of his songs with contemporary touches, like the burbling synth arpeggios that appear on the opening title track as Raury launches into an impassioned but rough rap.
The lyrics on this record are largely religious or spiritual in nature. It’s easy to hear the effects of a religious upbringing in which music and spirituality were inextricably intertwined. This is not saccharine worship music, though – there is a fascinating vein of darkness running through the whole record that lends it an air of urgency and relevance. In this regard, the ritualistic single “Devil’s Whisper” and its tumbling acoustic guitar is particularly powerful, featuring one of Raury’s most authoritative performances.
Spreading out into funk on the spare “Forbidden Knowledge” and its thudding, hollow kick drum sound, Raury hits his most distinctive peak. In the contrast of hard-hitting beats and bouncing bass with ghostly backing vocals and acoustic textures there is a sense of adventure and exploration that is very becoming.
The surprising high-points on the record, though, throw into sharp relief its weaker moments. Sometimes it can be awkwardly contrived. You can hear that Raury has aimed high and missed the mark. The most egregious example is “Revolution,” which from its title through to its chanted vocals and vague (almost to the point of being meaningless) lyrics is a total cliché.
There is an sort of unevenness to the album. At an hour in length, it feels as if it could have been trimmed. The limp “Peace Prevail” sits uncomfortably next to the uplifting and lovely “Crystal Express” that follows it, and “Friends,” which features contributions from Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello ends the album on an odd note. Its canned pop sound doesn’t really fit with the rest of the record.
It’s easy to sense that on this record, Raury is going for grand statements about race and class and other social dynamics, but he doesn’t yet have the vocabulary to back up his ambitions. His songs are much more effective when they opt for the personal – for things he has lived – such as when he sings “With the windows down and the Kanye turned up” on the chorus of the wistful reverie “Woodcrest Manor II.”
With his blend of old and new, no one else is really doing what Raury is doing. Perhaps there are certain expectations surrounding him that he feels he must live up to, but All We Need shows that there need not be any such trajectory to his music. He’s got his signature sound down, and now he just needs more focus to follow through on all the potential that All We Need shows.
All We Need is out Friday October 16 on CD and digital formats.