A deeply meditative experience, producing snippets from lost ‘70s soul and psychedelic records that never existed.
If Childqueen isn’t pilfered from high and low for hip-hop beats, someone has majorly screwed up. This is California polymath Kadhja Bonet’s second album, and it delivers the golden glow of Karen Carpenter with a funk backbone. It’s a deeply meditative experience, producing snippets from lost ‘70s soul and psychedelic records that never existed.
Pretty much every note on Childqueen was produced by Bonet, showing off her Stevie Wonder-esque wizardry. Due to her own mastery and want to morph the music effortlessly, Bonet has created something that falls into place like a puzzle box. The swimming harmonies, sudden shifts into chorus sunlight and tempo breaks would have been much harder to communicate with a band. Instead, Bonet is absolute in her control. This is her world. The production is hazy, though that might be more due to the cascade of voices flooding over most of the sound. Violas and flutes also join, giving a subtle warmth to songs like the gorgeous “Joy.”
There’s an unsettling duality between that hallucinatory sound and the more grounded stories. Though there are plenty of mentions of the power of nature and abstract figures hidden in the stars, there’s just as much musing about simple, broken romances. The stark “Another Time Lover” chugs along with Bonet’s tales of missed connections, never fully giving away if it’s a matter of ghosting or happenstance that separates the two. Miniature charmer “Thoughts Around Tea” is, musically, the wackiest of the bunch. Bonet tosses her voice into an uncanny falsetto next to jittering synths and clucking drums that create a nursery vibe. But it’s a story we’ve all heard before, two star-crossed lovers, one from the city, another from the heartland, who can’t leave their respective homes for the other’s love. “They never would meet again,” she coos as an ascending and melancholy guitar line joins.
But those are the fore- and afterplay to Childqueen’s centerpiece, “Delphine.” A reference to a famed oracle, “Delphine” dials up the mysticism up a few notches. Even for Bonet’s stable tempos, this is some slow-mo soul. The bass seems ready to melt and strange electronic buzzes float in and out of existence around Bonet’s lament. The tale is a bit more obscure than its partners, but engrossing nonetheless. “This letter you wrote to me/ Does it read goodbye/ Maybe a strange hello,” wonders Bonet, bordering on the obsessive. The specters of a long-distance relationship, paranoia and love that’s grown toxic all loom but Bonet undercuts it with moments of levity. “Oscar’s sick again/ We should stop by,” she mentions, she and her mystic lover still needing to go through daily life even as their love spirals out of control.
Though most of the album gracefully trots (hell the opener is called “Procession”) there is one firework burst which Bonet lights up with glee. “Mother Maybe” lifts its main melody line from a Miyazaki movie, and then glosses on the type of choir harmonics that would enshrine a church perfectly. The bumpy bass groove is undeniable, and Chic would be envious of the guitar work. But the star here is, as always, Bonet’s voice. It’s the best set of vocal acrobatics this year, if not the last half-decade. After a first half of coy cooing, she launches her voice into the stratosphere and hits notes that should only be reachable by Auto-Tune. It’s the type of performance that would make Motown obsessives and choir nerds alike burst into tears. But that could just as easily be said for the whole album.