græ suggests that the artist might be rising out of the shadows he explores so tenderly.
When Mosey Sumney’s debut, Aromanticism, crept out in the fall of 2017, its mutant R&B and lyrical focus on the genre’s commodification of love immediately thrust the artist into the forefront of R&B’s current identity crisis and evolution. The increasing space that the genre has carved out for sexual and aesthetic experimentation, epitomized by the likes of Janelle Monáe and the various solo acts of Odd Future, gave Sumney ample room to mess around with a flurry of sounds ranging from jazz to neoclassical amid his smooth, late-night sound. Sumney takes things even further with græ, a double-album that expands Sumney’s lyrical preoccupations to the intersecting and ever-blurrier lines between gender and sexual identities, race, and the complications of desire.
Sumney’s falsetto can be so airy and delicate that the intensity of his lyrics don’t always hit at first. “If there’s no pain, is there any progress? / That’s when I feel, yeah, the most alive, woah / Endurance is the source of my pride,” he coos on “Cut Me” over brittle synths and a hiccuping bass, his voice so smooth that the confession is muted. On “Virile,” the artist questions masculine roles, ironically affirming “To stake dominion over all that one surveys” while using the chorus to reject such notions, saying “you’ve got the wrong idea, son” to urges to “amp up the masculine.” On “jill/jack,” Sumney not only samples Jill Scott’s “Cross My Mind” but brings her in for a pas de deux that swaps pronouns in descriptions of masculine and feminine behavior, pitching Sumney’s voice down into a parody of manliness yet reducing his presence to a whisper floating around Scott. That pitch shifting is even more pronounced on “Gargarin,” in which Sumney sends his voice into an androgynous scramble redolent of Burial’s tinkering of vocal samples.
The music is every bit as fluid as Sumney’s lyrical reflections. “In Bloom” blends shimmering, languid soul guitar patterns against a warm string section played both pizzicato and with bows, while “Virile” ironically sets its ruminations on masculinity to gliding harps and breathy flutes (albeit interspersed with groaning bass hinting at its dark undercurrent). “Gagarin,” with its references to space and inner alienation, builds negative space out of a sample of Swedish jazz outfit the Esbjörn Svensson Trio. Even on a relatively straightforward composition, like the somber piano of “Me in 20 Years,” there are sudden skitters of electronic noise and twinkling tone clusters that add conflicting elements of fleeting hope and mounting fear as Sumney considers the possibility of life without romantic love with lines like “I wonder how I’ll sleep at night / With a cavity by my side.”
In addition to his own eclectic tastes, Sumney draws on an immense team of guests and collaborators to lend their own stamps to the material. Chief among them is Daniel Lopatin, a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never, who has co-writer and/or producer credits on fully half of the album’s 20 tracks. On “Bystanders,” Lopatin’s knack for stretched and eerie synths warp around Sumney, and glistening flourishes bolster the muted percussion and guitar on “Lucky Me.” On “Boxes,” Sumney gets lyrical assistance from none other than novelist Michael Chabon, and “Colour” boasts a repetitive, bright saxophone line from modern maestro Shabaka Hutchings sounds as much like the compositional style of Philip Glass as it does jazz. A host of other musicians, from Thundercat to kora player Tunde Jegede to James Blake, filter through the stracks, further matching Sumney’s themes of inner confusion by preventing the album from belonging to any one vision.
“I fell in love with the in-between / Coloring in the margins” Sumney sings of his childhood on “Neither/Nor,” and that brief line could describe the artist’s entire approach to his work and especially græ. Crisscrossing genres between and within songs and ruminating on how he can feel so alienated yet can be represented by so many conflicting impulses. Though Sumney’s fears of solitude still define much of the album, his embrace of the spaces between binaries opens up new possibilities for self-definition and actualization, and the album suggests that the artist might be rising out of the shadows he explores so tenderly.