Raury isn’t quite there yet. The Atlanta singer-songwriter just turned 18, and he’s still figuring out what to do with a fascinating stew of influences that’s as much psych-rock as it is neo-soul. He’s got a distinct style that’s clearly just taking shape, and he wrestles with big questions all over Indigo Child, his first mixtape. But he hasn’t quite put all the pieces together yet. I almost didn’t give him this spot this week, since he’s up against a few artists who already know exactly what they’re doing. As Swet Shop Boys, the duo of Heems and Riz Ahmed put together a sharp and incisive and fun debut, and if their Swet Shop EP was longer than four songs, it probably would’ve won this week. Ty Dolla $ign, on his $ign Language tape, combines over-the-top hornball assholism with music even slicker and lusher than what he’s recorded in the past. And on his Days Before Rodeo tape, Travi$ Scot continues to melt his various influences into one big apocalyptic gurgle. Any of those could’ve won this week, and maybe they still will in a future week, especially if not much comes out before next Wednesday. Honestly, I feel a bit bad not awarding the spot to any of those tapes, since I like to pick tapes for this column on merit rather than potential. But there’s so much potential on Indigo Child that I felt like I had to pick it.
Every article about Raury makes it plain that the kid is connected: Signed to Columbia, booked to open OutKast’s Atlanta homecoming shows, already the subject of a New York Times profile from Jon Caramanica. Kanye West reportedly tried to bring him on board with DONDA, but he’d apparently rather build his own LoveRenaissance imprint instead. He’s going to be a thing. But what kind of thing? Talking about where Raury fits into the current musical climate, it’s important to point out where Raury thinks he fits into the current musical climate. His most immediate apparent influence is Frank Ocean, especially on Indigo Child’s sprawling and epic closing track “Seven Suns,” and you can hear echoes of people like Andre 3000 and Janelle Monáe all over the mixtape. But if Raury seems to be the latest figure to appear in a long and distinguished lineage of adventurous, thoughtful Southern soul music, he doesn’t seem to think of himself as a soul singer. He raps a lot, but he doesn’t seem to think of himself as a rapper, either. The two genre tags on the Indigo Child SoundCloud page are “alternative” and “folk,” and if that’s how Raury seems to think of himself, it makes sense. Part of it is probably that Raury would, understandably, like to shake off the racial coding that tends to come attached to words like “R&B” and “soul.” But Indigo Child is really more of a weird and personal psychedelic bedroom-pop record than anything else. While it’s not a lo-fi album by any means, it reminds me, more than anything, of Basehead’s drifting, genre-free 1992 bedroom-recorded cult classic Play With Toys, or Cody ChesnuTT’s similarly adrift 2002 four-track debut The Headphone Masterpiece. It’s an album that’s willing to grab any and all musical signifiers to ask big questions about relationships and existence and life.
Here are some of the toys that Raury plays with over the course of Indigo Child: Head-blown spoken-word passages. Backwards string samples. Lil Wayne quotes, from the era when Lil Wayne was a New Orleans gangsta rap child star rather than a boundary-mashing global celebrity. Triumphantly melodic Slash-esque guitar solos. Slick acoustic-guitar/backing-harmony combinations that sound almost exactly like Viva La Vida-era Coldplay. Soul-clap loops. Watery pianos. Slick, violent “slap you with the hammer” punchlines. An airy, tormented tenor that sometimes reminds me, I swear to god, of Seal. Dramatic summer-blockbuster-soundtrack synths. Acoustic guitars that sound like they’re drowning in a bathtub. Lyrics about smoking cigarettes that suggest Raury hasn’t quite learned yet that cigarettes are gross. Confessions. Confusion. Bratty teenage anger. Old-soul perspective. All these things drift through in just over 40 minutes, and while it never hangs together, it’s exciting to hear someone try.
For all his big-name connections, Raury includes exactly zero famous guests on Indigo Child. This is a personal, homespun affair, something underscored by the non-musical spoken bits that keep interrupting the music. Those interludes are real-life fights between Raury and his mom, which Raury recorded secretly on his iPhone but included on the record with his mother’s blessing. Those bits feel like eavesdropping because that’s exactly what they are; we’re not supposed to hear this stuff, but we learn things by listening. And what’s most interesting about those passages is that it’s clear that Raury’s mother isn’t some oppressive, smothering force. Her advice is good, and her ideas are right. They mostly proceed like this: No, you can’t drop out of school. Yes, you do need to get some rest. You need to get your head ready before you even think about getting famous so that if you do get famous, your head doesn’t get too big. And what’s most interesting is that it’s not entirely clear that Raury has absorbed those messages. The choices he makes on Indigo Child are indulgent and fascinating in equal measure, and it’s just as easy to imagine him joining the Charles Hamilton school of hyped-up footnote as it is to picture him joining his heroes as a populist adventurer. His career could go a lot of different ways, but this stage, the one where he’s just bursting with possibility, is an exciting one. It’s fun to hear Indigo Child and to not know what’s coming next. The tape is a messy piece of work, but it’s a vital one, too.
Download Indigo Child here.