I didn’t write this week’s Album Of The Week piece on R. Kelly’s Black Panties, but I agreed. And here’s why: For all the obvious hilarity at work, and all the smooth craftsmanship, there’s an honest desperation at work. Kelly is making jokes and being willfully ridiculous, but he’s balancing that out with a sexed-out sincerity. And so when he’s singing about licking the middle like an Oreo, he knows he’s being goofy, but there’s a hunger, a need, in his voice. At just about every point on the album, you can hear him dying to lose himself in sex. That’s the central paradox of R. Kelly: The same uncontrollable urges that make him, in a lot of ways, a predator and a truly terrible human are also the engine behind a restless and powerful artistic mind. When Kelly’s singing old-school soul music, as he was on 2010’s Love Letter, the level of craft is just spectacular, but there’s something slightly mannered and reserved about him. On Black Panties, he’s absolutely giving himself over to these ridiculous songs, and it shows. And on a very different and much smaller level, the New York singer Ian Isiah does something similar on his new The Love Champion mixtape. This isn’t just music about fucking; it’s music about achieving a certain personal transcendence through fucking, about becoming your truest self by entangling with someone else.
Like Kelly — and like virtually ever other great R&B singer — Isiah grew up singing gospel in church before moving onto baser concerns. But Isiah’s concerns are different, and so are his aesthetics. If you recognize him, its probably as the guy with the freaky contacts in the Mykki Blanco videos. He has some prominent involvement in Hood By Air, a clothing label that, from my limited understanding, walks some bleeding-edge line between streetwear and transgressive high fashion. In this Noisey interview, Isiah claims inspiration from the B-list R&B loverman Tank: “Oh my fucking god, Tank. Like, Tank is what I want to be in the gay world, the genderless world. I want to be Tank. It’s unfortunate that he’s not getting what he deserves. The way his mindset is towards singing and knowing how to be that girl, or how to be that boy.” Blanco and Le1f, the two greatest rappers in New York’s tremendously exciting queer-leaning club-rap scene, both guest on The Love Champion. But Isiah, at least as far as I can tell, doesn’t strictly identify as queer. And there are moments on the mixtape where he’s definitely explicitly singing to women: “Watch me hit it from the back, girl.” He uses the word “genderless” a lot in that Noisey interview, and that seems to be the idea here: Genders blurring and melting into each other, identity lost in some basic human physical ways.
The sounds on The Love Champion tend to melt into each other, Auto-Tuned vocals blurring into synthetic flourishes and vice versa. At times, it can be direct, and even danceable. “Sweat,” for instance, is a ferociously catchy song, and it sounds like much of what dominated R&B radio in the late ’90s and early ’00s. (If you told me it was a cover of a 112 deep cut, I’d believe you.) More often, though, this is sensuous slow-jam stuff. It’s done with a sharp graphic-design mindset, and the enviable production roster here — including Brenmar, Sinjin Hawke, ShyGuy, and Boody — knows how to imply melody while only using a few icy elements. Like Kelela’s Cut 4 Me, The Love Champion is a tape full of chilly, forward-thinking electronic sounds that find ways to play the background, to arrange themselves around the voice at the tape’s center.
Isiah’s voice is a high, soft tenor, but it’s not thin or brittle. It has a physical presence and a sincerity to it. He has a way of singing one thing over and over until it finds some totemic significance. On so high, he coos “I just wanna be high with you” so many times, in so many ways, that the line between sex-feeling and drug-feeling melts. On the title track it’s “Shawty, let’s go another round,” which is more or less self-explanatory. This is soft, pleading music, music descended directly from generations of silky, squelchy ballads. Isiah layers up his Auto-Tuned voice until it sounds like curtains of sound, but even if the process is experimental, the effect is almost comfortingly familiar. In terms of his style or his preferences, Isiah might have little to do with Kelly. But just like the Kelly of Black Panties, Isiah has made an album about abandonment, one that sounds fully abandoned.
Download The Love Champion here.