‘Love + War’ comes as something of a surprise. The closest Kwabs has got to success so far in the UK is a place on the BBC Sound of 2015 longlist and a number 71 UK “hit” with Walk. It’s fair to say that for most people, he’s an artist simmering away on the fringes of their radar, rather than a bona fide hit-maker. In Europe, on the other hand, he’s quite the star.
Yet it’s clear listening to this debut album that Kwabs has it in him to go the distance. A jazz alumni of the Royal Academy of Music, often such a technical and studied path doesn’t always relate to pop audiences more concerned with raw talent and “X factor”. Kwabs, however, has applied his training to a pop sound, resulting in an intelligently crafted album.
Vocally he’s far from just a typical soul singer. There’s a husky, dark timbre to his voice that provides a more interesting edge beyond sickly sweet warbling. And that darkness seems to have informed much of the electronic sound of ‘Love + War’. Throughout there’s a grand sense of mood and drama, with its heavy basslines, yearning melodies and predilection for a minor key.
Further, it’s a clever amalgamation of genres that circles pop, R&B, gospel, funk and soul. The stomping beats and piano stabs of Walk may be Kwabs at his most pop, but the opening title track is an atmospheric slice of electro-soul that sets up the feel of the remainder of the album. Fight For Love has more of a dance beat in its chorus that later spills into the disco-funk of Make You Mine. The R&B vibe of My Own is given a futuristic jazz makeover in the beautiful Layback. Best of all are the gritty MIDI sounds and sombre mood of Look Over Your Shoulder. In many ways, this is the sort of album Jamie Woon should have released.
At the core of these uptempo tracks is Perfect Ruin, proving Kwabs knows how to deliver delicate balladry with tenderness, dynamics and gut-wrenching emotion. It’s followed by Forgiven, a ballad in disguise with its bluesy opening and soaring chorus, in which Kwabs lets loose with his vocal. Later there’s the gospel flavour of Father Figure – a refreshingly open and personal song – that continues with the Emeli Sandé-esque Cheating On Me.
This may seem schizophrenic, but the varied influences ultimately come together as a coherent whole, contrasting a smoky vocal with synth-led production that stands out amongst other soul artists. And when his life story consists of a childhood in social care, discovering his Ghanaian roots and a scholarship at one of the UK’s top music conservatoires, that mix of influences begins to make sense.
* Fight For Love
* Look Over Your Shoulder
* Perfect Ruin
Listen: ‘Love + War’ is available now.