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VanJess - Silk Canvas Music Album Reviews

The debut album from the Nigerian-American sisters in VanJess is a captivating fusion of 1990s R&B with contemporary electronic touches; its defining feature is the sisters’ uncanny synchronicity.

Jessica and Ivana Nwokike, the Nigerian-American sisters behind the R&B duo VanJess, are unusually in tune with one another. Born just a year apart, the two women look almost like twins, and they seem to read each other’s minds when they sing; their sound is so cohesive, their harmonies so fluid, that it’s impossible to imagine one without the other. Their sensual, confident, and, at its smoky best, near-perfect R&B is the clear work not only of years of practice, but a singular bond. They know how to play off one another. Ivana, with a deep, rounded voice that can cut across a song like a thunderclap, usually sings lead, while Jessica, whose lighter, scratchier voice recalls TLC’s T-Boz, injects personality and flair. When they’re in sync, they seamlessly share verses with a hairflip and a sultry smirk. It’s easy to imagine the two women as girls, putting on shows for family members in their living room, patiently waiting to grow up.

Silk Canvas, the duo’s debut album, is a cohesive and mature collection of R&B that takes its time developing its songs—the project’s throbbing production molds itself around the sisters’ vocals like magma. When it works, and it works often, the songs on Silk Canvas flawlessly incorporate the harmonizing R&B of Groove Theory, the wailing house of Crystal Waters, the effervescent bounce of Disclosure, and the vocal synergy of the sisters themselves to create some of the most compelling, hybrid R&B of the last few years.

Two of the best tracks on the album, the singles “Control Me” and “Addicted,” come courtesy of IAMNOBODI, the Soulection-affiliated wizard who provides layered, body-rolling beats for the sisters to sing love songs over. “Control Me” blends pounding drums, hazy synths, and a lilting Portuguese vocal sample into a hypnotic potion perfectly suited for VanJess—you can almost see the two sisters emerging from a smoke-filled club late at night and into the warm, summer air. Ivana steals the show, her voice dripping with yearning: “Yeah he callin’ but I hear no sound/Feel you only when you not around.” On the even sexier “Addicted,” the desire practically leaks out from the beat, which, with its stop-and-go drums and subtle chord modulations, is pure Aaliyah. Yet VanJess manage to avoid cheap ’90s imitation on the strength of their chemistry and sudden flow switches; there’s a feeling in every VanJess song that something unexpected is around the corner.

Two other singles, the soul-warming, Masego-featuring “Touch the Floor” and the dancefloor-ready, GoldLink-assisted “Through Enough,” prove that the sisters are more than capable of expanding beyond downtempo R&B and into electro-soul. The best of the upbeat offerings, “Another Lover,” is produced by Kaytranada, whose soul claps, shakers, and trademark pulsing synths propel VanJess’ vocals to house-music heights. It’s an ideal pairing—Kaytra’s (inevitable) drop is accompanied by a defiant Ivana belting: “Yes I’m angry and in pain/But know what? I can find/Another lover!”

Silk Canvas is as much a soundtrack as an album: It’s a playlist for a sticky summer night on a friend’s rooftop, a project committed to setting the scene more than controlling it. As a result, the sisters’ lyrics work more toward creating a vibe than actually saying anything of weight, hovering instead around standard treatments of lust, heartbreak, and toasting the good life. Their voices carry enough personality that it usually doesn’t matter, but the album’s closing third lags a bit due to sonic and lyrical fatigue. Save for “Easy,” the final four tracks are B-side retreads of better songs on the album, with “Best Believe,” an overproduced, shockingly ungroovy pop track, standing out as Silk Canvas’ one true miss.

Still, the sisters wield enough magic to make Silk Canvas a success: a surefooted proclamation of sensuality, musicality, and sisterly love that can hold its own with the best of new-wave R&B. “I have played and haven’t always won/Every guard will stay up,” Ivana sings on “Through Enough,” a momentarily slip of vulnerability. But then Jessica joins in and the moment is gone, inhaled by the sisters’ Teflon-strong harmonies and stinging confidence. For now, VanJess are letting us see what they want us to see, saving their deeper selves for each other’s eyes only. Luckily, the small glimpse we’ve been given is more than enough to hold us over until the next.

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