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Diana Gordon - Pure EP Music Album Reviews

On her first EP under her own name, the artist formerly known as Wynter Gordon returns to R&B; it’s a record marked by her striking voice and emotional candor.

2016 was a year of professional rebirth for the artist previously known as Wynter Gordon. Gordon, who was born in Queens and lives in Los Angeles, had been writing for pop stars for more than a decade, and she had experienced several false starts in the spotlight, including a stint making impersonal, big-tent EDM. She was rankled by the anonymity of her own music but didn’t know how to make a change. Then she was called upon to write for Beyoncé on what would become the Lemonade tracks “Sorry,” “Daddy Lessons,” and “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” She ended up penning what was arguably the album’s most culturally resonant line: “He better call Becky with the good hair.”

Shortly thereafter, Gordon chose to start performing under her given name, Diana. (An anonymous source told Page Six that, according to Gordon, Beyoncé had suggested the shift, but Gordon has been more circumspect in interviews.) Whatever the truth, the name change made a difference. It connoted a new, more personal approach to music, an approach that animates Gordon’s first EP under her own name, Pure. The five-song record hits with the impact of something twice as long, and it is a worthwhile addition to the group of strong female-led R&B projects of the past two years.

Gordon’s father abandoned her family soon after her birth, and her mother, who became intensely religious, was harsh and domineering. Gordon was forced to become a parent to her five siblings, a task that took up much of her emotional energy, even after she left home at 17. Pure is a distillation of those experiences, an understated but strongly felt record about the muddle of love and pain that family brings. The strongest of its songs is “Kool Aid,” a ballad dedicated to Gordon’s brothers, including one who she was out of touch with for 16 years before finding him homeless on the streets of Los Angeles. The song is suffused with warmth and encouragement as Gordon performs the role that she has said comes most naturally to her, that of the nurturer. Another standout finds her playing the opposite part, pleading, in a moment of vulnerability, for a “Moment to Myself.” And “Thank You” is bitterly addressed to her father, as she acknowledges the way his absence shaped her: “Always knew you didn’t like me/Always seem to forget to invite me/The little tomboy, shoes too tight/If I was wrong then, now I’m so right.”

The Los Angeles producers Noise Club produced “Kool Aid,” and another single, “Wolverine,” and co-produced the rest of the tracks here. They keep things simple (minimalist synths, huge echoing bass, and skittering drum lines) and stay out of her way, often to underwhelming effect: The hooky melody on “Thank You”’s pre-chorus, for instance, makes less of an impact because the beat does not shift to accompany it. As a result, Gordon lives and dies on the strength of her consistently striking voice and her occasionally messy songwriting. “Wolverine” is a head-turner, with its mercilessly catchy chorus and a pre-chorus that captures the volatility of living with her mother. But it’s also a cluttered song, filled with fragments that bear a puzzling relationship to one another. It might be difficult to make sense of it all without the supplementary material of the singer’s interviews.

The rest of the songs are clearer but less ambitious. If Gordon has not yet quite caught up with peers like SZA and Teyana Taylor, it is not because she is lacking in emotional urgency. Rather, she hasn’t quite found the words that would allow her to channel her emotions with precision. But her extraordinary empathy makes for a notable contrast with the occasional solipsism of other up-and-coming singers. The final song on the EP, “Too Young,” finds her speaking in her mother’s voice, confessing to her children that she and their father made a youthful mistake. It is a testament to the depth of Gordon's understanding that she is able to perceive so much of the pain she and her siblings have undergone as stemming from something so human as a simple bad choice. Despite her anger at her parents, the song is forgiving, soothing and, like the rest of Gordon’s music, strangely sanguine.

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