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Seinabo Sey - I’m a Dream Music Album Reviews

On her second album, the Gambian-Swedish musician sings movingly about grief and otherness, but her rich voice too often gets lost in busy, formulaic pop production.

Released in 2014, Seinabo Sey’s “Younger” was one of those hits that bubble up every week or so from the cauldron of PR and algorithms, but it was one of the good ones. The gimmick that got it streaming was clear—the singsong pitch-warping on Sey’s repeated “younger”s—but what made it work as a song were the Gambian-Swedish musician’s robust voice and probing lyrics, plus a euphoric string breakdown that whirls its way through the last third. Streamed over 150 million times on Spotify, “Younger” sounds every bit as career-making as it was. The singer’s 2015 debut, Pretend, reached No. 4 on the Swedish charts.

Her second album, I’m a Dream, offers much of the same. Sey’s voice is rich, adept with fluting falsetto and a rich lower register that recalls the underrated Heather Headley. Sometimes, both of Sey’s signatures appear in the same song: “I Owe You Nothing” is a brash, fuck-off statement of independence delivered with a roar, bolstered by gospel choirs, and closed with a near-operatic cod. But beneath the brashness lies an assertion of interiority. Her voice is forceful, upfront, and—unlike the voices of her streaming-bolstered peers—mostly unhindered by features. The only guest vocalist on the album is British soul singer Jacob Banks, whose weary rasp is substantially more robust than most and well-matched to Sey’s. Their duet, “Remember,” feels mature and lived-in.

But euphoric this album is not, for plenty of reasons. Sey, the daughter of Gambian musician Maudo Sey, lost her father in 2013. She dedicated a 2015 EP to him, and I’m a Dream includes “Never Get Used To,” a song about how grief hollows out everything around the mourner, from inside out. “I sing because you told me to, and then I stop because it sounds just like you,” she sings, and you really do hear their shared cadences.

Her pain isn’t just personal but societal; she’s talked about how, as a biracial woman, growing up in Sweden stifled her. In her defiant 2016 Swedish Grammis performance, she stared down the crowd amid a phalanx of women of color. The number was compared to Beyoncé’s Super Bowl halftime show, but to Sey it was as bittersweet as it was triumphant. “[The performance] kind of cemented that feeling that I think about a lot but don’t often talk about: I’m very different than Sweden, than Swedish music,” she told The New York Times. “Breathe,” written on a sabbatical in Senegal, expresses that same thought: “I love it here, ‘cause I don't have to explain to them why I’m beautiful,” she sings. “Back home they’re so scared of me, that I became scared of me.” There’s grit to her voice and heft to the string arrangement. What could have been a rote inspirational track feels hard-earned.

Living in Sweden has worked against her professional ambitions, too: The industry can seem to eat people and breathe hits. “[In] the Swedish music industry, [we’re] looking for a formula to do things, because that’s the way that Denniz PoP and Max Martin did things,” Sey told Billboard. To GQ, she explained that, “Having a hit song is not working for me in my brain.… I want to study with people that I admire and get out of my Sweden bubble.”

But the bubble encircled her anyway. “Younger” got big partly due to a Kygo remix. Another Sey single, “Hard Time,” was snapped up for a Galantis track. And whether it’s due to producer Magnus Lidehäll—who is Sey’s longtime collaborator but whose credits also include Katy Perry’s Prism and David Guetta’s “Bang My Head”—or just a concession to the all-important algorithm, formula finds its way into I’m a Dream. “I Love You” and “Never Get Used To” are full of squiggly, snippetized vocals sliced off the Kygo/Calvin/Guetta EDM amoeba. The latter, in particular, is a heartbreaking song about grief, but it’s set to a stiff, static track that sounds like it’s two instrumental parts away from becoming a Maroon 5 demo. Every time Sey conveys genuine pathos—through her words, through an unmoored piano line, or through vocal murmur—it's clobbered by lite-disco.

Far more cohesive are the piano balladry of “Truth” and the gospel uplift of “Breathe” and “Hold Me As I Land,” which don't innovate much but don't need to. And far more interesting are the pensive, understated “My Eye,” with its sinuous, Sade-like vocal runs and bass burbles, as well as “Good in You,” a whirl of twinkly keys, DJ Mustard “hey”s, and palpable Janet influence that combines come-on and uplift into a burst of joy. “I be myself and I ain’t fronting,” Sey sings on “I Owe You Nothing.” Her music works best when it allows her to do that.

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