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H.E.R. - I Used to Know Her: Part 2 EP Music Album Reviews

After an auspicious debut in 2016, the young R&B enigma looks for ways outside of the sound that has become her trademark—and gets lost in the process.

At the age of 19, Gabi Wilson seemed to arrive fully formed as H.E.R., an emotive but guarded R&B artist with songs that keyed in on supernatural perspective, profound vulnerability, and what felt like decades of experience. Upon arrival in 2016, the songs on H.E.R. Volume 1 were instantly familiar, and not just because they were so indebted to the likes of the Weeknd. They felt lived-in—intimate, personal, infectious, so much so that you began to internalize the words with one spin. During Volume 1’s glittering opener, “Losing,” H.E.R. sings as if she were mid-sentence, and we just happened to overhear: “My ambition is attractive/My aggression isn’t passive/I promise with you/The butterflies in my stomach are active,” she tells a lover with the ease of rare self-assurance.

In 2017, both Volume 2 and a handful of assorted tracks confirmed that H.E.R. wasn’t a fluke, but those songs didn’t hint at much growth or many next steps, either. August’s I Used to Know Her: The Prelude offered a serviceable retread of old ideas that likewise failed to produce a grand statement. But if that EP’s lack of urgency suggested H.E.R. was starting to tire of her trademark sound, this month’s I Used to Know Her: Part 2 feels like a complete existential crisis. Uneven and occasionally confounding, this is the work of an artist trying to slip from her pigeonhole style but struggling to find a viable exit. Remember how it took trial and error for the Weeknd to learn how to translate what made his 2011 trilogy of mixtapes into something with broad appeal? H.E.R., it seems, is stuck in a similar moment of creative transition.

Quiet-storm drums, melancholic synths, and magnetic R&B hooks defined Volume 1 and Volume 2, recalling the best of SWV and Toni Braxton. H.E.R. was also convincing over uptempo instrumentals that ferried along bits of nostalgia and melodrama. I Used to Know Her: Part 2 trades much of that for acoustic guitar. Yes, she sounded radiant on last year’s “Best Part,” her breakout acoustic collaboration with Daniel Caesar, but the arrangements here aren’t morning strums of glory. Instead, these guitars conjure Florida Georgia Line and an open-mic night in a college town. They warp the dynamism and depth of H.E.R.’s voice into an adult-contemporary mess.

During “Carried Away,” H.E.R. sings blandly about loneliness over perky, hoedown-ready licks and handclaps. It is a beat better suited for Natasha Bedingfield, and it yields the worst H.E.R. song yet. This carries over to “Can’t Help Me,” which at least shows some mercy with the help of 808s and more evocative songwriting. “Sorry that I’ve been yelling at your face/I know you hate when I speak to you this way,” she sings. The guitar comes closest to sounding natural and conducive to H.E.R.’s voice during “Hard Place,” produced by legendary R&B architect Darkchild. It threatens to soundtrack some finding-myself montage in an upcoming rom-com, but there’s at least a measure of tension and an enormous chorus.

Questionable sequencing otherwise plagues I Used to Know Her. The 15 collected songs of Volume 1 and Volume 2 bled into one another, a collage of intimate snapshots inside the H.E.R. orbit. But these eight tracks have no business being in the same room. When she’s not trying to honor Sheryl Crow, H.E.R. returns to her roots on “I’m Not OK” and “Take You There,” sharing narratives that remind you what a special lyricist she can be: “Feel a little guilty/I feel like it’s written all over me/Tryna find a balance/Trusting you, trusting me,” she sings on “I’m Not OK,” examining the effects of a decaying relationship with audible desperation. Alongside the bland guitar of “Can’t Help Me,” though, such throwbacks are so out of place they grate.

I Used to Know Her: Part Two ends with the jumbled “Lord Is Coming,” where Wilson, now 21, ponders social ills from war and religious persecution to economic anxiety and inequality in a miserable spoken-word preamble. “It’s a World War III, corruption versus greed/Not you versus me/But do we ever think of the need for inner peace?” she asks before talking about the price of one’s soul. It’s cringeworthy. The growing pains are evident. But at least H.E.R. is venturing into new subject matter. Despite the major-label contract and the devoted fanbase, she isn’t afraid to take some kind of stand or chance, even if the result is her first full flop.

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