In early 2010, shortly after touring as a backup singer for optimistic Brit-rocker Jack Peñate, south Londoner Jessie Ware quietly snuck into the Internet’s consciousness. Electronic music producer SBTRKT used her sugary vocals on a number of tracks, and she appeared several times with him in concert. “Strangest Feeling,” her ethereal first single, dropped last October, and the instantly-viral music video for “Running” appeared this February. Her quiet, reserved nature and stunning voice made Devotion one of the most highly anticipated albums of the year.
This pre-début hype certainly speaks to Ware’s massive talent, but it also signals the shifting landscape of R&B as a genre. This year, the charts have proven that a modest, introspective record like Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange can skyrocket past the blustering racket of artists like Usher and Chris Brown. Ware’s following expands the field in a whole other direction. She occupies the uncultivated ground between R&B and dubstep, pairing rugged electronic beats with her classic soul voice. The result sounds like the 21st century’s answer to Sade.
And then there’s Ware’s persona. She forgoes the bravado associated with the Drake/Minaj side of R&B, instead projecting an image of unassuming reservation. She once claimed that “being a backing singer was [her] idea of heaven,” and her she initially aspired to be a documentary filmmaker. More recently, as it became clear that her burgeoning solo career was more than a fluke, she expressed interest in being a “private pop star, like Annie Lennox.” She’s not exactly clamoring for the superstardom to which many rising performers aspire. The very picture or restraint, Ware seems in equal parts surprised and pleased by her popularity. In interviews, she speaks as if she didn’t choose this path for herself; fame and talent chose her.
Ware’s humility echoes throughout Devotion, a navel-gazing record that deals with the emotional trials of love. Ware’s controlled, precise vocals waft over rugged electronic beats and distinctly 80s riffs. Devotion opens with the title track, a tender plea for commitment. Its electronic tinkling is reminiscent of Ware’s SBTRKT collaborations, and her quiet, distant voice feels somehow glacial. On “Wildest Moments,” Ware ditches the emotional detachment for strong, deliberate percussion and more commanding vocals. Lyrically, she stays true to R&B tradition, addressing the pain of crumbling love (“from the outside / everyone must be wondering why we try / why do we try?”). But the sheer passion of it all trumps what might otherwise seem cliché. Instead, it verges on tragedy.
On songs like “Running” and “Night Light,” Ware shows off her vocal firepower — to an extent. She harbors obvious range and force, but consistently cuts just short of the vampy riffing that American Idol contestants love so much. Maybe it’s her humble beginnings as a backup singer and aspiring journalist, but this display of restraint places Ware on a plateau of maturity that evades most breakout artists. In the one-shot music video for “Wildest Moments,” a statuesque Ware revolves slowly before a white background, staring soulfully into the camera through half-closed eyes. We never see below her waist. In this video, and throughout Devotion, Jessie Ware seems less like a pop star are more like an ancient icon, an untouchable marble deity.
At times, Devotion breaks from intimate catastrophe for a few tracks of Prince-like daring. On “Still Love Me,” Ware trills over clubby synths, demanding the attention of anyone this side of 1983. Meanwhile, “No To Love” begs for an explanation of rejection as a deep, staticky male voice intones “who / says no / to love.” Both tunes further underscore Ware’s mythical quality, as she brims with self-assured outrage at an unworthy lover (“if I make myself understood / will you treat me like you know you should”).
Sonically, Devotion is not terribly cohesive. “Something Inside” and “Strangest Feeling” trickle through expansive electronic soundscapes, while “110%” sprints haltingly over enticing samples. Yet thematic consistency and Ware’s unmistakable pipes weave together the disparate instrumental elements seamlessly. In fact, as Ware skims from melancholy (“I’ve been having the strangest feeling / that you walked out on me one evening”) to seduction (“with bodies jerking / but I’m still working / I’m new to moving / and we can play hard”), what might otherwise be called inconsistency comes off as scope. It’s pretty impressive.
Ware bridges modernity — electronic beats and impeccable production — and nostalgia — a classic soul voice and pure emotional ardor — to form a record that feels both relevant and timeless. A study in contradictions, Devotion is intimate but indignant, comforting but disarming. Rejecting all self-indulgence, Ware has put forth a polished and gorgeous début that celebrates restraint and redefines R&B. [A-]