Release Date: Feb 5, 2016
Record label: King Creative
Genre(s): R&B, Alternative R&B
This accurately self-termed electro-soul trio debuted in 2011 with an EP that resembled reinterpretations of imaginary recordings made by Wonderlove, Stevie Wonder's background vocalists, circa Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants. All three songs, measured and spirit-lifting in nature, radiated warmth through rich harmonies and crafty programming. Supported by the likes of Erykah Badu and Questlove, King's impact was instant.
An R&B trio writing and producing its own material is rare enough; here’s one that insists on flexing its collective smarts instead of setting up a member for solo stardom. But these facts wouldn’t matter if KING’s debut We Are KING weren’t such a lovely album: a dozen songs that envisage a relationship as steady-not-static and as marked by quiet sublimity as a Brian Eno album. Imagine an ideal synthesis of form and content and you’ll understand what KING have gotten away with.
You could choose any number of songs from this languid, twinkly debut album to sum up King, an emerging LA soul trio. But it’s simplest to turn straight to The Greatest. From its antique computer game sonics, to its retro-futurist vibe, The Greatest sounds like very little of the genre out there today, unless we’re counting Daft Punk as a soul band.
In 2011, KING's debut EP came out of nowhere to almost-immediate acclaim: Prince, Roots bandleader ?uestlove, and Foreign Exchange frontman Phonte Coleman all praised the group's talent, and rapper Kendrick Lamar sampled "Hey," arguably KING's best song, for Section. 80 track "Chapter Six. " The group worked with singer Bilal for a song on his 2013 album, A Love Surreal, and with jazz pianist Robert Glasper, on his Black Radio LP.
Around this time last year, The Paris Review’s Dan Piepenbring asked a simple but significant question: “Whatever happened to R&B groups?” This was the critic’s route into a thoughtful and productive review of D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, wherein Piepenbring tangled with that record’s rich, textured harmonies and wondered where those one-time staples of mainstream American pop music had gone. He argued that the solo artist now struts in the spotlight once shared by the collective (think Beyoncé vs. Destiny’s Child) and this, as cultural studies would have it, says something consequential about all of us.
Five years after first introducing themselves to the world, KING wish to do so again with the plainly stated We Are King, the group's debut LP. Made up of producer Paris Strother, with sister Amber and Anita Bias on vocals, the trio begin the year looking to expand on the critical honours they garnered with 2011's The Story EP. Across just three songs, that release demonstrated L.A.-based group's unique, interweaving sound, steered them to touring and led to working with the likes of Robert Glasper and Prince.All three songs from that 2011 release reappear here in somewhat extended forms, the best of which is "Supernatural," which now benefits from a rich piano-accompanied intro.
The experimental electronic and jazz music coming out of Los Angeles was a big story over the past year thanks to Kamasi Washington, Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar. Less well known is the R&B trio King, who released the EP The Story in 2011 and began amassing a cult audience that includes Erykah Badu, Prince and Questlove. In the ensuing five years, twins Paris and Amber Strother and Anita Bias have contributed to Robert Glasper Experiment’s Grammy-winning Black Radio album and have now produced a beautifully crafted debut full-length that delivers on the early hype.
King is a tribute band, in a way, but not to one artist’s work. It’s three women channeling a specific spirit and a method of romantic, introspective, positive and harmonically sophisticated R&B. That might not sound like a high priority, if your understanding of the value of current R&B is predicated on how well it subverts or reframes its roots — as singers from many strata of pop have been doing, from Kelela and Dev Hynes to Drake and his heirs.