There is something so unique about cucumber cool newcomer MAJOR. (yes, with a period) on his debut, I Am MAJOR., that it’s hard to put one’s finger on it. Maybe it’s the natural baritone’s conversational approach to singing that can erupt at any moment into a stratospheric falsetto that is as clean and pure as one has heard since the early years of Terence Trent D’Arby. Maybe it’s because MAJOR.’s largely bucking the trend of youthful peers to either do an all auto-tuned, trap music project sung in a nasal tenor (there’s one cut, but it can be forgiven) or the all-the-rage deconstructed dream pop that is often as insubstantial as it is ethereal. Maybe it’s the fact that the Berklee and Julliard-trained, former gospel performer is singing songs with traditional structures that are fresh, yet reverential. While everything isn’t MAJOR on I Am MAJOR., there is a lot to admire about this 12-track debut boasting such talents as Mali Music, Amber Riley, Kevin McCall, and Jade Novah. Not bad company for R&B/Soul music’s latest officer in the war for quality soul.
While the songs that are likely to capture the most attention are the duets with the named talent or his epic UK radio ballad, the show-stopping “Why I Love You,” but the song that perhaps best showcases the quality of MAJOR.’s talents is the most understated song of the entire project. The mid-tempo ballad “Way of the World” is reminiscent of Jon Lucien, John Legend, and Bilal’s similarly quiet single, “I Really Don’t Care.” The song opens with doo wop “ohhs and ahhs,” classic R&B percussion, and a vocal that is part jazz, part gospel, a little reggae, and all the way soul. The riffs are less showy, but skillful in their measure. The tone rueful with hints of optimism as the self-professed “Hope Dealer” teaches listeners his philosophical beliefs about surviving the challenging ways of the world. With its lyrical heft and melodic approachability, it’s the kind of B-side with the potential to become the cult favorite, one covered by many artists as the years progress.
The music production on “Way of the World” is spare and benefits from that choice. In fact, the entire project has the misfortune or fortune, depending on the song, to be minimalist in its productions to a fault. The results create a lot of room to show-off MAJOR.’s distinct instrument, one that is grounded and clean with a signature trill that gives it a slight West Indian flavor. And all that space is gorgeous when MAJOR. goes for the aerial notes on the instant classic, “Why I Love You,” which he hits with an effortlessness that is stunning given the weight of MAJOR.’s natural baritone. Only ‘90s R&B and gospel artist, Michael Speaks, had such a similarly stark transition from body to head voice with the technical ability and control to strike similar awe.
On the more contemporary duets with Mali Music and Kevin McCall, the producer Harmony Samuel’s minimalism has the effect of making the songs appear under-produced. The demo feel also undercuts the album’s big, percussive numbers, like the powerfully sung “#ChangeRightNow (feat. Amber Riley),” where a bit more instrumental filler would’ve taken these otherwise solidly performed songs to the propulsive heights their sturdy constructions demanded.
What carries I Am MAJOR. when the ‘80s thin production approach fails it is the upfront vocal mix and the charming talents of MAJOR. himself. You can hear every interesting vocal idea, inflection, and subtle twist to MAJOR.’s musicality thanks to this engineering approach. It helps that both MAJOR. and the album’s up-tempo cuts burst with boundless energy and optimism that makes clear each song’s intention. Lyrically, MAJOR. has something uplifting and thought-provoking to say and does several conscious nods to the retro sounds of big band, Southern hip hop, and hard bop which all sublimely comes together on the New Orleans party of “My Future.” He has the soulful lover man on lock on the duet with Jade Novah and “Why I Love You.” Showing his further versatility and musical vocabulary, MAJOR. flawlessly belts on the Sam Cooke meets Cab Calloway feel of “My Oh My,” a cabaret feast of blaring jazz horns and muscular hip hop backgrounds that gives the song weight and depth.
It takes a MAJOR talent to sound this compelling and unique against a limited production canvas, to be able to so completely sell song after song despite any sonic shortcomings. I Am MAJOR. announces such a talent. With so many well constructed songs in hand and a signature voice right out the gate, I’ll be first in line to see how well he sells this set with a full touring band live and unplugged with nothing but the audience, the music, and all that full-bodied soul between us. Highly Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson