Nicholas Ryan Gant - Promises (2012)

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    He is one of the most promising young vocalists on the indie soul scene. With a lush, airy instrument that has clear church influences but moves like jazz, Nicholas Ryan Gant has been making a respectable name for himself over the last three years. Introduced to audiences with his 2009 debut, Border Breaks, Gant joined a vanguard of eclectic experimentalists who were playing in between the boundaries of several genres, mostly of the electrosoul and electronica variety. Similar to artists like Musinah, Erik Rico, Ra-Re Valverde and Jesse Boykins III, Gant’s agile voice may be easily consumed by the masses but the playground it stars in on his fourth release are strictly niche audience, largely of the edgy hipster variety.

    He is one of the most promising young vocalists on the indie soul scene. With a lush, airy instrument that has clear church influences but moves like jazz, Nicholas Ryan Gant has been making a respectable name for himself over the last three years. Introduced to audiences with his 2009 debut, Border Breaks, Gant joined a vanguard of eclectic experimentalists who were playing in between the boundaries of several genres, mostly of the electrosoul and electronica variety. Similar to artists like Musinah, Erik Rico, Ra-Re Valverde and Jesse Boykins III, Gant’s agile voice may be easily consumed by the masses but the playground it stars in on his fourth release are strictly niche audience, largely of the edgy hipster variety.

    A graduate of Howard University’s famed music program, sought after vocal coach and one of the teachers in the famed Harlem Children’s Zone, Gant has technical prowess for days, able to sustain a strong falsetto without an ounce of strain. Square-framed glasses, the hint of a Mohawk, and enough colorful bowties, kicks and trendy gear to make the makers of Urban Outfitters blush, Gant embodies the hippest of his generation. His intimidating size and furrowed brow is mitigated by an easy smile and a pleasing live performance game that has created a growing buzz throughout the Eastern seaboard. That buzz was helped along by two free mixtapes (2009’s Hittin Switches and 2011’s Angst in Acapella) and star-turning guest spots on popular projects like Zo’s …Just Visiting Three where his take on “Let It Go” moved newcomers to a place of deep anticipation for Promises. Already an artist, Gant has the makings of a star.

    Despite an album that eclipses his previous equally experimental solo efforts in polish and tighter production techniques, the challenge for Gant is that his music currently isn’t mainstream enough for many a soul or R&B fan to pick up without scratching their head as to how to enter the puzzle box his often deconstructed song structures and abstract melody lines have created. If the goal is to be an artists’ artist or one primarily serving a small, but devoted niche of musical enthusiasts, Gant succeeds. But, his far more traditional guest appearances and catalog’s more structured musical moments say Gant may be more ambitious than the margins. His talent certainly is. Still, Gant and his producers’ decision to privilege sumptuous, futuristic atmosphere over his voice may be a tough pill for the uninitiated to swallow, especially once they hear the difference on a more minimalist track like “You Are,” where Gant’s voice(s) is the star.

    On the plus side, for those daring to broaden their musical palette, Promises is overflowing with metaphorical and spiritual allusions, giving it a depth and maturity that eludes plenty of the under-30 sets’ material. Gant has no problem digging deeper throughout what sometimes could be considered a series of meditations masked as songs. In openly discussing his ego, insecurities, and musings about redemption on confessional moments like “Disclosure,” Gant reveals an artist willing to take a hard look in the mirror and share the ugly humanity sometimes found there. Religious refrains and introspective musings lace the project, making Gant’s reverential vocal approach to the material appropriate.

    It’s not all church and musicology explorations, thanks to producer Justin Ambush on Gant’s “R.E.M. (Never Dream),” one of the project’s standout tracks and one of the few with an easy melody and compelling hook on which music novices can hang their hat. Ambush isn’t alone in bridging the gap. Hadyn Convo and Slimkat78’s more rhythmic and lighter production touch on the hooky “Over Us/Convo” (feat. QueenGodIs) allows the sad relationship tale to be both heard and felt in ways more emotionally connected. “Thought of You” (feat. Marion Ross III) is loose to the point of nearly coming undone, but the juke joint trumpets and bebop piano loop holds the whole hip hop jazz exercise together in ways that brighten the room. “A New Day,” a duet with Amma Whatt, fairs better in its marching architecture, but isn’t one to immediately earn one’s attention; it’s a grower not a show-er. On the only straight-ahead jazz numbers on Promises, in “You Are,” Milton Taylor Pace delivers one whose showing is undeniable. It’s easily one of the most beautiful songs in Gant’s arsenal, with a special worship lyric penned by Brandi Pace. The piano ballad is elevated to the rare by Gant’s signature overdubs and harmonic backdrops that seem to emerge from the earth and enrich the air with ancestral spirits. This fine moment demonstrates what Gant is capable of with a level of restraint and focus that maintains his hybrid sounds but opens the door for more listeners to step in with him to enjoy his glow.

    As cool as these moments are, far too often the challenge is that much of Gant’s voice and lyrical messaging gets lost in a thicket of astral and electronic sounds. While all his vocal production was helmed by famed singer/songwriter and experimental electrosoul artist in her own right, Musinah, what works for Musinah’s lighter instrument does Gant’s special timbre something of a disservice, muddying what is clear. Producers Bilal Salaam, Steveo, 00Genesis and Roddy Rod also fail to reign in their production excesses in the way that slimkat78 does on the hip hop soul title track; instead they seem to favor musical morass over clarity. In truth, most of the challenges facing Gant’s project have little to do with him. Yes, as a songwriter Gant could embrace choral hooks a bit more, especially if he’s going to stick with electrosoul genres. And, yes, there are moments that Gant’s stylings do feel like a more resonance rich Jesse Boykins III or a more proficient Peter Hadar, but he’s still young in refining his own unique approach to song and there’s little doubt he’ll get there. Those willing to broaden their musical palettes to meditate on Gant’s artistry will come to learn that he has all the talent and ingredients he needs to eventually make everyone hear him; but first he must find the right team to help him get out of his own way. Recommended.

    By L. Michael Gipson

     
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