You know you are in for something good the moment that Oakland singer Freddie’s voice comes in on their EP opener “Oblivion.” Later in the song, their rich, evocative voice moves to deliver that ever-elusive diva wish: “I wanna be adored by ya/I wanna be adored by everyone.” It almost sounds slurred, or mumbled into a collar. But nothing is truly that sloppy in the world of Melanin Monroe, where songs switch from rap to R&B to soul with the gleeful precision of a gymnast changing grip on the uneven bars. “Oblivion” retains its glam, R&B sensuality, even as Freddie runs through rapid, breathless bars in the rap outro. The enunciation may not be perfection, but I don’t think that’s the goal here – Freddie’s aim is to keep the listener on their toes at every turn.
The R&B and soul genres easily lend themselves to expand into adjacent styles, whether rap or something else, but rarely is the mix ever this playful or deft in balance, and Freddie manages a feat on Melanin Monroe by honoring each new element without letting one overshadow any of the others. This could be due to the power of Freddie’s voice alone, which sounds natural in each of its many iterations, but the transitions are especially smooth on “Oblivion” and “Banjee.” “Banjee” is — and there’s really no other way to say this — a fucking bop. “If you a bad faggot with some bad habits let me hear you sang/let me hear you sang!” Freddie drawls at the apex of the chorus, as a tropical-adjacent beat tumbles down after their vocals. It sounds like a church organ that had one too many Mai Tais, and it’s a choice that turns a good song into a great one, one that deserves to be blasted out of car windows all across the Bay when it gets to hot to to keep them shut.
“I’m lookin’ hella five to the one-oh,” Freddie announces pre-chorus (the area code for the Bay is 510 for you out-of-towners). What does it mean to look 510, to embody the Bay Area? For Freddie, this means, in part, to be Black, to be queer, to be gender non-conforming, and to make music about all these experiences with tenderness and precision. Of course it’s not that simple; there are a million different answers to what it means to “be” the Bay Area, and they can be seen on the streets of every town and city as people protest, as people try to smile through their masks, as people go on their daily walks with their hand hovering over the pause button.
And yet! It is brave, still, to make music as a Black, queer, gender non-conforming person in the year 2020, especially taking into account the danger people of those identities face, daily, unfairly, without respite. Despite genre shifts, despite welcome levity with lines like “slim thick like a grown bambi,” Melanin Monroe represents a desire to be seen. Not just in terms of love or sexual desirability — though that is important too, as noted in “Weak,” where Freddie bemoans the shifting attentions of a lover — but in terms of personal autonomy. Instances of having to declare the self are sprinkled throughout the EP: “Banjee” has a little chanted “I’m Benjee/I’m Banjee” backing the chorus, while “Y D K M N,” a rework of the 1999 Destiny’ Child hit, “Say My Name,” is more literal about the power of putting a name to something, whether it be a person or a relationship. Freddie lets it be known that they look 510, if you will, because sometimes there is no other choice but to make a declaration of the self and the right of said self to exist in place, free from (or at least defiant of) the panicked oscillations of fear.
Not that getting to that place of declaration is easy. “Fitness” is atmospheric and has some fun ’90s throwback vocal stylings, but below the basic sentiment of the chorus (“I’ve been putting in some hard, hard work”) is a sense that it took Freddie a long time to get to the place where they could confidently sing the opening line (“click, kaboom/everybody knows when I step in the room”) with authentic bravado. But the work, whatever it was, paid off: Freddie has a voice worth listening to, both literally and figuratively.
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