It’s high time we petition to retire any phrase resembling “R&B is dying” or “R&B is dead.” Over the past few years, artists like SZA, Lucky Daye, Summer Walker, and Ari Lennox have helped lift R&B to new commercial heights in the streaming era while pioneering different lanes for the new era of R&B stars. Just this year, Chloe x Halle, The Weeknd, Victoria Monét, Jojo, Thundercat, Kehlani, and Lianne La Havas have all put out excellent R&B singles and albums that are innovative without being ignorant of the genre’s storied history. Now, Ro James has arrived with Mantic, the follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2016 debut album.
Ro James first popped up on the scene with release of his 2015 single, “Permission.” The Grammy-nominated single was a sweet classic R&B-tinged ode to consent. In addition to introducing his stellar debut album, ELDORADO, the song set in motion the general tone of Ro’s music. Like many R&B maestros, Ro sings about sex. Nevertheless, he makes it his mission to lessen the objectification of womxn in his music, and instead sing songs that are rooted in mutual respect. Ro’s lyricism relies on nature imagery and metaphor in a way that makes his songs less crude, but still just as sexy, than your standard Chris Brown or Tory Lanez track.
Mantic was introduced by a pair of proper singles, “Last Time” and “Touchy Feely,” two markedly more commercial tracks that illustrate the general dichotomy of the album: soft and gentle songs about romance and emotional connections and slinkier bedroom jams. “Last Time,” the first official full-length track on the album sets up an interesting proposition. Ro asks his male listeners about the last time they made their girl feel good and prioritized her happiness. In so much of modern male R&B, these things aren’t often taken into consideration. So, from a lyrical standpoint, this subject makes Mantic immediately more arresting than expected. With a tight pre-chorus on which he utilizes a rap/sung cadence, Ro continues to carve out a unique space for himself with this track. “Last Time” features a sample from Usher’s Confessions, the first of a few instances where Ro looks to R&B giants help further cultivate his sound on Mantic. “Touchy Feely,” on the other hand, employs a sort of deconstructed trap&b sound courtesy of MP808’s production (Meek Mill, Lil Uzi Vert). The sparse production is filled out by whispery background vocals, and the ascending chords of the pre-chorus drive the song forward.
With the recent renaming of Best Urban Contemporary Album to Best Progressive R&B Album at the Grammys, there has been a lot of discussion around what is considered a progressive element of the genre. If we are to understand the word “progressive” as pushing the genre forward and finding ways to innovate that sound, Mantic does exactly that. Ro experiments with a plethora of genres on his sophomore album. There’s the gospel-influenced “Be Mine” that combines a “Computer Love” sample with notes of Prince in an lovestruck ode to a church girl. “Rose” is a rock-influenced rumination on the relationship between physicality and emotional connections in a romance while “Excuse Me” exercises slight disco influences complete with killer falsetto, funky synths and guitar, and a Tricky Stewart writing credit.
Despite all of these cross-genre influences the album remains incredibly cohesive because Ro knows how to utilize the correct collaborators to achieve his final vision without having them overpower his own voice. His tone is irresistible, but it’s his vocal control that really makes this album gold. When he wants to, Ro can throw impressive runs and riffs all over a track, like on the Brandy-assisted “Plan B,” but he often holds back just enough to playfully tease the listener. In addition to Brandy, Miguel and Masego are also guest vocalists on Mantic. Ro and Miguel have many similarities given their shared lane of alternative R&B, but their collab, entitled “Too Much,” unfortunately falls a bit flat. Miguel assists Ro on the chorus, but he feels like a background vocalist as opposed to an actual collaborator. Conversely, Masego, who also had a show-stealing guest spot on Kehlani’s It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, delivers a strong verse on the trumpet-laden “Slow Down.” Throughout Mantic, Ro makes it a point to properly balance analog instrumentation with programmed beats which helps him achieve a more well-rounded sound, and, ultimately, a more fulfilling listen.
Arguably a concept album, Mantic shines in exploration of all the different facets of romance. Ro covers reciprocation, sex, forbidden love, attention, and a slew of other subjects that often get glossed over on big R&B records. “Permission” and ELDORADO were not flukes, Ro James has crafted one of the most intricate and rewarding albums of the year so far. It’s a true triumph for R&B in a year full of them.
Key Tracks: “Plan B” | “Rain” | “Rose” | “Be Mine” |”Powder Room (IntRO)”