Album Review: Chloe x Halle’s ‘Ungodly Hour’ Is A Magnificent Leap Forward

It’s hard to believe just how far Chloe x Halle have come. Whether you were introduced to them through their Beyoncé covers on YouTube, their stint on Disney’s N.B.T., or their Sugar Symphony EP, no one could have predicted where Chloe x Halle would end up now. After slyly unpacking adult themes with wide-eyed optimism on their Grammy-nominated debut, The Kids Are Alright, Chloe x Halle have returned two years later with a darker sound and a more focused theme. Ungodly Hour is a stunning collection of soulful R&B anthems and experimental tunes that broaden the scope of Chloe x Halle’s sound while building on the sturdy foundation of their debut album.

Ungodly Hour holds myriad parallels to The Kids Are Alright. Chloe x Halle’s last album began with an intro titled “Hello Friend.” While this intro was bursting at the seams with youth and bubbly harmonies, Ungodly Hour‘s intro is markedly darker and moodier. Packed with a cascading string arrangement and colored by Chloe x Halle’s smoky lower registers, the intro for Ungodly Hour sets the stage for a robust record on which the sister duo sounds more confident than ever before. In typical CxH fashion, the intro seamlessly blends into “Forgive Me,” a career-defining alternative R&B number that revels in unapologetic independence and fearless demands for agency and power. The girls slightly slur their words in a rap/sung cadence over harsh drums and strings. They croon that their lover should “forgive me ’cause I’m not teary/Best believe I’ll move onto better things.” The song, like all of Ungodly Hour, works because the overall sound is an updated version of the experimental alternative R&B/soul-pop hybrid that the duo began on The Kids Are Alright. With a co-write from Nija Charles (Chris Brown, The Carters), the girls step out of their comfort zone (yes, they’re cursing in their songs now, but that doesn’t equal maturity, they’ve been mature!) and into a whole new world.

The trap influence of “Forgive Me” is counterbalanced by smoother R&B cuts like “Baby Girl,” an almost too on the nose ode to female empowerment that is backed by finger snaps and marimba-esque synths. “Baby Girl” isn’t a standout track, nor is it particularly memorable after a full listen of the album. Nevertheless, the song continues a trend on Ungodly Hour that is similar to a trend that helped Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia shine — the pre-chorus. Chloe x Halle’s pre-choruses are consistently strong throughout the album; there’s so much energy clenched in that section of each song. That energy either ups the momentum of the track or lays the groundwork for an explosive chorus. In a similar way, “Do It,” the album’s second single folds all the sounds and musical influences of Chloe x Halle into one delectable slice of R&B-pop.

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As much as Chloe x Halle are otherworldly vocalists, they are also insanely talented lyricists, instrumentalists, and producers. In fact, Chloe Bailey produced a hefty portion of this album. Ungodly Hour is undoubtedly one of the best produced albums of the year. Chloe’s idiosyncrasies are all over this album. For example, the slight pause before “yeah” at the end of the second verse of “Baby Girl” is the perfect pocket of stillness in the face of the duo’s trademark stacked harmonies. Only Chloe could have had the intuition to craft the song that way. Chloe’s touch is especially felt on “Tipsy” and “ROYL,” two tracks that explicitly build on the bewitching sound that the duo so expertly crafted on their debut. “Tipsy” balances a sing-songy vibe in the verses with heavy percussion. The track is deceptively sweet; it sounds nice until you hear the lyrics, “If you love your little life then don’t fuck up.” It’s cool seeing Chloe x Halle get into their toxic side for a bit, you have to admit it! “ROYL,” on the other hand, is this trippy trap ballad on which the girls employ a raspy tone. The track isn’t exactly nostalgic, but it recalls that wide-eyed optimism that anchored their debut album. After an album where the girls play the role of “the other woman,” exert their control over their lives, and call out weak and trifling playboys, it’s a nice look forward to the bright future the girls have ahead of them.

Ungodly Hour‘s true standout tracks are the ones that challenge Chloe x Halle. “Catch Up,” the lead single that deserved more love, pushes the girls further into mainstream pop territory. However, it’s the sublime title track, co-produced by Disclosure, that transports the sister duo to the club. The thumping bass and warm synths are the perfect backdrop for the girls’ sultry vocal delivery. This is their pseudo-good-girl-gone-bad anthem without feeling forced or corny. This sound is far away from anything Chloe x Halle have tried before, but it works incredibly well. On “Busy Boy,” the girls dip into blues influences as they blend a DJ Mustard-esque beat with piano. The song functions as an updated Destiny’s Child track as the girls rip into a messy playboy that they’ll aways have the upper hand over. Chloe x Halle love midtempos, so this foray into uptempo territory is a welcome triumph.

The real victory of Ungodly Hour is the flawless three-track run towards the end of the album: “Lonely,” “Don’t Make It Harder On Me,” and “Wonder What She Thinks Of Me.” The former utilizes sparse production to soundtrack the girls’ rumination on the less glorious side of independence. Lyrically, they’re brutally honest about being “afraid of the silence” and “what you’ll find in it.” The song is painful in its veracity, but the sound isn’t far removed from the vibey R&B of Kehlani and Summer Walker. In a welcome switch to more analog instrumentation, “Harder On Me” and “Wonder” rely on acoustic guitar to build their stories. “Don’t Make It Harder On Me” is a beautiful ballad that is intentional in the way its pacing is structured. The chorus explodes with harmonies after a more delicate falsetto-filled pre-chorus. The song steadily ebbs and flows over the tight arrangement of strings and harmonies, two strongholds of Ungodly Hour. “Harder On Me” is actually the most pop-leaning song on the album without really meaning to be. It’s a lush melancholy anthem that should become a staple in CxH live shows. Finally, there’s the beautifully dramatic “Wonder What She Thinks Of Me.” In gentle, but all-knowing, tones the girls use classic R&B storytelling to sing from the perspective of “the other woman.” Of course the album is stacked to the brim with gorgeous vocal performances, this is possibly the duo’s most intricate vocal arrangement and performance on a full song. The ascending runs in the chorus and Chloe’s head voice run at the end of her verse are some of the most pleasing moments on a record full of them.

Ungodly Hour is more than just a great collection of individual tracks. Together, the songs tell the story of two young women coming further into their own persons. The girls exude a specific confidence that only comes through tough life experiences and failed romances. Chloe x Halle have gifted us yet another addition to glowing lexicon of 2020 R&B albums. The girls aren’t necessarily more mature (again, their music has been mature), but their sound has evolved in many different directions — all of which are absolutely terrific. Just like The Kids Are Alright felt like the beginning of something powerful, Ungodly Hour is a bold step forward into a new frontier for the duo.

Score: 87

Key Tracks: “Lonely” | “Forgive Me” | “Wonder What She Thinks Of Me” | “Don’t Make It Harder On Me” | “Tipsy”

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