Amber Riley rose to fame as Mercedes on the beloved musical comedy series Glee. Her robust voice anchored many a solo and landed her the role of Effie White in the West End debut of Dreamgirls for which she won the Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical. Now, the SAG Award winner and Grammy nominee would like to reintroduce herself as RILEY.
For her first proper post-Glee project as a solo artist, RILEY opts to dive head-first into the world of trap&B and alternative R&B while finding unique ways to blend those styles with her gorgeous theatre voice. On the project’s lead single, “BGE,” Riley lays down some vaguely empowering lines about her authenticity (“I got that hood, that’s still in me”), but the pre-chorus feels like it was written for a completely different song. The laidback West Coast feel of the song is a promising sonic direction for RILEY — one that she should explore further. The next two tracks, “Temporary” and “Creeping,” are the standouts from the EP. On the former, RILEY achieves a sublime blend of the alternative R&B sound and her big vocals. This is the best-written song on the project and her most convincing vocal performance. She delivers emotive growls and belty moments, but she also knows when to pull back. Although the pre-chorus feels very wordy at times, by the first repetition she figures out how to make it work. Much of RILEY suffers from subpar mixing, but this works to her advantage on this track; her belts float under and over the instrumental like she’s swimming for answers. “Creeping” sees RILEY trying her hand at trap&B. She tries on a couple of different flows and she shows off her knack for catchy melodies, specifically in the chorus. In fact, with some slight tweaks to make the production more interesting, “Creeping” has real hit potential which is promising for RILEY.
The final triad of tracks offer more hit-and-miss moments. “Ride” is a mundane pop-influenced R&B song that does nothing to advance the project or RILEY’s artistic profile. “Hood Living” is a well-intentioned attempt at reclaiming the recent romanticization of the hood. RILEY and BJ the Chicago Kid have solid vocal chemistry and their vocal performances almost sell lyrics like “Top Ramen on the stove, good weed/House keys, tight jeans.” It is “A Moment,” however, that really pulls the weight on the project’s back half. Co-written by Jordin Sparks, “A Moment” is a stunning and tender ballad that transports RILEY back to the vocal-focused lane of her musical theatre background. She performed the song on Jimmy Kimmel Live! as a tribute for her friend and co-star Naya Rivera in light of her tragic passing. “A Moment” easily has the best production on RILEY simply because it doesn’t drown out her voice. RILEY’s debut EP is a solid start to a new career. She opens up a multitude of avenues for exploration while still staying true to herself as a vocalist. With some new writers (seriously, the songwriting is just not good on this project), producers, and engineers on deck, RILEY will certainly be one to watch in the future.
Key Tracks: “Temporary” | “Creeping”