Simultaneously one of the most visible yet enigmatic artists of the past few years, H.E.R. is one of the most intriguing musicians in recent memory. At just 23, the prodigy and two-time 2021 Bulletin Awards nominee, already has several Grammys (she scored her fourth this year when she won Song of the Year for “I Can’t Breathe”) and an Oscar (Best Original Song for “Fight for You” from Judas and the Black Messiah) under her belt before her official “debut” album. Of course, with H.E.R., the term “debut album” is used as loosely as possible. The R&B songstress has been putting out music for around half a decade now. H.E.R., an eponymous compilation of the H.E.R. Volume 1 and H.E.R. Volume 2 EPs, earned the singer her first Album of the Year nomination at the Grammys. The project housed two of her most recognizable hits: “Focus” and the timeless Daniel Caesar-assisted “Best Part.” I Used to Know Her is another compilation of the I Used To Know Her: The Prelude and I Used to Know Her: Part 2 EPs. That project spawned her inescapable Bryson Tiller duet “Could’ve Been” and “Hard Place.” The two compilations earned H.E.R. a grand total of ten Grammy nominations. With all of this acclaim from awards institutions and critics, H.E.R.’s comparatively paltry commercial success has been met with some raised eyebrows. Regardless, nothing speaks louder than quality music.
Back of My Mind, H.E.R.’s proper debut record, is a shockingly disjointed and, at times, middling collection of songs that ultimately does not display the her versatility in the most effective way. A true musical chameleon, H.E.R. can seamlessly fit into any genre. One week she’s rapping alongside Migos on a DJ Khaled album track, and the next, she’s shredding her guitar with Chris Stapleton at the CMT Music Awards. In theory, this versatility should have set H.E.R. up to deliver a triumphant “formal” introduction, but the album falls victim to a number of crutches. At around eighty minutes, Back of My Mind is entirely too long. The album houses 21 full songs (there are no interludes) which makes listening to it exhausting instead of fulfilling. Moreover, this is easily the weakest collection of songs H.E.R. has ever released; the featured artists add little to nothing to these songs, and there are entire sections that immediately fade into background noise. The dismalness of the album is so shocking because H.E.R. has been remarkably consistent with her standalone singles over the past year and a half. Instead of including stunners like “Sometimes” or “Comfortable,” H.E.R. elected to recycle a terrible DJ Khaled album track (“I Can Have It All”). Whether the overwhelming length of the album was supposed to secure more robust streaming numbers or not, it is unequivocally to the detriment of the album’s quality.
Back of My Mind starts off incredibly strong. Throughout the first section of the album, the drums threaten to swallow every other musical element. Nevertheless, H.E.R. finds a way to (mostly) keep everything under control. “We Made It” is a triumphant opener. In fact, there was no better choice to open Back of My Mind. The song functions as a victory lap that celebrates H.E.R.’s success (“They said I won’t come up with the family and cop a couple Grammy’s/All the things they said that I can’t be, revenge taste just like candy”) while also showing off the breadth of her musical influences and capabilities. There’s rock, there’s soul, there’s trap; she’s shredding her guitar, flexing her vocal range and control, and she sounds more relaxed here than anywhere else on the album. The primary riff in the hook is also beautifully replicated on the guitar and on the piano at the end of the song. “We Made It” is almost a bait-and-switch because the majority of Back of My Mind struggles to reach even half of that song’s greatness. From “We Made It,” H.E.R. then launches into a relatively feature-heavy first half. The title track is a sultry duet with Ty Dolla $ign who once again proves himself as the perfect addition to any R&B jam. “Damage,” which could be considered the album’s proper lead single, is still as sublime as it was upon release. “Damage” works because it’s what makes H.E.R., *H.E.R.* She’s singing with a rap cadence while sneaking into falsetto from time to time, but she’s also striking tender emotional chords without feeling sappy or predictable. “Damage” is everything that we loved from H.E.R.’s previous compilations, just tighter and more refined. Unfortunately, a large chunk of Back of My Mind feels like hollow interpretations of “Damage.” This much is true with the later tracks on the album. “Paradise,” “Process,” “Mean It,” “Closer To Me,” “Exhausted,” and “Lucky” are all chores to sit through. They either feel like interludes that have overstayed their welcome or songs that don’t say anything at all. If these songs do say something, H.E.R. has very likely covered the concept with more finesse on older tracks.
H.E.R. has worked with everyone from Toni Braxton to Ed Sheeran to Jazmine Sullivan. Why she chose to decorate this album with features that don’t push her or add anything, the world may never know. Yung Bleu is essentially a waste of space on “Paradise,” and the drum-heavy “Trauma” turns H.E.R. into a featured artist on her own song. “Trauma,” produced by Hit-Boy, is ultimately a dud because the uninteresting melody, two preachy Cordae verses, and robust drums overwhelm H.E.R. In addition to Ty Dolla $ign, Chris Brown is the best duet partner on Back of My Mind. He and H.E.R. have great vocal chemistry, but it really is time to move away from providing him with a platform and further opportunities. In a way, “Come Through” excels because the song itself is catchy, not because Brown offers any kind of inimitable magic to the track. On “Find A Way,” H.E.R. leans into Lil Baby’s world and effortlessly rap-sings her verses in a style that evokes DeJ Loaf or Kaash Paige. “Find A Way” isn’t one of the best songs on Back of My Mind, but it does successfully (for the most part) showcase H.E.R.’s versatility. In the context of the album, however, the song disrupts the introspective mood established with the first four songs. This would not have been an issue had the mood been disrupted by a more undeniable song. Nevertheless, it would have made more sense if “Damage” transitioned into “Bloody Waters.” Speaking of “Bloody Waters,” that track is easily one of the standouts on Back of My Mind. The song’s sound recalls the Sly and the Family Stone-influenced “Fight For You,” a sound that H.E.R. should have utilized more on this album. The bass guitar here is absolutely gorgeous, KAYTRANADA and Thundercat’s production contributions truly help elevate this song.
Even amongst the duds, there are few jewels buried in the back half of Back of My Mind. “My Own” finds H.E.R. back in the sexy and vulnerable pocket that made her first two EPs so captivating; she sings “You should know that I don’t act like that without a purpose.” “Cheat Code,” co-written by Julia Michaels (“Issues,” “Lose You to Love Me”), blends some brass with dry acoustic guitar to create one of the more interesting soundscapes on the album. On both, “Cheat Code,” and the fantastic “Don’t,” H.E.R. delivers some of her best vocal performances. The latter evolves into a gospel-influenced jam session in its second half, easily making it a winning moment after so many misses. There’s also “Hold On” which recalls D’Angelo’s seminal “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” and “Hard To Love,” a folksy track that allows H.E.R. to show off the raspier shades of her voice. Back of My Mind is disappointing, there’s no doubt about that. With the standard that H.E.R. set with her previous projects, anything labeled her “official debut” would be met with more scrutiny. Nevertheless, even if this was a sophomore album or a fourth album, the record is still mediocre. H.E.R. doesn’t build an immersive world as she has on previous projects, nor has she sequenced the album properly or chosen collaborators that effectively enhance the album. This isn’t the end of the world for H.E.R., but it’s a moment for her to take a step back and see what works and what doesn’t so that her next album is a more accurate representation of her capabilities.
Key Tracks: “Back Of My Mind” | “Don’t” | “Bloody Waters” | “We Made It” | “Damage”