“In my head I wish I was a rapper, but really I just write folk songs.” The best artists are the most self-aware ones. On Dawn, her long-awaited and highly-anticipated debut album, Yebba’s strongest asset in her arsenal of secret weapons is her self-awareness. A church kid from West Memphis, Arkansas, Yebba (real name: Abbey Smith) wields a voice quite unlike any other vocalist in the mainstream right now. When Yebba sings, she sings with intention. Every run is executed with elite precision; when she creeps into her head voice she does so with intense vulnerability, and her robust belts demand attention from the very first note to the very last. This is a voice that moves, it doesn’t merely entertain. In an instance of divine alignment, Yebba’s exquisite voice has been paired with her ability to craft equally captivating songs and stories. Dawn is an album born out of grief, patience, and realignment. The album wears its myriad influences proudly, but Yebba’s ability to nimbly prance across instrumentals like a rapper while breathing life into folksy ethereal lyrics is what truly sets the record apart.
The centerpiece of Dawn is undoubtedly “October Sky,” a tender yet rousing dedication to her journey through loss and grief. Over a delicate mélange of fingerpicked guitar, somber piano, and pensive strings Yebba paints a devastatingly gorgeous bildungsroman anchored by the gravitational force that is the loss of her mother to suicide. “Right by my cigarettes that I smoke since you left / ‘Cause you said you had to fly / In your October sky,” Yebba sings. It simply cannot be overstated what a powerful and poignant vocal performance this is. Yebba captures every shade of processing grief: coping mechanisms (“But I’m missin’ my mama, so I stand on the street and get high”), communal emotion (“And the pеople grieve with mе since the towers came down”), and reflections on the past (“There’s a picture of us / Hidden in a layer of dust”). This nuanced look at emotion is the common thread that unites Dawn. “October Sky” was one of the many singles that preceded Dawn. Another one of those pre-release singles, “Boomerang,” rings with a more pointed meaning when heard in the context of the full album. In the song, she croons a haunting revenge fantasy where she murders her friend’s abusive husband. “Boomerang” expertly showcases how Yebba can wield her voice to become its own character within her stories. She lets out a hair-raising “oooh-oooh” throughout the track which can be interpreted as a siren, a battle cry, or anything in between.
Elsewhere on Dawn, Yebba enlists collaborators that help her achieve her wish of being a rapper. The Smino-featuring “Louie Bag,” another pre-release single, is an instant standout. The passing of Yebba’s mother led to Dawn’s delayed arrival, as did the callous money-hungry experience of signing a record deal. The song features a more hip-hop-adjacent melody that allows Yebba to slink across the track with a restrained, but still effective, vocal performance. Smino has always shined on earthy and percussive production, so he’s the perfect addition to the DJ Dahi-helmed “Louie Bag.” Even, A$AP Rocky, who appears on “Far Away,” pairs particularly well with the song’s themes of recreational drug use as a form of escapism (“Hit another blunt (Yeah-yeah, yeah), watch thе embers burn away / Pour a double cup, I’m dirty dancin'”). Throughout Dawn, Yebba employs collaborators behind the boards that help transform her influences into a soundscape that is solely hers. Dawn was recorded at the iconic Electric Lady Studios with members of the band that helped craft D’Angelo’s legendary Voodoo album. A major influence on the record, D’Angelo’s appreciation for intricate and lush arrangements echoes throughout Dawn. Even during poppier moments like the sublime, “Love Came Down,” Yebba never sacrifices attention to detail for easy consumption.
Prior to Dawn’s release, Yebba had already earned one Grammy win (from two nominations), three featured spots on Mark Ronson’s Late Night Feelings album, collaborations with Ed Sheeran, Chance the Rapper, Sam Smith, and Lucky Daye, among others, and a stunning solo track on Drake’s blockbuster Certified Lover Boy album. If not for Yebba’s self-awareness, any old label could have turned Dawn into a vehicle for pop stardom or drowsy vibe&b seduction. Instead, Yebba looked inward and took the time she needed to craft the album that she was meant to make at this specific time. With a voice that thrives in its own authenticity instead of wallowing in a vapid imitation of Black soul, Yebba shines. Whether it’s “Stand,” a five-minute rumination on anguished grief or the soul-baring “How Many Years,” Dawn hits every note with extra care and love. If this isn’t one of your top albums of the year, then what is?
Key Tracks: “October Sky” | “All I Ever Wanted” | “Stand” | “Louie Bag”