With 'Fountain Baby,' Amaarae redefines herself as a pop auteur
In a three-page directive for Amaarae's second record, Fountain Baby, which functions as an artist statement, album analysis and thesaurus, the Ghanaian-American singer-songwriter shares an aim for the music: to not be filed under "Afrobeats," a signifier without any artistic rigor that serves as a replacement for a proper noun, Africa. This declaration can be a reflexive refusal of boxes that seek easy consumption instead of patiently unraveling the genealogy of Black sounds. Like Nina Simone, it's a plea to not be misunderstood. But what happens when we instinctively prepare to be misheard, introducing what we're not before sharing what we've become?
The Angel You Don't Know, her 2017 debut album, chased ubiquity without loosening its grip on artistry — going for the avant-garde cachet of an A24 flick, with the reach and welcome of a Disney fairytale. Amaarae knows she's the mainstream, intuitively and from experience. At this moment, separated by oceans and time zones, Janet Jackson, Beyoncé and SZA are on tour, and witnessing them is a sort of time travel. Visiting a past where Janet is a single-name pioneer and a present where her first and last name simultaneously capture a musical lineage and a revered singular reign; to the days when we were dared to keep up, and then years later furiously scrolling through the surprise releases on iTunes; remembering the old flings who litter our lives with wishful thinking and balancing a ctrl that's definitive with one that is as malleable as a screened call and a spicy IG story. There's a legacy that informs Amaarae's past and future, one that makes her delve into the present with wonder.
"I want to be the quintessential African princess of pop," she said in an interview almost three years ago. In regular times, three years is just that, but in the era of COVID, a day is a month, and since then, the Bronx-born, Accra-raised artist has stretched her art via memorable features with Kali Uchis, a relaxing COLORS routine, and a perennial summer hit contender with Blaqbonez and Buju. That expansion is present throughout Fountain Baby, an album very much concerned with perception and performance. That makes sense: A lot more eyes and ears are on the artist now. She's embodying a new self as the world watches. By training her eyes on multiple targets — Southern rap, highlife, electro house or pop — Amaarae challenges listeners to widen their points of view, compelling them, by force and talent, to place her in spaces she's found belonging, not where she's been assigned.
"Big Steppa" does as the song says, taking large leaps and landing with equivalent pomp. The track is sexy and bursting, circling the block owned by Janet's "You Want This" — all fluttering eyelids punctuated with a snap of the fingers and hips. It's both a flirtatious tune and a declaration of intent, serving double time as something that looks inward while focused on the many eyes around. On "Angels in Tibet," Amaarae's vocals chime and float, break into rap and melt into a whisper, while "Reckless and Sweet," with it's mildly amused take down of someone fickle, flips off enunciation for psychedelic release: "I needed a cleanse, anointing my mind, my spirit / The evil-er eye has warned me of your intentions." Amaarae does these types of rhythmic pirouettes well, dancing above the swells of a recognizable Kpanlogo beat that tightly anchors her lyrics and melodies between dance and meditation. She sounds insouciant but the labor is hard earned, carefully calibrating her voice to invoke the artificial high of inebriation — "Aquamarie Loves Ecstasy"— underscored by the real emotion of seduction.
On "Co-star," the album's third single, astrological signs are the boxes that lovers, friends, strangers and multiple selves inhabit, sometimes fully and often innately. The thing about boxes is that when we're inside them, our projections of self are both patchworks and rehearsed, channeling what we've become in opposition to what we're told. Tracks like "Disguise," "Counterfeit" and "Sociopathic Dance Queen," toy with these facsimiles of personhood — and the elasticity of her range. The former reaches a satisfying conclusion to a temporary love, over a fast-tempo perfect for humid house parties. "You think I'm feeling a way, it's not like you love me / I know you don't love me," she sings easily and quickly, as if the relief will disappear if spoken slowly. There's flashbacks to the irreverence of Swedish popstar Robyn on the latter, when Amaarae instructs a partner to "touch, touch, touch, touch" while everything is purple and the dancefloor is presumably empty. The boundaries are clear in the title but even when shunning social propriety, there's still a need for contact, a desire to step out of the box and experience blissful connection no matter how momentary.
Amaarae is grounded when she glides into the songs that allow her to be omnivorous in her taste and liberal in her exploration, so it's apparent when she is uncertain. "Water from Wine" and "Come Home to God," which could have been experimental benedictions, are fillers. It's as though she didn't quite know how to connect religion and its selfless approach to love with the numbing comfort of avoidance.
The rare lulls notwithstanding, Fountain Baby is an urgent response from Amaarae. There is a desperation in her mission to be understood, and a hands-on approach to her world-building, that although rigid in some instances, is elegant and charged with proclamations of individuality. It's an assuredness she wants to transmit and share, a challenge to skip from one space to another, shaping our identities around each one so they cease to be defining perimeters, and instead become as malleable as playdough, as worn-in as the perfect T-shirt, as accurate as a horoscope that makes the most sense on the most important day. Everything fits. It all belongs in the box.
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