Continuing her monstrous year, winning both Song of The Year at the Grammys and the Academy Award for Best Original Song, H.E.R. delivers her debut studio album, Back of My Mind. It’s crazy to think that after three years of critical acclaim and mainstream success, she has been going about, on a consistent basis, releasing EPs after EPs that would later be repurposed as compilation albums. But her originality and talent always shined, giving us these unique creations that showed her range; specifically proving she has the makings of a rock star. Back of My Mind has luscious production, fantastic vocal performances, albeit clocking in at 21 songs and 80 minutes of material that sometimes feel more like filler or non complacent within the bigger picture.
Back of My Mind comes as H.E.R’s first true foray into creating a concept album that delves deep into her subconscious and brings out these beautiful performances about her life. However they come in a sporadic mess with few inconsistencies. There are moments where the track has you hooked from the melodies and the production – at times sensing smart songwriting – and yet the choruses that are supposed to be the icing on the cake, start to slightly teeter on mediocrity at random instances. H.E.R. either keeps your attention or you start to lose it as some tracks don’t have the depth her vocals can provide; other times the writing from her, with a collection of others, carry a lot of dead weight as it’s hard to distinguish who wrote who.
But these random factions on Back of My Mind are filled with some filler and thematic redundancy. That it will have you – at times – tapping next slightly quicker than usual, like on “Find A Way,” with Lil Baby, which comes across as broad and redundant. It feels like it was orchestrated to add slight commercial appeal; the same could also be said about the addition of “Slide,” with YG, and one of the weaker tracks, “I Can Have It All,” that she made with Bryson Tiller, Meek Mill, and DJ Khaled for his most recent album, Khaled Khaled. But for some of these tracks, hitting the skip button is a blessing as some of H.E.R’s best work comes from it, like “Bloody Waters,” with Thundercat, co-produced by Kaytranada and Gitelman (producer of the 2016 Mac Miller single “Cinderella”) and “Don’t.”
But these great follow-ups are just crumbs off the cake, as other slices come with blandness like the track “Paradise,” with southern trap rapper, Yung Bleu. It feels off as they try to incorporate and feel invigorated by the low-tempo island R&B and Hip-Hop ballad, which gets worse as it progresses; specifically because of the evolution of sound that starts to steer off a cliff. It is one of the many tracks that evoke themes about relationships and love, a few of which came off redundant, despite unique sounds. But when she steers in a more personable direction that doesn’t feel completely tried, as her career seemed to have a weird trajectory. When those songs have more focus on her person and the effect fame has had on her artistry, opposed to the more tedious themes in R&B/Soul, is where H.E.R. shines as a vocalist, allowing herself to break down more barriers and have us forget about the one true deterrent into pop in the song, “Slide.”
The emotional performances from H.E.R captivate you whether it’s melodically soulful or spiritually bleak, and continuing to show that her dominance in the industry is no fluke with her amazing voice and range. This continuation shows more when she is trading verses and duets with other artists, like the nuanced “Come Through,” featuring Chris Brown channeling a version of himself we rarely see. This is similarly heard on “Trauma,” featuring Cordae. The smooth, somber, and depth filled production by Hit-Boy feels isolated and it shines as its own thing that fits within the grander scheme of the concept as she picks apart pieces of her mind. It’s a breath of fresh air to hear these two artists mesh into a H.E.R. like tracks that don’t come across as what you’d expect when seeing their name on a feature list.
There are plentiful examples to highlight how H.E.R creates a path to let collaborators flourish with her. It provides insight to the construction of the song/production notes, and how some meld themselves into a genre they barely touch. On “Cheat Code,” Asa Taccone (Electric Guest) and Julia Michaels co-wrote and co-produced the highlight “Cheat Code,” which felt seminally out of the former’s comfort zone. Asa brings unique touches with co-producer DJ Camper, like the vibrant and distinguishing percussion patterns.
This cohesion and understanding allows for new perspective on the delivery of the performance over the production, amongst the in between writing like New Jersey producer Cardiak and R&B/Soul songwriters from various eras of the genre, but especially this new era with writers like the duo Nova Wav (written for DJ Khaled and Teyanna Taylor) and Gamal Lewis, who has written for Ciara, Meghan Trainor, and Lil Wayne, to name a few. Unfortunately not everyone can make a track work, as Gamal Lewis and the other credited writers couldn’t really make that track feel fully rounded.
Back of My Mind’s quality strives in the middle where many tracks hit, some of which have distinct details that make slightly lesser tracks more repeatable, like the melody and production of “Lucky,” and “My Own,” or the lyricism of “Process.” H.E.R. comes about this album with a need to distinguish and express that she is capable of range, which she has previously tried to show on the slightly fun “We Goin’ Crazy” from Khaled Khaled.
H.E.R. has never shied away from speaking her truth, but she seems to feel misguided when it came to constructing her debut album. It’s bloated, running at 21 tracks and 80 minutes in length, you could tell what could have been shaved off and it would have made a tighter album. However, H.E.R. delivers enough to have you returning to this, especially with unique outputs like “Come Through;” however you’ll probably return to her earlier work more frequently.