It’s never a good idea to judge an artist on the company they keep, yet a quick glance at Londoner Jelani Blackman’s collaborators instantly encapsulates his appeal. Alt-pop underdog Biig Piig, outspoken rap-rock crossover Bob Vylan, and creative powerhouse Kojey Radical lend their voices to three of fifteen tracks on ‘The Heart Of It’, while Jelani’s long list of musical companions include Fred again.., Ghetts and even soaring indie champions Wolf Alice. Although Jelani’s lowkey, silky vocals easily stand proud on their own, it’s testament to the genre-bending mastery of his sublime debut, a product of the vibrant eclecticism of the city he calls home.
Whether on the beautifully nostalgic intro to ‘Arrival’ or the piano-led chorus on ‘Clear’, ‘The Heart Of It’ deliberately toys with expectation. ‘Wavy’ glides from Jelani’s baritone delivery to an all-out pop inspired chorus; ‘When You Feel It’ borrows from James Blake’s playbook for an almost choral break, and the brilliant ‘Faded’ leans gently into electronics. They provide the backdrop for an equally considered deep dive into Jelani’s world, from family to breakups, and poignant observations on coming of age as a Black man in London. ‘Voice’ references the 1982 launched Black newspaper, while the wider realities in inequality drip into ‘Clear’’s reference to gun crime and ‘Damage’’s note on Grenfell – just a stone’s throw from Jelani’s childhood home in Ladbroke Grove.
It all comes together on what is one of the great British debuts of 2023. ‘The Heart Of It’ pairs Jelani’s experiences, frustrations, and celebrations with a soundtrack borne out of an obvious respect for the wider homegrown scene. His collaborators, far-reaching in sound, share a desire to push things forward, both in sound and in message. Jelani Blackman carries this torch brightly, elevating every poignant and powerful moment on a record that pairs his abundant honesty with stunningly crafted music, and pushes him swiftly to the very top of British breakthroughs.
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