Apart from having one of the all-time greatest album-sequel titles, “Ugh, Those Feels Again” — which follows this R&B-leaning Swedish-Persian singer’s 2017 debut full-length, “Feels” — succeeds on a far more complex level: making familiar sounds unfamiliar.
Snoh Aalegra signed to Sony when she was just 13 and released a more pop-leaning album under the name Sheri in 2010, but then Prince took her under his wing, and his influence was apparent when she adopted her current name and guise in 2014. While countless thousands of recordings have been released over the past decade that explore an alt-R&B vein similar to the one on this album — a romantic, weed-influenced, late-night vibe, classic and forward-leaning at the same time — very few succeed on the levels that “Ugh” does. The bones of the songs here are familiar and similar to the ones on “Feels”: lots of mid-tempo, slightly jazzy R&B grooves with rimshots, tinkling electric piano and Aalegra’s deceptively versatile voice, which is usually singing standard-issue R&B lyrics like “Boy I’ve got my eye on you… your body next to mine … can we make this last forever,” etc.
But the unusually complex production lofts it to a level that is leagues beyond “Feels”: The upper frequencies are often bright and clear, but the bass and low end is woozy and blurry; various sounds and melodies float dreamily in and out of the mix. References waft in and out as well: a Stevie Wonder moment floats by, then something reminds you of “Badizm”-era Erykah Badu, then there’s a sped-up vocal sample like one from Kanye’s “College Dropout,” then she shifts her voice into a Michael Jackson range. Sometimes the influences are worn prominently on their musical sleeves: “You” could be a long-lost early ‘80s Prince ballad (although it would have been called “U”), and for Aalegra’s second album in a row, there’s a song that channels Portishead to a remarkable degree. This time, it’s “Peace,” which does not resemble Portishead’s “Sour Times” in terms of melody but has a similar twisted-funk vibe and several similar DJ scratches and sound effects. But while the influences here are prominent and obvious, they surface more as winks and homages. While there are multiple producers and songwriters working with Aalegra here, the prominent collaborator is Kanye/Jay-Z producer No ID, whose ARTium label released this and her previous two outings, and who produced several of the best songs here and seems to have given the album its remarkable sonic unity.
But all of the above focus on the album’s sound is not to take away from Aalegra’s significant development as a singer over the past couple of years: She shows remarkable range and switches up her delivery to match the ever-shifting music, but perhaps most strikingly, even when the lyrics and the melodies are intense or confrontational, they’re blunted by her phrasing or the effects on her voice, so the album never feels confrontational, even when it is. “Ugh” is a “real album,” with a unified yet ever-changing sound and vibe — and one that initially feels familiar but shifts shapes on closer inspection, and is harder to pin down than it first might seem.