In the Spring of 2017, a young Colombian-Canadian singer named Jessie Reyez performed a short set in a small upstairs bar in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. She’d built a buzz in Canada via a series of singles, particularly the minor-at-the-time hit “Figures,” and had just released her debut EP, “Kiddo,” which included an aggressive and startlingly in-your-face song called “Gatekeeper” about sexual harassment in the music industry. Accompanied by a DJ and herself on acoustic guitar, Reyez presented a charming onstage persona that contrasted jarringly with the intensity of her performance — her sweet voice cracking or shifting into an even-higher register, often seeming on the verge of hysteria or violence or worse — especially on “Gatekeeper,” which had many people in the small audience shifting uncomfortably in their seats.
Fast forward a few months, and that same Jessie Reyez was performing for 18,000 people at Jay-Z’s Tidal X concert at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and absolutely slaying them. While a couple dozen artists performed and she played just two songs (the ones above), she had the crowd, most of whom had never heard of her, in the palm of her hand.
That dramatically swift transition from a tiny stage to a massive one showcased Reyez’s indisputable talent and star power. But although it came across on certain songs from her two EPs and featured appearances on tracks by Eminem, Sam Smith and Lewis Capaldi (a bizarre group of collaborators that evidences not just her talent but her adaptability), it wasn’t captured in a single body of work — until now.
Her extraordinary debut full-length “Before Love Came to Kill Us” delivers on all the promise the now-28-year-old singer-songwriter-rapper’s previous work suggested — a wild and unique mix of songs and sounds and scenes and moods. It ranges from the smooth R&B of “Imported” to the deranged Kanye-meets-Missy Elliott hiphop of “Dope,” from the Spanish-language ballad “La Memoria” to the girl-group tones of “Coffin” (which itself undergoes a startling shift when a guest verse from Eminem bursts in like an unruly guest at an otherwise civil party).
Which isn’t to say that it’s intentionally or overly commercial: The first words she sings on the album are “I should have f—ed all of your friends / That would have been the best revenge,” and even the most approachable songs go a little bonkers in places. The album’s musical dichotomies mirror the sprawling emotional polarities of her lyrics, which are as foulmouthed and sexually explicit as any rapper’s. There are eyebrow-raising passages in nearly every song, but highlights include “You make me wanna jump off the roof, ’cause I love you to death” (“Coffin”); “You’re such an asshole, but I see a prince / I’m a good girl but you see a bitch /I wanna make love, you wanna burn a bridge” (“Same Side”); “Fight just to f— just to fight again / World War Three justified in bed” and “Strippers and liquor and cigarettes / Apologized but your twitter said no regrets / I’d kill for a mute button in my head” (both from “Ankles”).
At a glance, those lyrics may read like the work of an older and more unhinged Billie Eilish: The two are friends; Reyez is the opening act on Eilish’s postponed North American tour, and, as Eilish revealed to Variety, they have collaborated on still-unreleased songs. And while some may seize on the fact that the words “bad guy” — which happens to be the name of Eilish’s biggest hit — come up repeatedly in Reyez’s “Same Side,” she’s been working this vein for years, and any influence is minor and mutual.
Yet most impressive is the way that the album’s wide and wild range of material and feelings is shaped into a unified, coherent vision. There are multiple songwriters and producers and a stellar guest spot from rapper-singer 6lack (who brings a new verses to the previously released “Imported”), but that focus is probably down to executive producers Reyez and longtime collaborator Tim Suby, who’s also worked with Eminem, Ariana Grande and Travis Scott. The album’s track list and sequence, which is quite different from the version that was initially sent to the media late last year, make its abrupt shifts of tone and mood feel natural, like a charismatic but unpredictable friend whose antics are met with a shrug and a “She does that.” (Dropped from the track list is a torchy cover of Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” released as a single last year, that not only shows off her range and phrasing but also features a weird spoken ad-lib about ex-boyfriends.) Then again, when an album opens with a song like “Do You Love Her” — which mixes a gentle piano and a string quartet with trap beat — and also features the smoothly acoustic, Erykah Badu-esque “Intruders,” the girl-group vibe of the title track, and the eerie “Ankles,” almost anything could be coming next.
And indeed, it does. The album closes with a pair of hand-waving, soulful ballads, “Love in the Dark” and the gently bizarre “I Do.” The latter song has an odd, almost jazzy melody embellished with dustings of guitar and piano (and a distant yell in the background) — until the halfway mark, when the rhythm and piano ease into a smooth groove and a gospel choir joins in for a glorious coda on the chorus.
It would be a perfect way to end the album, but first there’s a brief spoken-word outro — and then suddenly we’re back to where things all started with 2016’s “Figures” (which became a slow-building hit and was certified gold last year). It’s unclear whether it’s a simple bonus track, a statement on how far she’s come, or a tie-in to the album’s larger narrative in some way — or all of the above. Regardless, it’s a solid cap on a defining work from an exciting new star … even if it’s landing in a world very different from the one in which it was created.