Photo Credit: Shane Adams
Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson, who goes by the stage name H.E.R. (pronounced “her”), has been releasing singles and individual tracks going as far back as 2014, thus it’s a bit surprising that she’s just now coming out with her first full-length release. If making up for lost time was any part of the goal, then mission accomplished: this is a massive offering of twenty-one tracks, at a total length of nearly an hour and twenty minutes. Ironically, then, the album has a title that comes from an expression that implies afterthought, being titled: Back of My Mind.
Many people were probably exposed to H.E.R. for the first time with her appearance on Saturday Night Live last October, where they were introduced to her powerful but understated voice. The biggest surprise, however, no doubt came during the second song “Hold On”, during which she played – and totally shredded on – an electric guitar (certainly a twist on the R&B diva which she came off as during the first song).
Indeed, the studio version of “Hold On” which appears here does a classic rock-style chorus. Beyond that, and even given its length, there’s little rock or blues (or even the influence of those genres) on Back of My Mind, which is dedicated mostly to R&B and hip hop – as suggested by the appearance of numerous guests from those genres, including Lil Baby and Yung Bleu.
Many of the “quieter,” more R&B-leaning songs here display H.E.R.’s captivating singing talent – light on vocal gymnastics, but she has you believing every word that she says. Most of the more hip hop-centric tracks are just as effective, but other influences abound as well. “Bloody Water” is arguably the best cut, featuring both an uptempo bassline and drum beat as well as a message (“Speculate caution signs // Incriminate people’s minds // War and love don’t combine // Destiny don’t roll the dice”), all of which were clearly inspired by Marvin Gaye’s indispensable 1971 album What’s Going On. “Closer to Me” features another unlikely but effective time-keeping approach, utilizing the sounds of finger snaps, which was a common musical device when R&B first morphed into rock ‘n’ roll (and then reintroduced in the ’90s by groups like Boys II Men and PM Dawn).
“Hard to Love” is, despite the title, probably the easiest song to like, though it’s no light listen: a devastatingly honest song, possibly the first ever in which the narrator refers to their own problems using the term “issues” (“It’s hard to love // It’s hard to trust you… // I can’t expect you to fix all my issues”). With the two cuts that close out the album, “Slide” and the appropriately-titled “I Can Have It All”, H.E.R. makes a closing statement certifying once and for all that her main allegiance is still with hip hop – particularly given the guests (DJ Khaled, YG and Bryson Tiller) who appear between the two tracks.
A couple of the rap tracks do use the “n” word numerous times, so listeners will have to decide how they feel about that (in context). Also, Chris Brown remains a controversial figure, even if his vocals on “Come Through” make the edgy, unconventional romantic duet a winner. At its aforementioned length – twenty-one tracks at nearly eighty minutes total – Back of My Mind may come off a bit more like a catalogue, possibly even an instant archive – than an album. But H.E.R.’s raw talent is undeniable, and Back of My Mind will most likely see her at the forefront of both R&B and hip hop for the foreseeable future.