The animating paradox of pop music is that the best things are usually both unlike anything we’ve ever heard and a canny embodiment of time-tested favorites. Think Hendrix’s symphonic electric guitar distortions, Sly Stone’s funky, quantized soul music, or Kanye West sculpting and looping that soul into sleek rap beats. “blisters,” serpentwithfeet’s soaring, 2016 breakout, is this adage epitomized. At just under seven minutes, the song is a heartbreak epic, a tale of love given and love not returned that is equal parts Björk and Kelly Price.
Throughout the five-song debut EP of the same name, serpent weaves technically bulletproof melismatic vocal runs through spare, ethereal sonic landscapes. He gives a performance so confounding and original that many were tempted to categorize it as some hybrid, new thing. But the 32-year-old singer, songwriter, and producer has a different view of his work. “Me doing my little runs or whatever? That shit is straight R&B,” serpent said over a video call, chuckling slightly. “That is not from any oratorio or opera or art song. That is from me growing up in a Black ass family in a Black ass church.”
Courtesy of Braylen Dion
For anyone not yet convinced of this assessment, Deacon, serpent’s second full-length album due out this Friday, should provide sufficient proof. While the 11 new tracks are no less inventive than his previous work, they more clearly bear the marks of someone who’s listened to his fair share of Brandy. “When I think about R&B, I think about a beautiful rich tapestry. I think about a quilt of sound,” serpent said. “And no one is doing the same thing.”
You can’t completely blame those early observers for their confusion. Before he had a working relationship with Ty Dolla $ign and Sampha, the Burberry bucket-hatted, forehead-tattooed gentleman was just a hapless aspiring opera singer from Maryland. “I used to do these classical competitions and lose every single one,” serpent said in his Baltimore accent, melodicizing the “o” in lose. “My mom was like, ‘What can my baby do to get better?’ And they were just like, ‘Ma’am” He’s gonna need a lot more training.’” Serpent went and got that training at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where his struggles to find a place in the staid world of classical music continued. Eventually, serpent left the academy for good, moved to New York, and began concocting a more suitable musical expression for himself. Years of personal tumult and artistic gestation would result in a relationship with revered indie label TriAngle Records and the blisters EP.