Faces to Watch 2014: Pop music & jazz | Kelela, Travi$ Scott and more
The Times asked its reporters and critics to highlight figures in entertainment and the arts who will be making news in 2014. Here’s who they picked:
Kelela | Singer-songwriter
With its spacey textures and shape-shifting grooves, Beyoncé's self-titled album — released this month on iTunes with no warning — felt like the superstar end point to a year rich in adventurous R&B. Among the underground acts that appear to have inspired her is Kelela, an L.A.-based singer-songwriter known for layering smoldering vocals over starkly futuristic beats.
Raised in Maryland by parents who’d emigrated from Ethiopia, the 30-year-old put out a free Internet mixtape in October called “Cut 4 Me.” It attracted instant attention from hipsters and tastemakers with tracks like the clanging “Enemy” and “Cherry Coffee,” a woozy ballad lined with lonely sounding sonar pings.
Beyoncé wasn’t the only member of the Knowles family listening. In November, the star’s sister Solange included Kelela’s song “Go All Night” on an acclaimed avant-soul compilation alongside tunes by other up-and-comers such as Jhené Aiko and BC Kingdom. “I think it’s really awesome to hear someone who’s doing something so incredibly experimental but that still really, really values the art of the vocal,” Solange told Billboard.
Now, Kelela is at work on her first studio disc, reportedly with help from Hudson Mohawke, a Scottish producer with close ties to Kanye West. Expect something that soothes even as it unsettles.
— Mikael Wood
Travi$ Scott | Rapper-producer
Travi$ Scott is a 21-year-old L.A.-via-Houston rapper and producer, one so versatile and provocative that he makes having a dollar sign in his rap alias seem original. His eerily beautiful sonics and fevered delivery have earned him co-signs on two rap-titan major label imprints: Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music and T.I.'s Grand Hustle.
Behind the mixing boards, he helmed tracks for Ye, Jay Z and John Legend on their respective agenda-setting albums in 2013. Now after his debut EP, “Owl Pharaoh,” in May, he’s ready to take center stage himself. For the clearest look at his vision, check out the seven-minute surrealist, ghastly video for “Upper Echelon” — you’ll wonder whether his next move could be directing an episode of “American Horror Story.”
— August Brown
One of the real pleasures of 2013 has been the many fresh faces on the jazz vocal front, including José James, Gregory Porter and young phenom Cécile McLorin Salvant. Deserving of mention amid this rising tide of unique talent is London-born Zara McFarlane, who next month releases her second album, “If You Knew Her,” on tastemaker Gilles Peterson’s label.
Her standing as a promising star in Europe is only confirmed with recent stints sharing the stage with Porter and Dianne Reeves, and she has already earned airplay on KCRW-FM (89.9) for a lush and arresting recast of the late Junior Murvin’s reggae classic “Police and Thieves.” Echoes of vintage soul and Britain’s so-called acid jazz scene from the ‘90s echo through various points of McFarlane’s album, but some of her greatest promise can be heard on the new record’s elastically swung single “Angie La La,” a buried treasure from reggae vocalist Nora Dean that features trumpeter-vocalist Leron Thomas with McFarlane’s nimble band.
But ultimately, it’s about songwriter McFarlane’s talent and voice here. Echoes of Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald shimmer at the margins, along with the sound of a rising talent claiming new ground of her own.
— Chris Barton
Sam Smith | Singer-songwriter
Last fall, singer Sam Smith was working as a bartender in London. Today, his picture hangs alongside Katy Perry’s inside the Capitol Records building just off Hollywood Boulevard.
The 21-year-old’s trajectory from mixologist to pop star is largely because of the U.K. band Disclosure’s 2013 dance hit “Latch.” The song, omnipresent in the U.K., is anchored by Smith’s scorching vocals. “The minute ‘Latch’ happened, everything has been 100 mph,” Smith said on a recent trip to Hollywood. “Everyone who sees me thinks this has happened very quickly. But it’s been quite a long slog.”
Smith, who began singing when he was 8, trained with a jazz vocalist before studying musical theater. Yet he found notoriety in the pop world via a dance tune and after posting his song “Lay Me Down” on YouTube. It’s garnered more than 1.5 million views since January. Smith recently signed to Capitol in the U.S., and his debut album, “In the Lonely Hour,” is set for summer release.
Though the initial hits that brought Smith into the limelight are aimed at the dance floor, his solo work leans toward ballads filled with yearning, heartache and minimalist grooves. “It’s soul music, but I give it to you in different ways. Sometimes it’s an electronic sound, sometimes it’s completely stripped back,” he said.
During a recent stint at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, he previewed the stark missive “Leave Your Lover.” But it was the more familiar “Lay Me Down” that really struck a chord. Couples embraced, the glow of smartphones lighted up the room and a few concertgoers even shed tears.
“These songs are so personal,” said Smith, running his hand through his coiffed hair. “I’m always so shocked when people know who I am. It’s very strange.”
— Gerrick D. Kennedy
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