Mantic (released May 29, 2020)
Saying 2020 has been a weird year is a pretty major understatement. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the music industry – like every other industry on the planet that doesn’t make toilet paper or hand sanitizer – seems to have come to a screeching halt. New albums have been few and far between.
With fans aching for new material to ease their minds during uncertain times, this certainly seems like Ro James’ time to shine. He’s got a literal captive audience this time.
So Ro turns to Mantic.
James’ sophomore aims to build on the success of his head-turning debut Eldorado, one of the better R&B releases of 2016.
Now if you’re a fan of the SoulBack Podcast, you’ve probably heard me express my concerns about Ro and the dreaded sophomore jinx. Credit Ro for peppering our ears with several of Mantic’s tracks in the leadup to its release – as I said earlier, fans are craving new music and he’s been one of the few to consistently deliver. However, few of those released tracks seemed to gain traction, certainly nowhere near the levels of critical or commercial acclaim as his breakout hit “Permission.”
Many of those songs didn’t seem to resonate well as singles but here’s the good news – they’re MUCH stronger when tied into Mantic’s overall package.
Individually, most of those songs were OK at best. Together, they make for a much more enjoyable sonic story.
Album opener “Powder Room” proves that Ro isn’t straying far from the formula he set on his debut, weaving tales of freaky rendezvous over off-kilter, unconventional production. “Last Time” samples Usher’s “Can U Handle It” to create a slinky mood-setter. And those Prince comparisons continue to remain strong on the vocal stylings of “Be Mine” and the pulsating production of “Rose.” It’s a knowing nod to Ro’s influences while marching forward to carve a new path.
Simply put, it’s alt-R&B done right.
Ro finds great chemistry with fellow R&B trendsetter Miguel on “Too Much,” which reigns as the best of Ro’s leadup singles. The duo muse over a toxic relationship while crooning over an equally sinister beat: “Just one text, f*** around and relapse/We say we’re done and then we’re running right back.”
While most of the album is dark and moody, Ro quickly follows up the heavy atmosphere with tracks like “Excuse Me,” to provide a pick-up in tempo – even though he’s reading his girl the riot act. It’s good pacing and sequencing that keeps Mantic from getting repetitive.
Mantic’s momentum only slows when it gets bogged down by a couple of the aforementioned singles that just didn’t stick. “Touchy Feely” gets stuck in its tempo and never makes it to the next level. Ditto “Plan B” with Brandy, which feels like it’s cruising along in neutral and ends before picking up the pace. But again, wise track sequencing keeps them from derailing Mantic’s momentum. They’re not songs I’d pluck out and throw on a personal playlist, but in the context of Mantic’s atmosphere they tie the narrative together.
The album wraps up with a creative one-two punch – the raspy longing of “You” and the haunting acapella of “Look of Things,” which almost comes off like a spoken-word manifesto on love. Ro refuses to be locked into a box – you never know what style you’ll get from him next.
The cool thing about Mantic is that it’s greater than the sum of its parts. The things that don’t really work individually work much better in sync with other elements. Truthfully, that’s the art of creating a solid album.
To paraphrase one of his greatest purple influences, props to Ro for proving that albums still matter.
Best tracks: “Too Much,” “Excuse Me,” “Rose”
4 stars out of 5