Back of My Mind (released June 18, 2021)
When is a debut album NOT a debut album?
Well, in the world of H.E.R., nothing is conventional but you’ve gotta give Gabby Wilson props for carving her own path.
Gabby’s career began like so many others in the early 2010s, full of promise but bore little fruit. She was a prodigy, equally adept with her guitar and piano as she was with her vocals – she’d be an instant star … in another era. Despite her talent, her hard work went totally unnoticed by a mainstream that lusts for personas and antics over everything.
That is, until she rebranded herself as R&B’s Noob Saibot.
Popping up like a hidden character in vintage video game, Gabby rebranded herself under the shadowy pseudonym H.E.R., released her first EP in 2017 and for the first time caught the attention of the masses.
She always had the talent. FINALLY, she had their ears.
While I was skeptical of the gimmicky persona at first, I can’t deny the results – H.E.R. emerged as the genre’s biggest mainstream female star over the next few years, consistently dropping EPs and compilations, landing high-profile performances and even grabbing Grammys.
It’s only just now, five EPs and 2 compilations later, that we get H.E.R.’s official debut album.
At this point, she’s anything but a mystery – Back of My Mind is filled with the moody, modern R&B she’s become synonymous for.
In fact, it’s a bit too much of a good thing.
The first quarter of the album is by far the best. Album opener “We Made It” is the perfect launching pad, feeling like a love letter to her Day Ones, as well as self affirmation: “Lookin at the sky, like ‘Thank God that you’re with me’ … It’s been a long ride and I just can’t believe/Can’t believe we made it.”
Ty Dolla Sign continues to fulfill his “must appear on every R&B album EVER” quota on the title track but thankfully he doesn’t dominate – he’s merely a supporting player in H.E.R’s story. She finds even better chemistry with Cordae on “Trauma,” whose reflective rhymes are a great fit for H.E.R.’s introspective look at souring relationships.
“Damage,” one of the best songs of 2020 (aka The Year Of Which We Do Not Speak) makes a welcome addition here, as does “Come Through” later in the set. The acoustic backing and finger snaps on the latter are the perfect setting for H.E.R.’s low register. Also, it’s so great to hear my Cousin Chris Brown back in his R&B bag and putting the trap cosplay in the closet for a few minutes. We throw an extra rib on his plate at the Juneteeth cookout for that.
But the songs I just mentioned don’t even make up half of Back of My Mind‘s 80 minute runtime. The longer the album goes, the more the cracks show.
Now, there are still wins to be found. The groovy production of “Bloody Waters” has breathy hints of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” while “Closer to Me” is such a wonderfully mellow nod to Goapele’s trademark single that I wondered why no one else has tried it before.
But the rest? Ehh. H.E.R. and Lil Baby are oil and water on “Find a Way” – I know he’s being groomed as rap’s next big thing but I cannot with his screechy, motormouth robot flow. It’s like Meek Mill and Siri gave birth to a bratty toddler. The chemistry is equally off with Yung Blue on “Paradise.”
Also, the large majority of the songs on the back half of the album are way too similar in tone and production, blending together. “Process,” “Don’t,” “My Own,” “Lucky,” they all feel like one long, droning song – a song we heard years ago on H.E.R.’s first EP. They don’t bring anything new to the table.
Things pick up again at the tail end of the album. In an era where affectionate love songs are nearly extinct, it’s great to hear H.E.R. pour out her heart on “For Anyone”: “Only you would know I’m better with you and it shows because the way you loved me.”
My mother-in-law has a saying for people who load up their plate but don’t finish their meal: “Your eyes were too big for your stomach.” That’s what Back of My Mind feels like – a good meal that’s way too overloaded to fully enjoy.
I’m sure H.E.R. fans will cherry pick their six or seven favorite morsels and consider this one a win. But judging it as a complete body of work, it’s just way too hard to digest in one sitting.
Edit this down to the best 12 or so songs and Back of My Mind could have been a contender. There’s always next time, though – H.E.R. is here to stay. She’s a mystery no longer.
Best tracks: “Damage,” “Come Through,” “Back of My Mind”
3.5 stars out of 5