MusicReview

Mahalia: IRL - An R&B artist of talent and attitude who plays it too safe

The young Leicester musician’s commanding presence begins to flag around the album’s midpoint

IRL
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Artist: Mahalia
Genre: R&B
Label: Atlantic

There’s a theory that claims music revivals go in 20-year cycles, so it’s high time that noughties R&B has its moment. Luckily, Mahalia is on hand to tick that particular box, although to describe the young Leicester musician as a mere throwback would be a disservice.

As proven with her impressive 2019 debut Love and Compromise, Mahalia Burkmar is one of the most exciting young stars of British R&B, although she is also an old hand at this point, having written her first song at the age of eight and signed her first record deal (with Asylum Records) at 13.

Having parents in the business – her mother, Debbion Currie, sang with 1980s electronic band Colourbox, and her father toured as a session guitarist with Erasure – clearly made a path through the showbiz mire seem more feasible.

She has proven herself and even earned a Grammy nomination in the process, but there is an undoubted influence, conscious or not, of acts such as Jamelia, Ashanti, Brandy and Mary J Blige on Mahalia’s second album. The 25-year-old takes the torch from those acts and raises it aloft in self-aware defiance, inspired by a tough break-up and three years of therapy sessions.

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Slick standout track Terms and Conditions lays her cards on the table regarding all future romantic partners: “If you want my love, then let’s discuss the man that you’re required to be / If you tell me lies, you get three strikes, there’s no coming back, boy please”.

The hazy strum of Ready vows that she’s now “listening to [her] own voice only”. Cheat, featuring American pop star JoJo, is a brutal kiss-off to an unfaithful lover. Isn’t it Strange casts a perceptive glance over her own character traits.

The music largely swings between the dreamy skip-hop skitter of songs such as Wassup and In My Bag, and the soulful, hazy shuck of November (a lovelorn duet with a crooning Stormzy) and Lose Lose. The latter’s melodic bittersweetness pays testament to Mahalia’s professed love of acts such as Corinne Bailey Rae. There is talent, empowerment and attitude in abundance here, but the reasonably safe musical palette means that Mahalia’s commanding presence begins to flag around the album’s midpoint. The title track is autobiographical, documenting her rise to date when she was “13 with a big dream, of being in a big scene in a big city” and yearning for the day when audiences would sing her songs back to her.

This album suggests that there is much more of Mahalia’s story to be told – although hopefully next time, with a few more risks.

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy is a freelance journalist and broadcaster. She writes about music and the arts for The Irish Times