The pressure for an artist to put politics at the forefront of their music nowadays can be crippling to those who don’t have the experience or language to articulate it well. For anybody coming out of Compton’s scene right now, the pressure is even greater; almost every notable rap star to twist their music with a sense of social justice into it has stemmed from the Californian county in the past few years.
But Buddy, the multi-talented rapper and singer who hails from hip-hop’s promised land, seems to be making music with that pressure at the back of his mind. On his debut record, Harlan & Alondra, issues surrounding his come up and his position in America today don’t override his bright and cheeky musical personality. If DAMN. was Compton’s super-charged Trojan horse, ploughing through the gates of the White House holding a middle finger up to the fucked up establishment, Harlan & Alondra is (for the most part) sauntering on a pushbike behind it, reading the room and presenting the same message in a much more languid, soulful, and coded way.
Named after the crossroads in Compton Buddy grew up on, Harlan & Alondra is a debut record nine years in the making. Buddy – whose birth name is Simmie Sims III – was 15 when his name first wound up reaching Pharrell, who signed the teenager to his I Am Other imprint. Ever since then, he’s been toying with creating bodies of work, trying to find his sound. First came the 2014 mixtape Idle Time, then a duo of EPs – one a collaboration with the obscenely cool Kaytranada – in 2017.
But that nine years of exploring has led Buddy to a musical conclusion that’s untethered, but better for it. You see, Buddy’s polymathic creative approach – he sings, acts, raps and dances – means he’s not quite prepared to put any genre to rest. The results might seem bizarre – a juicy, sensual R&B record sandwiched between two traditional rap bookends – but for a debut record, it’s a perfect way for this fresh-faced 24-year-old to show us what he can do.
Perhaps Buddy’s biggest track to date is his A$AP Ferg collab, titled “Black.” Its simplicity is piercing, and it lingers. The song, which takes its title and rolls it out near hundreds of times, recontextualizing it over and over, turns musings on Buddy’s race into something wider – an attitude, a symbol of power and wealth. It is, by all means, an anthemic work of melodic genius that deserved a greater level of shine when it was first released. This is Billboard-topping brilliant, and its stellar, pared back production allows Buddy to completely run wild over it. Sonically, it’s the one stand-out record that bears little relation to the tracks that surround it, but it’s still one of the strongest things on here.
But once you pass the record’s opening quartet, you’re welcomed into a smoking lounge in the ’70s: groovy; high-spirited; some real Nile Rodgers-meets-Usher shit. “Trouble on Central,” a vintage slice of sunbaked R&B, is one of the greatest things on here. Telling the story of Buddy’s childhood spent stuck on the LA metro out of Compton, dreaming of a better life. “Mama say that I need to be careful / Going downtown on the blueline Metro” he coos, alluding to gun crime, the LAPD’s racial profiling, sex workers, and corruption. But here, he places that behind him, and dreams of his future with a sweet, teenage sense of naivety: one with nice rides, his own place and a girlfriend to love.
Snoop Dogg’s arrival on the soulful and hookish “The Blue” is perhaps the record’s most worthwhile link-up, but it’s the song that follows it that truly takes the cake. “Speechless” sounds so innocent at first – like the kind of thing your mother would dutifully sway along to if it came on the radio. But those sexified bass strings are obviously leading somewhere a little more filthy. Soon, Buddy’s charming lyricism (“I’m at a loss for words / you look much better than you did at first”) are giving way to a fully blown ode to cunnilingus, fellatio and filthy sex in general. There’s a point around the track’s 1:42 mark that’s so unequivocally dirty that might leave you with your mouth agape – speechless.
This sonic switch-up is something, off the back of tracks like “Black,” some casual listeners might not be entirely ready for. But what could be its biggest downfall winds up being Harlan & Alondras’ greatest asset. Buddy’s flitting from rap to R&B mean this 12-track debut never feels baggy, or like it’s dealing in overcooked ideas. Instead, he’s constantly swerving the idea of being boring, knowing just how far he can push the record’s slow-burning, saccharine sweet vocal melodies before returning to a more grounded realm.
Harlan & Alondra, brimming with Buddy’s creativity, balances a fine line between sex, black identity, and endlessly chasing the American Dream. The current climate asks artists to mine their pasts and personal traumas to create records that can be used as bookmarks to remember moments in a political revolution – landmark releases like Lemonade and To Pimp A Butterfly did that too, and flawlessly. But despite the need for change, what’s so brilliant about Harlan & Alondra is that it doesn’t force any kind of agenda; it seeps through its veins almost subconsciously.
With his debut record, Buddy has created something that celebrates the genres that play a part in creating California’s musical history. It might be a modest beginning for the 24-year-old, but he deserves to be seen in the same light artists like Anderson .Paak and Kendrick. After all, in an era of rap records that seem stuffy, indulgent, and overlong (*cough* Culture II and Scorpion *cough*), Harlan & Alondra’s eclectic, sun-soaked feel doesn’t out-stay its welcome, and is as culturally vital as it is refreshing.