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Yebba’s Stunning ‘Dawn’ Marks the Belated Arrival of a One-in-a-Million Singer: Album Review

Variety
Variety
 2021-09-10
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Courtesy RCA

Yebba — a.k.a. Abbey Smith — is a prodigiously talented 26-year-old singer who’s been buzzing for so long it’s hard to believe “Dawn” is her debut album. She’s already won a Grammy (for a 2019 collaboration with PJ Morton) and over the past five years has duetted with Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, A Tribe Called Quest, Chance the Rapper and even has a featured song on Drake’s “Certified Lover Boy” (“Yebba’s Heartbreak”). Most significantly, she was featured on three songs on Mark Ronson’s stellar “Late Night Feelings” album; the Grammy-winning Amy Winehouse/Lady Gaga collaborator also produced many of the songs on “Dawn.”

A major challenge when working with an artist as gifted as Yebba is not fucking it up — there are many more ways to do something badly than well — and to their immense credit, she and Ronson have managed to create songs and arrangements that showcase her as one of the most powerful and versatile singers to come along in many years: Her range and array of styles are so wide that several songs almost sound like they were performed by a series of different singers.

She occupies a musical terrain somewhere between pop, R&B and, at times, ‘70s jazz fusion, with tinkling electric piano and synthesizers that conjure flashes of Stevie Wonder’s “Fulfillingness’ First Finale.” And although a well-documented obsession with D’Angelo’s 2000 classic “Voodoo” led Yebba and Ronson to enlist several of that album’s musicians for this one — Roots drummer Questlove, virtuoso bassist Pino Palladino and keyboardist James Poyser — “Dawn” rarely sounds like it. The album’s diversity is reflected in the collaborators: In addition to the above, there’s rappers A$AP Rocky and Smino, electronic wizard Kaytranada, Beck guitarist Smokey Hormel, producer-writer Andrew Wyatt and jazz keyboardist-songwriter James Francies.

But make no mistake: This is Yebba’s show all the way. She brings a different style and approach to nearly every song, veering from brassy wail to folky prim (“October Sky”), from Adele-sized power (“Love Came Down”) to breathy sultriness (“Distance”). She can also vamp with a jazz singer’s dexterity, speckling the songs with “Whee-ooh”s and “Whoo-hoo”s and “Ayee-yeah”s that make for some of the album’s strongest hooks and could easily become a trademark. Yet she’s not just showing off, like so many singers who can perform technically dazzling but completely soul-less vocal gymnastics: Each of her voices suits the emotion of the songs, and she can slip between vulnerable and sassy, anguished and aggressive in seconds.

And there’s plenty of emotion to go around: Her backstory has been well documented (a preacher’s daughter who learned to sing in her father’s West Memphis church, her mother committed suicide shortly after Yebba’s career began to take off). All of that informs the songs on “Dawn,” but it doesn’t define them. Anyone with functioning ears can hear this album and know what an exceptional talent is at work.

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