September 13, 2018 | Arts and Culture
purple on the palette
exploring vanjess’s new album, silk canvas
Albums aren’t that long. At times, I think about certain albums and it’s hard to relate them to, say, a 50-minute lecture on 19th-century American art. Albums and musicians are in the business of packing in their artistry, of conveying their ideas, expressing their influences and pushing certain sounds forward in a tight window. What VanJess, a Nigerian-American R&B duo, is trying to do on their debut album isn’t just to bring their many influences into one cohesive blend, but also to convey a style, a color, a texture. Silk Canvas is the name of this album, but it’s also their goal: to make something that’s smooth to the touch, easy to swallow.
The cover of the album itself is helpful. It’s not the two faces of VanJess that take up the center of the photo. Instead, it’s the color purple. Purple encapsulates this album’s core: it’s soft and gentle, but it’s not fake. Purple is not a color that lies to you or fudges the truth. In this way, VanJess uses purple to convey the complexities of their own lives and music. The music is bright, but it’s also real, prickly, and quite modern. They do all this in a paltry, 52 minutes.
Jessica and Ivana Nwokike (Ivana + Jessica = VanJess) got their start on YouTube. Their covers of “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga and “Man Down” by Rihanna received a combined total of around 10 million views. They sung and beatboxed well, and the videos were cute and sweet. It was clear they had a love for the source material in each video and purely loved to sing and harmonize. The choice of songs was interesting as well. Both had lyrics that detailed complicated relationships, and each offered a different way to approach a “bad romance.” One way is to go along for the ride as Gaga does, another is to kill your abusive lover as Rihanna (theoretically) does. These were huge pop hits with themes of control, abuse, and manipulation. VanJess continues to explore these themes on Silk Canvas, but like Rihanna (less so Gaga), they do so with music that sounds deceptively like a laid-back summer’s night.
In the album, one of the best examples of a sound that potentially betrays the lyrics behind it is the song “Through Enough,” which features GoldLink, who had everyone’s third favorite song of the summer last year, “Crew.” The song is incredibly bright, with an atmosphere similar to that of house group Disclosure of “Latch” fame. It’s supremely danceable, or at least very head-bob-able. The lyrics tell another story. “Don’t take me ransom babe / Yeah I’ve been through enough, through enough, ah yeah,” they sing on the chorus. On the pre-chorus, they hit us with more personal and affecting lines: “Ooh my heart ain’t making it through / Another break it’s been loose / I’ve got to set the rules / Before you coming at me.” It’s a plea for control and restraint in a song where letting loose is actively encouraged in the music. GoldLink helps to grease the song along with some on-brand bars about “D.C. summers” (it’s not a GoldLink song unless the District is mentioned). It’s a really exceptional track and definitely a favorite of mine on the track list.
The sound VanJess is crafting has two main pillars: ’90s R&B like Zhane, SWV, and Mary J. Blige, as well as present-day SoundCloud producers who use these ’90s influences to create new, sleek soundscapes. On paper, this sounds seamless, but VanJess isn’t simply trying to make a “throwback” album. “Off My Mind” by Zhane for example, with sparse production consisting of some drums, a piano, and a bass guitar, still sounds fresh 24 years later. Similarly, VanJess asked themselves the question, “How can we make this album sound crisp now and still crisp in 25 years?” The answer lies not in the record but in the liner notes.
SoundCloud is a huge place with music and reactions to that music happening constantly. The music that has made SoundCloud’s name is trap infused hip-hop—a genre where emotions are conveyed constantly and overtly. Subtlety is at a minimum at the top of the SoundCloud charts. In reaction to this, a culture of mellow rose to the surface. Producers like KAYTRANADA, IAMNOBODI, Louie Lastic, and Atu create a different setting, one where the sun sets and the twinkling lights are just coming on. With night comes fear and anxiety and grayness but at times, true freedom. These producers, all featured in some way or another on this album, create a world of varying emotions. Songs like “Touch the Floor” express the magic that happens when a connection is made through dance, and “Another Lover” bashes a soon to be ex-lover for violating her trust. These songs both exist in the same world where life is honestly lived. The sounds they have created allow for contradictions and doubt to breathe within the album. These songs don’t have to be “happy” or “sad”—they can just be.
VanJess’s influences go beyond the internet. As Nigerian-Americans who have lived for extensive periods in both Nigeria and America, they convey both sides of their cultural experience on Silk Canvas. In “Control Me,” they make use of a Naija dialect and exalt the impact it has on Nigerian listeners. The music video for “Control Me” is loaded with comments congratulating the women for being able to bridge the gap between American and Nigerian music, making songs that are accessible to both sides. The song itself is par for the course on the album, meaning it’s very good, sensual, and feels like it’s both ripped from the past and a ticket to the future.
The last two tracks, honestly, I don’t care too much for. The features take a little too much away, and I mean that as a compliment to the main attraction. VanJess on Silk Canvas create a real portrait that’s as complex as it is smooth. Their past as Youtube D-listers, their deep understanding of the internet and its sounds, their subtlety and their background as Nigerian-Americans—all are separate paints on the palette. Each make it onto this beautiful, soft, purple-ish canvas.