Music review | Elaine defines modern romance

The new artist’s evocative debut offering – crafted in university dorm rooms and recently gone platinum – has led to a contract with Columbia Records.

Late in August 2020, the world woke up to the announcement that a 21-year-old musician from Pretoria signed with Columbia Records, alongside label mates who include Beyoncé and Adele. The news came as a tandem two-punch, alongside the release of a dark-tinged music video for the song Risky from her stunning six-track debut EP, Elements

By any measure, Elaine’s success has been nothing short of spectacular. Since releasing Elements in September 2019, she’s generated more than two million streams, picked up a Joe Budden co-sign, a South African Music Awards nomination and now an international recording contract. She was also the most streamed South African female artist on Spotify and, recently, her EP was certified platinum.

It’s a remarkable set of achievements, given the short length of her debut offering, and it warrants a return to the EP’s music, meaning and making. How did this short but impactful piece of music (made between dorm rooms and studios) garner this much critical and commercial success in so little time?

Isolation

While released last year, the album has thematic resonance with 2020. Elements brushes aside the boilerplate of traditional R&B for a more lo-fi, trap-infused sound. It anchors itself in exploring the theme of feeling isolated within a relationship.

“I cannot change you. You cannot change me. I may try for a few days but after a while I go back to my old ways,” Elaine declares on Changes. The EP is full of declarations like this. In the small universe of Elements, love always seems in danger of collapse. But the singer is reluctant to wear the label of South African R&B’s “sad girl”. “I hate this question,” Elaine told Slikour on Life when asked, “Who hurt you and loved you so bad for [your EP] to be that good?” 

The EP’s explorations are complex. Elaine explains: “When I made my EP, I was actually at my happiest. It’s called Elements because I was trying to touch on the different elements of love. Love isn’t always happy, jolly and romantic. I wanted to highlight that. I’ve had friends and family who’ve been hurt. I’ve also been hurt. I was just saying it’s okay to be hurt.”

While the EP can be read as a treatise on the dangers and demise of romantic love, this is simply what is on the surface. With Elements, Elaine immersed herself in something deeper, saying, “Most of the project addresses self-love.” 

On love and loss

From the first to the last bar of music, the Pretoria-based artist wears her influences on her sleeve. Elements is a hybrid of trap-soul and smoked out R&B, which owes its existence to the kind of music popularised by Jhené Aiko, H.E.R., Jorja Smith, Bryson Tiller and, in some parts, the menacing R&B produced by The Weeknd during his mixtape days.

The most obvious influence, however, is the dark and dreamy OVO R&B birthed by Drake and his producer Noah 40 Shebib in the Canadian rapper’s earlier offerings. The production is moody, unobtrusive and drenched in lush and warm reverb. To that end, Elements sounds like a project of insular restraint. The filtered melodies and unadorned drumwork offer an opaque soundtrack for Elaine to walk us through the fog of heartbreak. 

Say It, the album opener, is a song with warbled synths and filtered vocals. It sees Elaine ask for reassurance from a nameless lover. “We used to be so close, now you ain’t even near. I need to hear you say you love me and you’re never going to take me for granted ever again,” she opens. Later, she closes with, “And I swear on all I have, I would cut my heart in half for us to walk the same path.”

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Similarly on I/You, Elaine narrates the push-pull nature of toxic relationships. In the first verse, she catalogues all the ways a relationship can hollow someone out. “I still cry when we fight. I still dream about you every night.” In the third verse, she lists all the things that supposedly make the relationship worth it. “You still kiss me when I’m down. You still call me when you’re out of town. You still see me when you’re down.” From the sounds of things, it’s undeniably a relationship of small gains but, in the end, she thinks it’s worth the trouble. In the chorus, she breaks into the refrain: “You still love me. You still need me.”

It’s a telling choice of words, which capture the conceit of most modern-day relationships. “You still need me” sounds both affirming and derisive – something said during a relationship’s early days or toward its messy end. 

By contrast, When We’re Alone rings an optimistic note: “This is what it looks like, this is love in its purest form.” But towards the end of the first verse, Elaine grows cautious: “But this is where it gets complicated. ’Cause love alone is not enough.”

Even on I Just Know, she stops to consider the possibility that her relationship is fated to end. “Are you with me for all the right reasons? You’re acting different and trust me, I’ve seen it. Why am I so easy to blame?”

Come through and chill

Part of Elaine’s appeal is that she captures the emotional register of early 20-something angst. While You’re the One, the lead single, is undoubtedly a fan favourite, Changes sees the artist at the peak of her powers. 

“I’m going to change for you. I’ll do better for you. I know I said this before but I mean it. Because I owe you so much more than my past,” sings Elaine in the chorus. The production, with its whispery pads, filtered drums and lush but sparse atmosphere is reminiscent of So Far Gone-era Drake (specifically Lust for Life and The Calm). You wouldn’t be faulted for thinking the song was addressed to an unnamed lover but, according to Elaine, the song is addressed to herself.

Changes is actually a love letter to myself,” she told Slikour. “Sometimes you’re the toxic person, the person who needs changing and needs to do better.”

Still, the album’s most amorous – and perfectly executed – moment comes in Changes’ second verse, when she declares: “Tell my Uber, make it quick, ’cause we got some shit we have to handle … and don’t forget to light a candle.” It’s a line teeming with both romance and a cavalier come-through-and-chill energy. 

On Elaine’s songwriting

Sometimes, the songwriting can seep into dramatisations that undercut the force of her themes. Risky, the album closer, opens with: “He said, ‘Enter at your own risk. I’m not responsible for the misery I’ll bring you. It’s just a matter of time before I destroy you.’” To which the artist responds: “Take your time, boy.”

This sounds like the exaggerated don’t-give-a-fuck attitude that makes a song like, say, The Weeknd’s Birds such an eye-roller. Similarly on I Wanna Know, she sings: “I just want to know about your past, yeah … But it keeps me up at night knowing that I don’t know enough about you.” It’s a moment of unexpected bathos on a song that otherwise faithfully indexes the ways “situationships” often evolve into serious relationships.

But, even when the songwriting lets her down, the atmosphere she has crafted with her producers Elyzée and Clxrity carries the music through.

There can be no denying Elaine’s talent. In less than a year, she has carved a path for herself that some artists take decades to forge. Given the length of the EP and, indeed, her profound success in a short time in the industry, it will be interesting to hear what she can deliver when she eventually releases a full-length album.

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