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Jessie Reyez dives in on ‘Being Human In Public’

| Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Ivan Skvaril

Jessie Reyez prays to God every day. On “Saint Nobody,” the first song off her latest EP, “Being Human In Public,” she opens straight from the confessional booth. “I think about dying every day … I guess I’ve always been a little strange,” she confides softly. “Another reason why I work like a motherf—er,” she rejoins, with each word perfectly annunciated like an exclamation point. Her songs — in which she slips seamlessly from raw, turbulent pop to gentle R&B melodies — possess that same prayer-like quality, excruciatingly vulnerable and delivered with chill-inducing confidence. “I like to sing about s— that I don’t like to talk about,” she writes in her Twitter bio.

Reyez, a Colombian-Canadian artist from Toronto, shot to fame with the release of two singles, “Shutter Island” and “Figures” in 2016, and then later with her first EP, “Kiddo,” released in 2017. In “Shutter Island,” she introduced her characteristic penchant for quick sarcasm. She’s crazy, she admits. “My straight jacket’s custom-made, though,” she sings.

Throughout “Being Human in Public,” Reyez careens between baring her heart and baring her teeth, often within the same song. “This is the realest I’ve ever been,” Jessie Reyez sings again and again on “Dear Yessie,” before the song crescendos into the hardcore, screaming chorus — “I’m singin’ f— being delicate,” she yells, her raspy voice deepening to tackle the jumpy, heart-thumping chorus. Although the rapid-fire changes have the potential to produce musical whiplash, the result is actually quite exciting — unsettling, but in a way that jolts the listener to attention.

And while Reyez belts her fair share of frustrated emotion on “F— Being Friends,” each angry moment on the album shares a contemplative counterpoint. For instance, “Sola,” her first recording in Spanish, is a soft, but no less incisive, take on assumed gender roles. Those other girls — “ellas” — “son buenas, perdonan calladas,” she reflects. “No hacen escenas, no piden nada… Yo no soy ese tipo de mujer.” Reyez told Remezcla that some songs, like this one, defy any kind of translation into English — “tienen un sentimiento único, que si se traducen [al inglés], no suenan igual. No tienen el mismo color, ni el mismo sentido.” The same earnest spirit comes through on “Apple Juice,” where Reyez pleads with an ex-lover in scratchy, sweet chords. “Don’t let goodbye come too easy, lo-o-ove me” she cries, her voice scraping the upper limits of her range and often transcending it completely. 

Reyez consistently takes aims at misogyny in the music world and in culture at large. She based “Gatekeeper,” her 2017 short music video and song, on her personal experience of sexual assault by Noel Fisher, the American producer known as Detail. (As of May 2018, Reyez and many other women have accused Fisher of sexual assault, including charges of rape.) In the video, a young girl — meant to look like Reyez as a child — mouths the words along to her song. “20 million dollars in the car. Girl tie your hair up if you wanna be a star,” the small child sings, a disjointed and eerie juxtaposition between a hopeful rising star and a brutal reality. In “Body Count,” featuring Normani and Kehlani, Reyez continues to skewer double standards between men and women. “You guys have the luxury of not having to deal with that construct of shame,” she told a reporter in a Genius interview. “Keep your unsolicited opinions to yourself.”

If her Instagram is an accurate source of information, when Reyez performs onstage, she jumps — leaps, reaches, falls — into the crowd with reckless buoyancy. Her crowds, lots of them young women, maybe her age, lift her up, jump around and dance along. And even when she’s sitting still, she’s not, really. In a video of a performance of her acoustic version of “Figures,” which she performed live with Daniel Caesar, Reyez hovers above her stool. She floats, weightless, grasping for each earnest, heartfelt note as though she’s grasping for air.

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