Heather Victoria: Boutique Hotel 


[Jamla Records; Oct. 11]

It’s increasingly difficult to detect any distinguishing musical characteristics among today’s dominant commercial R&B singers. Summer Walker is as much as SZA’s vocal clone as Queen Naija and Ella Mai are style duplicates; Jorja Smith is a louder Jhene Aiko.

But as irritating as listening to soundalikes might be for anyone who misses the halcyon R&B days of the 1990s—when the only through line of artists such as Mary J. Blige, Janet Jackson, Brandy, and Toni Braxton was an individual dedication to an unmatchable R&B recipe—relief can be found in a handful of singers du jour, such as H.E.R., Solange, and Teyana Taylor, who show reverence for their R&B idols without sounding derivative.

With the release of Boutique Hotel on Jamla Records, the Wilson-bred, Triangle-based artist Heather Victoria has also earned herself a seat at that table. Over the last several years, cultivated by Grammy-winning producer 9th Wonder, it has seemed as if the Raleigh-based Jamla label has operated like a music-industry Survivor competition. Victoria has persisted, offering her voice as needed to the label’s various releases and relationships while also releasing three projects of her own (Victoria’s Secret, Graffiti Diary, Hip Hop Soul Lives). Boutique Hotel is the culmination of Victoria hanging onto and living in her own career ambitions, arriving at a point where she feels comfortable vocalizing her own heartbreaks and joys.

This nine-song stay might not have surfaced so elegantly had it come out in 2017 when Victoria unexpectedly released the rabid R&B rejection jam “Dream On,” which was to be the lead single of her later-scrapped Black Girl EP. Producer Khrysis’s raw, head-nod hip-hop ethos is a far cry from the live instrumentation of The Gavin Tabone Quartet (most of whom are members of Jamla labelmate Rapsody’s backing band, The Storm Troopers), which lends itself to Boutique Hotel’s high-end sound design. The album opens on a desirous note, first with the jazzy proposition of a love excursion to “Japan” (the only fully produced Gavin Quintet song on the album), and then with the Brian McKnight-inspired “Never Felt,” describing, in soulful soprano, the intimate sensations experienced while on said island country.

Then Boutique Hotel suddenly turns into a hangout suite where Victoria positions herself in the balance between reliability and badassery, first with guest rapper Big K.R.I.T. on the sing-rap, sax-clap laden tune “Big Momma,” then in a Jamla crew huddle to express her gratitude on “Tribe,” and then in the self-love workshop “One Love,” in which live kalimba plucks over 9th Wonder production almost outshine the original Heath Brothers composition.

Songwriters Rose Gold, Ian Kelly, and especially prolific R&B balladeer Raheem DeVaughn (on the luscious duet “My Favorite”) rescue Boutique Hotel from some of Victoria’s more pedestrian songwriting, which she’s still able to bring off because of her newfound assuredness. And despite there not being any grand vocal moments on the album, the team effort is enough to make it a charming destination. In the future, however, this hotel will need more amenities than just fancy instrumentation to turn it into a hip-hop soul franchise. 

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