Like a single strand of wafting smoke, Niia’s debut album I is entrancing in its sparse, elegantly gliding beauty. Her follow-up to 2014’s Generation Blue EP and first release on Atlantic Records takes that release’s lush, bassy sound and pares it back to reveal smooth, fully realized songwriting and timeless aesthetics. It’s a slow-burning, intimate document that tips its hand towards genres as disparate as the glory days of trip-hop, mid-tempo disco, and misty jazz, while retaining an impressively unified mood evoking modern noir.
A prodigious musician with jazz vocal training, Niia has spent the last eight years charting a path towards I that mirrors the patient, sneakily brilliant sounds the record contains. After a guest vocal spot on Wyclef Jean’s “Sweetest Girl” back in 2007 and years of establishing herself amongst the NYC underground scene with performances at Sleep No More, 2014 saw the release of Generation Blue—a slinky, full-bodied collection of smooth pop toplined by the lovely single “Body.”
With its interlocking guitar parts, gorgeous instrumentation, and Niia’s gliding vocals, “Body” provided a taste of what was to come withI, which expands on that sound while bringing in a variety of other influences. You can hear the spacious and cool-handed trip-hop of Massive Attack and Zero 7 on the cascading “Last Night in Los Feliz,” and “Hurt You First” ripples with lush production touches that sound like a love letter to the girl-group R&B of the late 1990s. Then there’s “California,” which evokes the quiet-storm R&B perfected by Sade while drawing from the dusky vocal jazz that’s been so formative in Niia’s artistic growth.
Lyrically, I explores the seductive fruit that new love brings, along with the anxieties and complications that result in giving yourself over to another. “I usually hide behind the lyrics,” Niia admits regarding I’s personal bent, which took shape during a songwriting process that transpired over the last year and a half. “I was surprised how transparent I got while writing these songs.”
Along for that journey is Grammy-nominated producer Robin Hannibal, who’s lent his considerable talents to artists as varied as Kendrick Lamar, Chairlift, and Cee Lo Green—not to mention his work as part of the moody, gorgeous R&B act Rhye. Hannibal and Niia linked up five years ago, and they quickly became kindred spirits when it came to their artistic aims. “I love Robin’s production because it has a timeless quality but still feels fresh,” Niia says. “I want to flex my voice and be the star of the song, so it was really fun to challenge Robin and myself to make that work.” The result is a warm, engaging document that tugs at the strings of Niia’s previous work to reveal greater sonic depths, made more apparent by the impeccable arrangements working in perfect congress with her impossibly flexible vocals.
A confluence of the contemporary and current carries a strong presence on I highlight “Sideline,” a dark, seductive slice of orchestral pop that recalls the intimate singer-songwriter stylings of Carole King and Tidal-era Fiona Apple—all while addressing concerns as of-our-moment as questioning the contents of a loved one’s background on their cell phone. “It’s about the idea of being a girl and dealing with what it’s like to be in a relationship now,” Niia says. “It plays into my insecurities of being in a relationship that i care about. How do you get through all the shit?”
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