The Internet breakout hit from the 27-year-old English singer-songwriter Jessie Ware, "Wildest Moments," abounds with drums that are almost identical in pattern and timbre to those of Enigma's "Return to Innocence." That 1994 smash is remembered for its aboriginal Taiwanese chant refrain, if it is remembered at all. The German cloak/sex/incantation-loving pseudo-dance act is about as relevant as the Druids it invoked. Enigma are the epitome of early '90s dance cheese. Jessie Ware, meanwhile, has released one of the buzziest debuts of the year, Devotion. Pitchfork gave it an 8.5. The BBC called her "superb." NPR has raved about her single "110%." She's been popping up on many a rock-crit/tastemaker Tumblr for months now. Jessie Ware is the cool artist of the day.
Ware's background is in the hip world of contemporary near-dance music, having appeared on records by SBTRKT and the Joker. Some call her cohorts "post-dubstep" because it is poppier and less aggressive than dubstep typically is, while harnessing its lopsided approach to rhythm. "Post-dubstep" is a clunky, unsatisfying phrase, and it doesn't describe Ware's sound. If anything, her debut is post-post-dubstep, a warm, comedown accompaniment. No one has been quite as worthy of the "chillout queen" title since Beth Orton released her first album.
Ware sings in a clear, mostly unfussy way. Her voice is the picture of control not just in her technique, but in her emotional output. She is judicious, so that when her usually relaxed voice is fraught with tension, as it is in the plea "Night Light," it is especially gripping. She uses melisma sparingly, which makes her sound decades older than her contemporaries who run all over the place. She credits Sade as an influence, but she mostly reminds me of a muted Annie Lennox, a siren through the fog without the melodrama. Any way you slice it, she is the classy diva sort, exuding an elegant stillness. There is something arresting about her voice's candor and the discord it produces – when she sings about being the "greatest" and "worst of all" during life's "wildest moments," she is nowhere near having one. She is an objective authority. She is mature.
Her music is beat-based, but calm. It's not surprising that percussion owing the most to hip-hop could work in a sophisti-pop setting: Seven years after Eric B. & Rakim's "Paid in Full" made the break of the Soul Searchers' "Ashley's Roachclip" sound so damn fresh, Des'ree exposed its mom-friendliness by using the same sample in a widely played remix of the AC staple "You Gotta Be." Portishead and Erykah Badu have cooled down hip-hop sensibilities to create albums that were dinner-party background du jour. Our familiarity with breaks and other standard hip-hop rhythms, on which Ware's debut is based (as opposed to the hyper-syncopated dubstep stylings), has only made them sound softer over time. This stuff has been in our culture's ears for over 30 years now – hip-hop beats are a trusted friend.
But there is something to be said for a meeting in the middle – if hip-hop here has evolved into something more accessible than it was initially regarded, Devotion proves that adult contemporary pop can remain easy listening while getting more challenging. It is a great irony of pop that music that is considered "adult" is relatively reductive, with a reputation for schmaltz and little production flair. Devotion, on the other hand, never stops pleasing with its sonic nuances: the yacht-rock lead guitar of "Running," the fuzzy peek-a-boo bassline of "Still Love Me," the typewriter polyrhythms of "Still Inside." Some of these songs sound like self-imposed challenges to pull off wild things while remaining lite — "110%" has a BPM of at least 170, and yet the beats fall so lightly that the result is little more than a frenetic pitter-patter.
Devotion doesn't just stand around in a ball gown looking sophisticated; sounding this easy requires a lot of effort.