A little more than a year ago, Gabriela Guerrero's mother showed her a flyer for a Vevo DJing competition sponsored by Tiësto and encouraged her to register. Guerrero had messed around with her stepfather's DJ equipment here and there, but had minimal experience in the booth. Still, she decided to chance it and ended up making it on the show as a finalist.
She left Miami International University of Art & Design, where she was studying audio production, for a few months to compete on the series.
"I had to move to L.A. in order to be part of the web show," Guerrero says. "We went to Las Vegas for a week, stayed at the MGM Grand, and played at [the famed MGM pool-party venue] Wet Republic."
It is this natural inclination for spontaneity and trusting her instincts that has led Guerrero — these days better known as Native Youth — on a winding Vegas road from EDM DJ to hazed out, easy riding R&B singer.
"I didn't find the passion in producing EDM. I didn't want to be just a DJ. I still love DJing. It's really fun and I would do it, but it's not something that I would make a career," she says. "I'm more passionate about singing now."
It took a few detours on that winding road for Guerrero to find the music style and role she felt best suited her. After returning home to Miami and realizing she'd grown disillusioned with EDM production, she continued to make music but found that her beats naturally skewed toward R&B and hip-hop. That music made sense to her in a natural way, she says. "I was raised on Biggie and Big Pun."
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During her youth, her stepdad and uncles spun classic hip-hop on vinyl while her mom played trance and '80s freestyle records. As her own musical tastes took hold, she developed a preference for some of R&B's reigning queens. She mentions Lauryn Hill multiple times, along with Tamar Braxton and a love for '90s R&B ballads.
Native Youth's eclectic, bubbling synth approach to R&B is reflective of a shift in the genre. Though R&B is not as popular on the radio today as it was when Guerrero was growing up in the '90s, it thrives on the internet and in the underground. Artists such as Jhené Aiko, Kali Uchis, FKA Twigs, and Alina Baraz (whom Guerrero names as a major influence) have translated their modern takes on R&B into significant success. Frank Ocean, Solange Knowles, and the Weeknd (at least before his Max Martin pop songs) are among the superstars of the genre's present era.
Guerrero believes R&B's sonic shift can be explained by the vast variety of influences she and her collaborators share. In the age of the internet, with its instant digital access to most music, the same could just as easily explain the differing creative takes on the genre by her peers.
Her main collaborators, producers Triangles and Kaixen, add even more layers of differing genre influences to her sound. "Triangles, who produced most of my EP, listens to a lot of jazz. Kaixen listens to a lot of future bass and R&B as well, so it all kind of comes together and we make this really weird future bass, futuristic R&B."
Their brand of R&B can be heard on Native Youth's EP Polarized. The four-song release sounds like a soundtrack for a late Sunday morning with your unofficial significant other — the kind of Sunday when you're slightly hung-over, eating pot gummies, and hoping the high cures your headache.
"We don't need no labels,/No, I'm not trying to tame you," Guerrero sings over a sparse hip-hop beat, muddled synths, and distorted background vocals in "What to Do." It's a far cry from the showy singing style of R&B's '90s heyday, but Guerrero has learned to embrace her distinct singing style as one that sets her apart.
"I don't have crazy range or anything. I just started singing a year ago really seriously, and before that, I never sang. I didn't even think I had a voice."
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A year out from the competition that led her to search for that voice, she's taken full control of its message. "I write all my songs myself," she says.
She opens her song "Hypnotize" (could it be a Biggie reference?) singing, "Creeping into your mind," before continuing, "I want to be the one you fall for./I want to be the one that you adore./Make you fall in love,/Make me all you want."
It sounds less like a song about romantic love and more like one that lays bare her intentions to make the world fall in love with her voice — the same way she once had to.