Last year, Gaby Guerrero, AKA Native Youth, put herself on the map of Miami’s underground R&B scene with her EP Polarized. This year, she’s channeling the likes of Solange, FKA Twigs, and early Sia on her longer and more mature EP, Second Chances.
If Polarized is, as described by New Times in January, “a late Sunday morning with your unofficial significant other,” Second Chances is a Sunday night in a McDonald’s parking lot wondering where that relationship is going and where you’re going with it.
The album’s first track, “Pictures of You,” is an instant electro-slow-jam hit, breaking its subject's lover into fragments difficult to piece into one coherent narrative. “They didn’t say this would be easy,” Guerrero sings, slipping past the ostensibly romantic nature of the song into something altogether solipsistic — the archetype of the R&B singer. The classic R&B formula places the lover as its subject. But more recently, the genre tends to elevate the lovelorn R&B songstress of old to its own sad, self-searching aesthetic vessel: Solange at best, Lana at worst. Blame millennial vanity, perhaps, or self-actualization.
On Second Chances, Guerrero's lyrics have evolved along with the rest of R&B. She sings as much about herself as she does about her formless lover, placing the fragments into a harder and older picture in her own image. The difference between Lana Del Rey and Native Youth is that Guerrero’s image is driven by her passion rather than the other way around. Her work is untainted by profit and appropriative “Gangsta Nancy Sinatra” antics.
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Second Chances' eclectic acoustic instrumentation is central to what the casual listener might describe as a more brashly electronic album than Polarized. The synths and beats on tracks such as “6 Feet Under” are heightened and diversified, pairing thrumming synth chords with rippling Wii-esque arpeggios. Before you know it, in creeps an electric guitar motif that shouldn’t work but shamelessly does. There is a piano. There are bongos. There is a saxophone. Producers Kaixen and Triangles are largely to thank for such bold sonic experimentation. Yet although this combination sounds like a meme soundtrack, the resulting soundscape is a testament to Guerrero’s extraordinary talent of making not giving a fuck feel as intentioned and purposeful as actual human behavior.
Halfway through Second Chances, Guerrero’s voice climbs to a higher register. Guerrero has said she “[doesn’t] have crazy range or anything,” but her FKA Twigs-style falsetto on “Bad Things” and “Stuck in Between” proves otherwise. On “Give It Time,” she juxtaposes her familiar alto croon with a childlike soprano, playing her personal growth off her lingering fears as she wistfully moves forward: “I don’t feel like I am wise/I’ve changed a lot from when we were in love/I’m really trying to get on top/I wish that you could come along.”
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The album’s epilogue comes in “Understatement,” an ironically blunt yet sleek meditation with North Carolina rapper J.K. the Reaper on the sexiness and frustration of lovers’ quarrels. Its refrain washes over the horns of old-school R&B, at once a taunt and a plea: “Say I love you, that’s an understatement/Am I going crazy?/I haven’t seen you lately/I just hope you’ll touch me like you used to.” It’s a stark contrast to Polarized’s wild refrain of "Make you fall in love, make me all you want" on “Bodytalk.” Guerrero is still in the room, yet she’s already left.
There’s surprisingly little resolution after the last track fades out on that note. Native Youth finds power in that uncertainty. Second Chances is a testament to the things you say without thinking — the ones you’ll deny you meant later. But you did. Put this album on, get in the car, and go.
Pure Life Festival
With Spread Love Gang, Good News Bad News, Starve Marve, Psychic Dove, Native Youth, and others. 6 p.m. Saturday, September 9, at Bites to Go, 791 NW 20th St., Miami; smartbitestogo.com. Tickets cost $10 via eventbrite.com.