Abra, the new princess of a transgenre R’n’B
With her Princess EP released this summer, the young American prodigy is standing out as one to watch on Atlanta’s burgeoning hip hop scene. An encounter and portrait of a future star…
For the last few years Atlanta has established itself as one of the most interesting epicentres of current music. Rappers like Future, Gucci Mane and Young Thug have been making waves well beyond the frontiers of hip hop and the USA with their psychotic and clammy, dirty and virtuoso productions, somewhere near an off-kilter and lascivious R’n’B with its erratic convulsions and minimalist beats. Deconstructed and radical, their offerings are an invigorating counterpoint to the more mainstream tunes of Drake and Kanye West. It’s in the midst of this crazy galaxy that the Awful Records label is making its mark as a brilliant group of producers, rappers and singers who seem ready to take everything that comes their way.
In the heart of this motley crew Abra undoubtedly embodies its most poppy aspect. Since 2014 in an Atlanta suburb this young prodigy has been crafting her mutant sounds that can’t be traced to mere R’n’B and hip-hop influences. Driven by a voice with powerful soul inflections, her tracks fuse out-there electro with DIY pop in an old school bedroom convoking the ghosts of 80s Wham and Patti LaBelle. More haunting and sensual than those references, her compositions form a coherent and incredibly sexy ensemble. She’s more of a Southern Grimes and a less affected FKA Twigs than yet another Beyoncé ersatz.
We tried constantly to lock me into boxes and cliché because I was Black. As if I could not decide by myself who I was, of what I thought and what I wanted to make!
Abra embodies what a generation bottle-fed on the internet does best as an apostle of that confusion of genres, music and cultures. While passing through Paris this summer, the young woman confirmed: “Our generation is without a doubt the first to be exposed to such a diverse range of cultures. I’m Black but you cannot reduce my music to R’n’B. I am Black but I don’t just play basketball and listen to rap music. I am Black and I like manga and spending the afternoon programming on my computer. That’s our big thing in common at Awful Records, we don’t ever do what people expect of us.”
Raised in London until she was 9, Abra arrived with her family in an Atlanta suburb and discovered a State of Georgia ground down by the issue of race: “Like lots of Black people, my family settled down in the region because of the work opportunities. In the 90s and 2000’s minorities could easily find a job there. But my first impression was very negative. I found the people close-minded. I was always getting pigeon holed and trapped by clichés because I was Black. As if I couldn’t decide myself who I was, what I was thinking and what I wanted to do!”
It does not matter our differences, our common language was and is always the music.
In the early 2000s on the streets of Atlanta the kids played at being punks listening to Linkin Park, Green Day and Blink-182 while others swore by the R’n’B revolution of Aaliyah and producer Timbaland. Abra was part of the latter crowd. But more important was that they all hung out on Edgewood Avenue and this passion for music overcame any social or genre divides. “We weren’t all friends,” explains Abra, “but we shared the same sense of community, a feeling of pride about belonging to Atlanta. Whatever our differences, our common language was always music.” It was at a party one night that she met Father, the founder of Awful Records, and the other members of the gang. Quickly they realised – without having known it – they were hanging out with the same friends and went to the same high school. More than just a label, Awful emerged as a creative support system.
One of my teachers played the song in class.For the first time of my life, I felt teleported.
The young Abra’s early plans were more about acting. But after joining a choir she decided to post her acapella rap covers on YouTube. They were an instant hit. “I’d learnt to play the guitar thanks to my parents and I could sing, but I’d never thought about bringing those two together or to compose myself. The success of my YouTube videos gave me the courage to try.” This summer she unveils her EP, Princess, and its sounding good. Millions have already fallen for her music on YouTube. With Thinking of You, Abra thrusts us through the dizzying effects of love with a languorous tornado as evanescent as it is powerful. While the minimalism of Big Boi echoes an Atlanta-style hip hop, Vegas is like a flashback to the Beverly Hills Cop theme tune while Cry Baby wins us over with a voice worthy of a high priestess of contemporary sex possessed by the Whitney Houston of the 80s and 90s.
It comes as no surprise when we ask the musician what the first song she fell in love with was and she answers Moments of Love by the Art of Noise, a total aural trip on drugs. “One of my teachers played it in class one day. For the first time in my life I felt teleported. I just closed my eyes and started hallucinating. I want my music to provoke the same sensations, like an escape mechanism.” As for the title track of this EP, Princess, it perfectly crystallises the strength and fragility of Abra, a young yet old princess, a royal magician of pop and a teenager who grew up too fast. “Princess is what my parents called me when I was little. I was always complaining about not having enough affection. My father looked me square in the eyes and said it was me who rejected it all the time. I wanted to do everything on my own and in my way. I was a real princess. And I haven’t changed.”
Princess (Awful Records/True Panther Sounds) de Abra. Available.
By Thibaut Wychowanok