Jessie Reyez Does What Few Dare to Do on the Appropriately Titled ‘Being Human in Public’

Canadian singer-songwriter Jessie Reyez stormed the scene with her massive 2016 single “Figures,” revealing a one-of-a-kind voice that demanded attention. Within a year, she released a promising debut EP, “Kiddo,” as well as a short film, “Gatekeeper,” inspired by her experiences with shady, predatory characters in the music industry. Millions worldwide have applauded her for speaking up on this issue, but in interviews, Reyez has modestly declined any credit, claiming that she merely spoke her truth about the matter as she would about anything else. Her new EP is fittingly titled “Being Human In Public.” It’s a record that finds Reyez taking the reins with gusto, and turning out tunes that abound with personality and flair.  

From the first bars of opener, Reyez sets herself apart with her distinctive voice and singing style. On this track, her inflections and little affectations of pronunciation often echo Rihanna, but they have plenty character of their own. Reyez sings in — for lack of a better term — the flirty baby voice. She rounds off all her vowels, and seems to only let off sound when pursing her lips, and squeezing herself into a virtual helium balloon, coming across as if she’s either admiring a puppy or posing for a selfie. It’s a very becoming sound, and she pulls it off flawlessly, even though it’s rather cartoonishly outlandish. And with this styling as a core, Reyez takes on an impressive range, and sings with an effortless fluidity, in a way that is always colorful and expressive. “Saint Nothing” is about putting one hundred percent of yourself into life, to the extent that if it all ended right now, you’d be satisfied. The lazily voiced “Ya ya ya ya ya” refrain, interspersed with Reyez’s otherwise beaming delivery seems to express the level of comfort and unconcern hinted at in the lyrics. It’s quite a self-assured way to begin an album, and it’s entirely congruent with the confidence that Reyez exudes in her singing. One particularly striking line is “Fuck a 9 to 5, I’m 8 to faint.” Reyez is giving it her all, and it shows.  

“Apple Juice” places Reyez over a timeless instrumental that frames her in the tradition of R&B singers who can trace their sound audibly back to the ‘60s — rather than the predominant strain of contemporary R&B whose sound is quite alien to those roots. You can hear the same type of verve in this song that Amy Winehouse always demonstrated. Reyez sings here about the importance of hanging on, in spite of love sometimes being an uphill battle. Her lyrics, “I’ll teach you how to love me, how to love me,” could seem a bit stalkerish if they weren’t delivered in such a voice. Somehow she makes it work. Next up comes “Sola,” a mellow, Latin jazz-tinged number with Reyez singing in Spanish. She appears to be caught up in a sort of cat-and-mouse game, as she seems worlds away from the dogged amorous designs of the preceding track, now issuing warnings that translate in English to “I’m not the type of woman / With whom your mom wants to see you.”

On “Fuck Being Friends,” Reyez channels her baby-voice aesthetic into a sound that’s slightly less soul, and slightly more punk. She comes across sounding a lot like Gwen Stefani — except that she takes the schtick even a bit further. The music is vaguely rooted in reggae, and similarly, Reyez’s vocals have a discernible yet elusive character common to many artists who are linked to reggae without actually falling into that genre — like H.R. of the Bad Brains. Lyrically, the song picks off where “Apple Juice” left off. As if the title weren’t explicit enough, Reyez drops lines like “I got your heart in my hand and your dick in the other,” and “My pussy beat better than my heart do.” Right. If this seems a bit much, that’s probably because it’s meant to be. After all, just consider the album title — “Being Human In Public.” Reyez has no intentions of being coy; she’d rather just be real. She makes this clear on the next track, “Dear Yessie,” singing, “This is the realest I’ve ever been… Singin’, ‘Fuck bein’ delicate.’” Two-thirds of the way through, the song suddenly shifts gears. Growling bass enters the mix, and Reyez starts rapping. Her style of flow, and the production that accompanies it is in the vein of Azealia Banks. It’s only for a fleeting moment, but she does it so well that one can only hope for more in the future.

“Imported” features the lyrics, “Hi, my name is ‘Not important’ / I’m not from here, I’m imported.” At face value, this might seem like a sarcastic jab at Xenophobes. That could be one meaning, but the main sentiment seems to be, rather, that Reyez is so cool and composed that she’s unphased by anything — essentially a reiteration of the idea expressed in “Saint Nothing.” Regarding the “imported” part, Reyez is ethnically Columbian, and she has spoken often about issues of diversity. On this track, she seems to be wearing her ethnicity as a sort of badge of honor, as if to playfully intimate, “I’m of a different breed. I don’t buy into this nonsense.” The album comes to closure with a remix of an older song, “Body Count,” with the new version featuring Kehlani and Normani. The line “I dodge dick on the daily” is a reminder of the whole “Gatekeeper” theme, and ending the album with a track featuring two other unabashedly bold female artists seems like a statement of intent.

There are very few artists in the greater R&B / Soul world who actually sound unique. Jessie Reyez has not only carved out a sound of her own, but is able to stretch it to different ends with an uncommon versatility. The seven tracks on this EP are a solid set of songs. Moreover, there’s a winsome, bold free-spiritedness and lack of reserve ever-present in Reyes’s music that elevates her above the ranks of many of her peers. “Being Human In Public” is a rather radical thing to do, and Reyez is setting a precedent.

Being Human In Public” is available Oct. 19 on Apple Music.