Chloe x Halle Return With Sultry Swag on ‘Ungodly Hour’
Sisters Chloe and Halle Bailey began as actresses, playing minor roles in films like “The FIghting Temptations” and “Let It Shine.” Their musical success story is the stuff of fairy tales. They posted a cover of Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts,” and were eventually sought out and signed by Beyoncé herself. Their debut album as Chloe x Halle, “The Kids Are Alright” received two Grammy nominations, and their follow up, “Ungodly Hour” marks a bold step forward. As the title suggests, this is the inevitable “all grown up now” album that comes when child actresses shed their cherubic casts. Although it’s on the tamer side among such undertakings, it finds the singers exploring relationships from different angles, and being more overt with their sexuality, in a set of songs characterized by mellow sounds and feisty attitudes.
An into track of winding, hushed harmonies and swelling strings builds to some pointed instructions: “Don’t ever ask for permission; ask for forgiveness.” At face value, it’s a rebuttal to “better safe than sorry,” an inducement to action. There’s a seamless transition into “Forgive’ Me,” an effective opener with the spirit of ‘90s R&B, adapted for the present moment with touches like trap hi hats. Halle sings “So forgive me ’cause I’m not teary / Best believe I’ll move onto better things,” essentially “Sorry I’m not sorry” compressed into a catchy chorus. Everything from the bounce of the beat to the confident clarity of her voice flaunts fortitude in the aftermath of a relationship gone awry, and she goes so far as to finish the song scampering forward with a few “la la las.” “Baby Girl,” which Halle has described as a “girl empowerment song,” is a natural next step. It’s certainly on the relaxed end, as far as empowerment songs go, with an almost dancehall beat, produced by the ladies themselves, and laconic lyrics like “Baby girl, it’s your world,” delivered with a sluggish swagger. Chloe and Halle have the type of coveted voice tone that can somehow express any emotion at any volume in a whisper, and it lends the music a kind of magnetic intimacy.
Single “Do It” delves further into the album’s laidback, yet assertive aesthetic, with mellow, sidechained, jazzy chords, a trickling beat of snaps and handclaps, and a swaying, dance routine-ready chorus, which, of course, already has a TikTok dance from Choe and Halle themselves. The refrain of “Ooh, ooh / That’s just how we do it” is consistent with the opening advice, an ode to spontaneity, without any belaboring. “Tipsy,” one of Chloes’ productions, is a sonic standout, with carnivalesque synths that effectively convey the idea of being “a little crazy, but so what?” A devilish, playful track about a dizzying infatuation, it gets more explicit yet, with a climactic admonition of “If you love your little life, then don’t fuck up.”
The title track recruits English electronic duo Disclosure, who put their signature stamp on it while adapting wholeheartedly to the soulfully languorous aesthetic of the album. The deceptively throwaway refrain of “Love me at the ungodly hour” is a cheeky suggestion doubling as a demand for unconditional acceptance. There’s a natural chemistry between the forces at the mics and the decks, with a one-two punch and sultry smoothness that is irresistible. “Busy Boy” is another playful song with a unique angle. Chloe and Halle resist the advances of the eponymous suitor with a blushing disapproval. They tease him with their epithet, over splattering percussion, with their characteristic coyness. Single “Catch Up” stands out from an appearance by Swae Lee as well as producer Mike Will Made-It. Lee drops one of his effortless Auto-tune hooks over a handclap-heavy stomp, and goes back and forth with the ladies in a tit-for tat-love song. Each party eggs on the other, in the latest pronouncement the flirty friction running through the album from the onset.
“Overwhelmed,” is a moment of respite with a title that speaks for itself. This interlude ditches percussion and lets the vocals take the spotlight, reminding us of the considerable singing talent at hand. Over a sparse piano backdrop, one singer runs down a melody as the other darts whimsically off on tangents, joining along the way in moments of angelic harmony. Having regained some traction, Chloe and Halle bring the beat back on “Lonely,” a soothing song of validation. Like the title track, it packages some profundity in snappy one-liners, with a refrain of “It don’t have to be lonely being alone,” sung between breaths that lengthen into sung snippets. “Don’t Make It Harder On Me” switches up the sonic template with more organic instrumentation. Funky guitar and bass interplay, with florid strings added to the mix, fleshes out the sound, echoing R&B of an earlier era when full bands were the default. Near the end, Chloe and Halle dress up their vocals with fanciful harmonies that second the grandeur of the strings. The song is written from the perspective of someone happily paired up, trying to ward off temptation. Lyrics like “I told you not to love me / And now you’re growing on me” effectively express the confounding futility that characterizes such situations.
Come “Wonder What She Thinks Of Me,” this is almost the stuff of soap operas. It’s the natural outgrowth of the sentiment teased in the previous track, and it supports the idea that the best art arises from trouble, as it brings the most commanding, belting performance of the album. In a record full of cool composure and swaying soul, this sole, gut-wrenching number reveals a whole new side of Chloe and Halle, reminding us that they are first-rate singers who can easily turn out a conventional, effusive ballad. Finally, “ROYL” circles back neatly to the concept of the introductory track, suggesting, “Won’t you live tonight? / For the rest of your life.” After all, you “never know ’til you try,” and if worst comes to worst, you can always “ask for forgiveness.” For this song, Chloe and Halle stretch their vowel sounds in the same type of vaguely British affectation that Lady Gaga loves to employ in her choruses. It’s a presentation that somehow fits the indulgence of the central sentiment. After the hefty laborings of the previous song, this track brings back the beat, and swings back swiftly, leaving on a high note, with one of the album’s catchiest choruses.
Chloe and Halle exude confidence, singing coyly about romantic intrigues, and throwing in messages of empowerment along the way. The songs are light and frivolous, with occasional dips into heavier matter, and the singers demonstrate a knack for stringing together snippets that condense meaning into memorable refrains. The ladies modestly hold back from the histrionic, melismatic outpourings that characterize contemporary R&B, making the occasional indulgence more meaningful. Above all, they stand out for their perennially hushed voices, which imbue the music with a certain elusive cool. “Ungodly Hour” is a sultry, soulful album that shows a marked artistic growth from the two young talents
“Ungodly Hour” is available June 11 on Apple Music.