On ‘Deacon,’ Serpentwithfeet Tells a Joyful Story of Queer Love
Relative newcomer Serpentwithfeet is part of the growing ranks of Black artists like Sampha, Sudan Archives and Moses Sumney who are expanding the panorama of contemporary R&B with experimental, digressive, utterly mesmerizing takes on the genre’s melodies and textures. His latest album, “Deacon,” is an unapologetic celebration of Black love, and blackness itself, layered in unhurried beats and harmonies drawing as much on classical and gospel as the trap rhythms that form R&B’s modern backbeat.
The best thing about Serpent’s album is that every song sounds finished — and more than that, fully conceived and composed. Too many artists among his contemporaries seem to have adopted a mixtape mentality when it comes to songwriting, improvising a few strong ideas without completing or developing them further. By comparison, his cascading vocals sound like they’ve been arranged like different layers of tissue paper, ephemeral alone but robust and durable together, as he works through the story or idea driving the lyrics. You can also tell that he’s been influenced, or perhaps emboldened, by his past collaborations with Björ, who similarly utilizes the technological possibilities of programs like ProTools to deconstruct not just songcraft but her own voice and turn it into another instrument.
After a year of the Weeknd’s iconically fatalistic romanticism, “Deacon” feels like its authentic, optimistic counterpoint, starting on “Hyacinth,” which opens with the resilient sentiment, “I think my green thumb has led me to a real one / So glad the soil has yielded something more than bad luck.” Serpent’s previous work trafficked in heartbreak too, but at this moment his optimism and his openness (“Distant men ain’t fine as they used to be/ The handsomest guys are caring and nearby”) feels particularly buoying and essential; that he flavors it with a soupçon of libido (“He never needed silverware but I’m his little spoon and all the soup on his mouth came from me”) makes it that much more enjoyable, even surprising to listen to.
It’s long been a punch line about gay relationships (“you double your wardrobe overnight!”), but on “Same Size Shoe,” Serpent turns that idea into a lovely, intimate barometer for his compatibility with his lover (“Me and my boo wear the same size shoe”). In fact, his celebration of a partner’s features might sound like boilerplate objectification were he a typical soul lothario discussing, say, a woman’s curves, but the way that he luxuriates in the way those beautiful body parts are put together, and the way they’re presented, feels genuinely refreshing — especially when what he’s chronicling is anything but traditionally appealing. “Blessed is the man who wears socks with his sandals,” he sings on “Malik.” “Blessed is the man with those loving love handles… Peace to the jeans that’s huggin’ your behind.”
What’s most compelling about these tracks is the way that their heat becomes palpable, even infectious; you needn’t share his attraction to corny jokes and hearing “about your folks” for their sentiment to resonate. Even without some sort of immediate same-sex lexicon — or a more deliberate reversal of the hetero physical “catalog” that’s been used for decades — Serpent offers a specificity in his lyrics that feel relatable, evoking the things a listener might be drawn to in his or her partner, or be eager to discover because of that unique shared chemistry. “Waited years for a man like you / Won’t let hubris make me a fool,” he sings on “Sailors’ Superstition,” not just pinpointing the uniqueness of this connection, but the way that uniqueness encourages him — and us — to be especially careful as we pursue it.
“Heart Storm” is a simmering banger just waiting to break out for mainstream success, as he explores those feverish, undeniable feelings of developing love, intertwined with attraction: “When we kiss watch for lightning / Being near you’s so exciting” is an admission that everyone has felt, or should, at one time or another. That he doesn’t resist getting very close to explicit, such as on “Wood Boy,” where he sings “Damn he filling up my body / Damn I like him inside me,” only adds real heat — exactly the same energy of those great soul classics, from Marvin Gaye to Kelly Rowland, unafraid to tell the object of their attraction what they want, and want to give. That said, it’s the confessional simplicity of songs like “Derrick’s Beard” that linger most vividly, as he muses about those little things typically taken for granted (“Come over here / Missing your beard”) that tie us, unexpectedly and inextricably, to someone else.
The final two songs further profess a kind of romantic bliss, a sense of normalcy to which it feels like anyone should aspire, first on “Old & Fine,” where he dreams, “Wanna get old & fine with you,” and then on “Fellowship,” where he trades harmonies with Sampha as he highlights what he calls “the blessing of my 30’s,” an enviable sensation given the blissful domesticity he documents. “Our breezy Sunday afternoons / Christmas films in July with you,” he sings, capturing the shared intimacy of real connection. “I’m spending less time worrying / And more time recounting the love.” With “Deacon,” it feels like that’s truly possible, not just for him but anyone lucky enough to be listening.
“Deacon” releases March 26 on Apple Music.