H.E.R. Releases Masterful but Overlong Debut Album ‘Back of My Mind’

Based on at least five good years of wall-to-wall coverage of H.E.R., leading to numerous chart appearances, collaborations, guest spots, ten Grammy nominations, four wins, and an Oscar, it seems impossible that Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson is releasing her debut album only now. But “Back of My Mind” follows five critically-acclaimed EPs which were subsequently condensed into compilations, which means this is officially the first time she’s spread her remarkable creativity across so many tracks at a single time, an overlong 21. Of course, in a musical landscape where platforms and release patterns have become increasingly fragmented, careers can thankfully develop without the restraints of industry tradition; but H.E.R. makes the most of an opportunity half a decade in the making with a collection of songs that position the 23-year-old as one of the most compelling artists working today.

The record opens with “We Made It,” a track about an important relationship whose message seems to echo the sentiment of releasing this record now, again, five years after rebranding herself as H.E.R. and almost 14 since she make her first performances at the Apollo Theatre and on the “Today” show. “It’s been a long ride and I just can’t believe / Can’t believe we made it,” she sings with a rapper’s cadence, a genre-straddling style that’s become increasingly popular over the last decade thanks to the likes of everyone from Erykah Badu and Beyonce to Kehlani and Doja Cat. DJ Camper and Flippa produce both this song and the title track, where she and Ty Dolla $ign harmonize as they wrestle with mutual attraction, but also a mutual fear of vulnerability; they set a tone that’s more nuanced, demure and earnest than the sound of most of her contemporaries, who are comparatively eager to show off their independence, their cheekiness and/or just their cheeks. Her sound comes from the era of Badu, Angie Stone and Jill Scott — neo soul updated with a trap edge that simultaneously sounds classic and edgy.

Wilson enlists an impressive slate both of great producers and guest stars, including Cordae, Lil Baby, Thundercat, YG, and Chris Brown, the latter of whose continued commercial appeal feels like a disappointing rejoinder to the notion that the music industry is holding bad behavior to account as vigorously as elsewhere in popular culture. Cordae’s verses wonderfully compliment H.E.R.’s on “Trauma,” where the two of them contemplate their lives, choices, perspectives, and the wisdom earned and re-evaluated from those experiences; she intensifies her focus around those thoughts on “Find A Way,” a superficially typical examination of how fame changes an artist and the people around them that deepens with a guest verse from Lil Baby. Meanwhile, Thundercat and Kaytranada coproduce “Bloody Waters,” where Wilson issues a call to arms against that acknowledges the complexity of a discourse simultaneously talking too much and not enough about the forces of oppression.

Whether they belong specifically to her or not, she offers more personal reflections on songs like “Closer To Me,” where she tries to balance physical attraction and the common sense saying a partner is wrong for her: “Always in lust / I can’t worry and trust you, baby / I invested too much.” Her team-up with Brown offers a catchy, wistful hook-up anthem for a jet-setter reconnecting with a crush, as the two sing, “you should come through tonight / I’m chilling on the Westside, boo / Call my homegirl, tell your best friend / You can slide through on the low, a remote location.” Across a number of tracks, including this one, “My Own” and “XYZ,” she frequently explores relationships she’s drawn to, but for one reason or another reluctant to invest too deeply in; “Don’t mind me, ’cause it ain’t about you / We both need space and that’s all so true,” she sings on “My Own.” “Know it’s okay if you can’t come through / I’m savin’ your place and it’s all for you.” But on “Lucky,” she also knows her worth, acknowledging strong feelings while reminding a lover that she’s not pining emptily for them (“Don’t you ever forget that you’re lucky / Lucky I got eyes for you / Nobody could block the view / You know I got options too”). She exhibits a healthy sense of self-awareness without lacking confidence, making for suitably complex songwriting that’s relatable, even inspiring, for listeners. 

She skillfully reinvents the gaming term “cheat code” for a song with the same title as she questions a lover whose late nights and mysterious absences generate more questions than answers, then follows it with a dressing down on “Mean It” once she’s determined the sad truth, reconciling her own lingering affection with feelings of betrayal. That navigation of complex emotions — sometimes pushing back against ambivalence or obfuscation, others leaning into it — is increasingly well-traversed territory for contemporary soul singers, especially in a social landscape where relationship definitions are less concretely defined than ever before. A song like “Process” encapsulates this attitude perfectly, sharing both the beautiful moments of connection (“Uh, you better stop, you better not, ayy / I’m ’bout to pop like rimshot, ayy”) and the ones that drive her mad (“I got some things that I gotta get off my chest / Screamin’ through the phone like we tryna have a contest”) as, well, a process of growth, not always at the same speed or together at all, but one for learning — about herself, if no one else.

Her performance of “Hold On” deservedly generated a lot of attention on “Saturday Night Live” back in October 2020, but if there’s a shortcoming to the album it’s that too many magical moments get lost in its overpowering volume of material. The track features piercing electric guitar that vaguely evokes Prince, but sequenced at track 15 of 21, it feels almost like an afterthought. Moreover, Wilson has long since made a declarative statement about her sound and her persona, so listening to so many new tracks in rapid succession proves an embarrassment of riches. And yet, the further you get into them, the clearer it becomes that she’s mature, both as a songwriter and a person, beyond her years, evidencing a capacity for pushing soul music forward in a way that her more image-focused, hitmaker counterparts don’t, and likely won’t. The sentiment of a song like “Hard To Love” both asks for and offers understanding in a relationship whose volatility she acknowledges she’s at least partly responsible for; that’s a hard needle to thread coming from a tradition of big, clear emotions, much less in an era where those are frequently reduced to come-ons, kiss-offs and sometimes cartoonish empowerment, but Wilson’s aim is truer than most artists her age.

If two collaborations close the record, the first a solo version of “I Can Have It All,” her song on DJ Khaled’s recent album “Khaled Khaled,” and the second the slinky “Slide” with YG, a better close comes with the desperately honest “For Anyone,” a bittersweet reflection of a past relationship; as she sings “Honestly, I wish I never met you / ‘Cause you left me broken / Now my heart won’t open for anyone,” you feel the regret and longing, a landing strip for all of the complicated feelings she navigated in its predecessors. Of course, relationships never unfold in a straight line, so a few extra detours, especially when they’re as pleasant as the ones on this, her debut, are always welcome. But assuming that it doesn’t take another five EPs before delivering a full-length follow-up, “Back of My Mind” is an auspicious effort that fully demonstrates why she’s been worth discussing while taking her sweet time to properly debut.

Back of My Mind” releases June 18 on Apple Music.