Summer Walker Returns Refueled and Unsparing on ‘Still Over It’ 

Summer Walker is among the few voices that manages to keep contemporary R&B interesting. Well-versed in traditions and with her finger on the pulse, she turns out tunes that simultaneously sound refreshingly novel and comfortably classic. She shot to the top with her 2018 mixtape “Last Day of Summer,” and built on its momentum the following year with her studio debut, “Over It.” The album was an outspoken survey of romantic entanglements, primarily set to productions by London Tyler Holmes, who goes by the moniker London on da Track. Her followup, “Still Over It,” revamps and reaffirms the debut’s concerns, and directs them this time largely toward London, now out of the picture, and the father of Walker’s child. The new record is even more personal than the last, as Walker’s spirited sounds strike with new potency. A tour de force with spoken contributions from Cardi B and Ciara, along with musical features from Ari Lennox and Pharell, “Still Over It” finds Walker gliding with all her soulful delicacy and ultimately packing a punch.

Opener “Bitter” finds Walker getting straight to business much like she did on her last album, and immediately making due on the album title, “Still Over It.” There is a diaristic quality to the new material, with Walker rummaging through her personal experiences, spilling them with a casual spontaneity, and keeping things interesting at every turn. Here, she repeats the word “Bitter” with a cool, deadpan disapproval, and builds a track around it, dismissing all the gossip queens who have flocked to Instagram with petty small talk. The track winds down with a voicemail from Cardi B, who offers moral support with her usual excess of Bronx ratchet attitude, her impassioned rambles culminating succinctly, “Fuck these hoes.”

“Ex For a Reason” takes root from the same attitude, featuring a refrain of “That bitch your ex / For a reason though.” The track opens to flashy rock guitar soloing over snippets of layered, hushed vocals. A faster beat than usual drops, and Walker’s mellow, free-flowing stylings weave loosely around the edges, with the Auto-tune of the chorus coming across as if it issued naturally from her whimsy. The song charts a course more informed by live band dynamics than most contemporary R&B, even though the composite sounds are largely hip-hop elements. “No Love” pairs Walker with SZA, and finds the singers riffing off each other’s instincts effortlessly, as they take turns decrying exes, and ultimately resolve, “There will be no lovin’ you,” in a winding, serpentine melody. “Throw It Away” continues to assert self-worth with an easygoing empowerment, as Walker sings, “Had me thinkin’ that I was average / When you’re really to blame.” The accusations grow more pointed as the drums drop out on “You Don’t Know Me,” in which she reminisces and reevaluates in a spacious arrangement of clean guitars and reverberating vocal harmonies. 

On “Circus” and “Insane,” Walker admits to herself too being off-balance in the destabilizing mess of amorous entanglements. The deconstructed, dynamic instrumentals that draw from early ‘90s R&B textures are an effective backdrop for her musings. “Unloyal,” featuring Ari Lennox, returns to resolution, with each singer putting plenty of personality in her verses, then adopting an unphased tone and shrugging, “I guess I’m unloyal, baby” over a jazzy backdrop of luxuriant saxophones and colorful percussion. On “Toxic,” Walker sounds at once unhinged and grounded, swelling over skittering beats as Lil Durk drops a verse in a somewhat humorous effort to diffuse drama. “Dat RIght There” is more up front and immediate than most of the album’s tracks, but still a bit off kilter, as Walker brags about her ability to affect men with her feminine charms, apparently having taken Cardi B’s advice to heart, while Pharrell plays dumb, recuced to repetitions of “Dat Right There.” The song is relatively lighthearted standout, as is “Screwin,” featuring Omarion. It’s first two thirds are almost a capella, as the faint instrumental is hardly audible, taking the hip-hop template of faded samples to the point of near silence. Walker and Omarion fill out the open space, trading lines so matter-of-fact in their explicit sexual content that one can only hope comedy was an element in the design. Finally, a wild spattering of trap hi hats launches the track far out in a thrilling moment. 

Walker’s lyrics take on an unprecedented directness on the new album, particularly in regard to London on da Track. “Session 32” places her again over organic instrumentation, as she takes on her target unsparingly, charging, “Leave your family in the cold and rain / And I don’t think you’ll ever change your ways.” These sentiments reach an apex on “4th Baby Mama,” this time with a crisp beat lending momentum to Walker’s musings. It’s notable that Walker never sounds exactly “bitter,” her righteous indignation modestly kept at bay, although there is a new iciness in her voice. At one point, the drums drop out, and she asks, “How could you make me spend my whole fucking pregnancy alone?” Finally, the empowerment running through so many preceding tracks resurfaces as Walker channels her frustrations into “Ciara’s Prayer.” Ciara takes the script and runs through a litany of self-validations — “I am a queen, I deserve to be treated like one. I’m a warrior, I will get up.

In the end, “Still Over It” can be a rather unsettling listen. The intimacy with which Walker bares herself is chilling, and the autobiographical nature of her content leaves little room to get swept up in the more escapist elements of the music. Moreover, Walker’s diatribes come in a chorus of shared sentiments from Cardi B and Ciara, who also draw from their personal romantic histories. The cumulative effect is to paint a disconcerting picture of the egos and anxieties that characterize celebrity romances in the R&B and hip-hop spheres. On one hand, we have specimens like Offset’s unbecoming 2019 album, “Father of 4.” in which the Migos member attempted to portray himself as a sort of scapegoat in his relations with four women. Now we get “4th Baby Mama,” offering a perspective much easier to take in a sympathetic light.  At any rate, one has to admire the strengthened resolve and self-validation born out of Walker’s struggles, as well as the artistry with which she expresses it. Walker draws from earlier eras of R&B and contemporary sounds with a fresh command of dynamics, and a quirk and whimsy all of her own. Her voice is measured and grounded, while outspoken and full of attitude, and it effectively drives her points home.

Still Over It” releases Nov. 5 on Apple Music