Music Review: Corinne Bailey Rae explores every part of the emotional spectrum in 'Black Rainbows'

This cover image released by Thirty Tigers shows "Black Rainbows " by Corinne Bailey Rae. (Thirty Tigers via AP)

Who would you be if you didn’t have to fit into societal expectations?

Grammy Award-winner Corinne Bailey Rae answers this question for herself in her latest body of work, “Black Rainbows.” It is her fourth album and first in seven years, since her 2016 release “The Heart Speaks in Whispers.”

If you were expecting the same woman who released “Put Your Records On” all those years ago — guess again. On “Black Rainbows,” Rae takes a liberal approach when expressing her creative freedoms: she experiments with genres, themes, and ideas with little cohesion, taking listeners on an emotional rollercoaster. Some may be down for the ride; others might choose to skip to their favorite songs.

But that may very well be the point: according to a press release, the album was inspired by the Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago, which has become a haven for Black art — a collection that weaves together vastly diverse work. (An influence evident in the track “He Will Follow with His Eyes.”)

There’s a lot to select from: like in the rocking “Erasure” or serenity-seeking, angelic piano ballad “Peach Velvet Sky.”

On “Red Horse,” Rae repeats a soulful hook dedicated to the object of her desire: “You’re the one that I/I've been waiting for,” she repeats. Then, just as quickly, she’s onto the next: busting out the electric guitar and handclaps while narrating the story of a 17-year-old narrator on the aforementioned “New York Transit Queen.”

“New York Transit Queen/Little over 17,” she cheers. “New York Transit Queen/She gets her rides for free!”

This album is unique to Rae because it allows her voice to be a supporting character, where the lead is played by her powerful, often heavy instrumentals. Like in the experimental title track “Black Rainbows,” with its obscured and distorted vocal effects.

In the mid-00s, Rae was inescapable. Her 2006 breakout hit “Put Your Records On,” and the critically acclaimed folky-R&B-y singles that followed proved she knew how to write a catchy song for passive radio-ready audiences. However, “Black Rainbows” is an eclectic mix that encourages active consumption: songs durations vary from two to eight minutes. Beyond her punk and pianos, she encompasses a kind of electro-funk (“Earthlings”). This album was not created to fit into a world of TikTok-friendly, easily consumed hooks. It was created by a versatile artist allowing herself to display a wide range of musical talent.

Admittedly, this album is not the same Corinne Bailey Rae we met in 2006… but who wants to be the person they were 2006 when it’s 2023?


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