Monday, June 22, 2015

Unbreakable Smile | Tori Kelly

"And that was the day that I promised I'd never sing of love if it does not exist," sang a 16-year-old Tori Kelly in her first formal cover on YouTube. She reinterpreted Hayley Williams' ode with an unseasoned voice and a borrowed guitar in a video uploaded not long after the release of Paramore's original in 2009. Six years removed from that cover, Kelly now has her own guitar, a record contract, and a debut album on the shelves. The LP, Unbreakable Smile, expands her horizons past the status of a YouTube cover star; she now sings her own love-struck lyrics and blurs the boundaries between acoustic pop, soul, and R&B.

Once shrill and unidentifiable, Kelly's voice now carries a wholesome inflection that adds a touch of warm personality to each of this album's 14 tracks. If anything, her voice is the only element that adds a soul touch to her otherwise pop-meets-R&B music. As powerful as her voice may be, though, her true power lies in her lyrics. Despite the assertive urban tinsel wrapped over Kelly's pop core by executive producer Max Martin, her lyrics remain surprisingly personal and straightforward. Her narratives are similar to those of Taylor Swift: like Swift's discography, Kelly's debut is fueled on personal pick-me-ups and lots of love. (For her most charming stanzas, check out the optimistic title track and the heartbroken "Art of Letting You Go.")

For an album with Martin's name attached to it, Unbreakable Smile isn't as climatic as expected. He steers most of his collaborators towards larger-than-life, color-by-numbers synthpop, but Kelly is different. While singles "Nobody Love," "Should've Been Us," and "Expensive" (which throw Kelly's voice into extravagant R&B-fused backdrops, complete with brass, beats, and bass) may suggest otherwise, the majority of this album is hazy and easy-going. Kelly's guitar is her best friend, and together, they can provide sufficient entertainment without any extra frills: the track "Funny" is ripped from a bare-bones live performance that finds Kelly still sounding pitch perfect. 

Whether she rips through radio-ready cuts or works some subdued magic with Ed Sheeran, Kelly constantly proves to be an immense talent. She does make her best products while playing the role of a pop siren, which happens less often than we could have assumed from her single choices. She has the power to compete with bigger production, so it would be nice to see her go all-out on more occasions. Even without many speaker-blowing songs, Unbreakable Smile is a compelling introduction to Tori Kelly. Melismatic belts and tongue-twisting verses construe Kelly as a hybrid of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and (an elegant reincarnate of) Kesha Sebert, but a humble attitude and singer-songwriter tendencies are promising signs of a fresh, unique star in the making.

Unbreakable Smile is out now under Capitol Records. Exclusive deluxe editions can be found at Target department stores and digitally through iTunes.

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