Omar Apollo – ‘Ivory’ review: silky songs dripping with serious drama

The Indiana-raised star's storytelling flair combines with emotionally rich alt-R&B, funk-pop and indie on this long-awaited debut

The very existence of Omar Apollo’s debut album is a minor miracle. The Mexican-American artist’s perfectionist mindset has, occasionally, been a hinderance: during the first pandemic-enforced lockdown, he scrapped the album demos he’d been working on, re-focused his approach to songwriting, and instead delivered 2020’s ‘Apolonio’. That 9-track effort was superbly rich and vibrant, full of youthful curiosity, personality and striking glimmers of humour, as demonstrated on steamy bedroom jam ‘Kamikaze’: “I ain’t really know you was freaky, though / Ass round like Cheerios”, he sung with a cheeky smirk.

Even though the project, plus its predecessors – 2018’s ‘Stereo’ EP and 2019’s ‘Friends’ EP – established the 24-year-old as a purposefully eclectic singer-songwriter, for Apollo, they were not enough. He wanted to make music he was “actually proud of”, and hunkered down in the studio in search of his next great idea. Enter the long-awaited ‘Ivory’: a collection of gorgeous, sultry songs that contend with the angst of feeling like you’re the only person who is truly awake and alive in an otherwise sleepy world.

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The exhaustive approach is apparent on ‘Ivory’: the arrangements are consistently lush and layered, while Apollo’s pleas of confusion, unrequited crushes and disappointments often evolve into glossy alt-R&B triumphs. Time, clearly, has been kind to him. On ‘Killing Me’, he observes an unravelling romance with hawk-eyed intensity (“Love me like I’m gonna die”), while the emotionally climatic ‘Invincible’, a tender collaboration with Toronto vocalist Daniel Caesar, makes the business of a protracted breakup romance feel like high-stakes drama. The title track, meanwhile, has him marvelling at the strength of the bond that ties him to a friend.

Apollo possesses a subtle experimental streak that’s strong enough to be distinct, but is complementary rather than disruptive. This comes to life when the hazy mood of this album occasionally breaks: ‘Talk’s scratchy riffs pay homage to his heroes, The Strokes – he has previously hit the studio with guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. – and ‘Tamagotchi’s bouncy melody is bolstered by pitch-shifted vocals and vivid, Pharrell-assisted production.

Throughout ‘Ivory’, Apollo’s goal is self-reflection. He does this with heart-wrenching specificity on Kali Uchis team-up ‘Bad Life’, which addresses the inner turmoil that accompanies moving on from a former lover, before reaching a cathartic breaking point on ‘Killing Me’, where romantic anxieties have caused him to “hold back feelings like it’s the end of my life”. 

So when the soaring ‘Go Away’ arrives, it feels breathtakingly uplifting. As Apollo sings of trying to make a long-distance relationship work, he sounds more determined than ever: the heart remains in the music, wounded by the past yet hopeful for the future.

Details

ivory Omar Apollo

  • Release date: April 8
  • Record label: Warner Records
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