Stevan – ‘Ontogeny’ review: Bold second mixtape from rising psych ’n’ B star

The Wollongong up-and-comer shows a rawer side on his second project for 2020 – this time drawing on trap and electronic influences

The Wollongong prodigy Stevan has had an industrious 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. In June, he delivered his debut mixtape, ‘Just Kids’ – officially introducing a summery psych ’n’ B aesthetic with charmingly sentimental and buoyant songs chronicling his teen years.

Now, surprisingly, he’s rolled-out an arty follow-up in ‘Ontogeny’. Stevan reorients himself sonically, flirting with ambient trap. But the crooner also delves deeper, revealing self-doubts and social anxieties as he enters adulthood. ‘Ontogeny’ is pensive; even emo.

With just seven tracks, ‘Ontogeny’ is compact, too. The title is a biology term for the development of an individual organism. Stevan made ‘Just Kids’ as a bedroom virtuoso – writing the songs, playing all the instruments, and exclusively handling the production. In contrast, ‘Ontogeny’ is collaborative. Stevan has linked with the Melbourne-based beatmaker Lucianblomkamp, who has credits for Atlanta’s Grammy-nominated phenom 6LACK. And, in fact, Stevan had already been venturing out: between projects, he united with Sydney combo Cosmo’s Midnight for ‘Yesteryear’’s reggae-leaning ‘Ice’.

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Stevan is often compared to the avant-soul auteur Frank Ocean, but he’s likewise name-checked Mac DeMarco. And, since 2019’s early single ‘Timee’, he’s expanded his future-R&B paradigm. Stevan shares the indie-pop sensibilities of the underrated Theophilus London, with flecks of ska, surf-pop and shoegaze. In some ways, his music harks back to New Wave bands such as Haircut One Hundred and their later counterparts The Drums and The Holidays. And Jaden Smith’s recent material also curiously sounds like Stevan.

On ‘Ontogeny’, Stevan gravitates to the tougher influences of trap soul, cloud rap and electronica. Yet the set is less about genre than ethos – its mood stormy, rather than breezy. There are still bops. On ‘Impress You’ – rhythmic indie with Stevan’s signature harmonies and serene synths rolling over a tidal bassline and choppy drum beats – he questions masculine cultural codes (“drinking poison like it’s cool” at a party) while despondent about an unrequited crush.

‘SIA’ finds Stevan moving on from a relationship by avoiding the very sight of an ex – in the process realising his inner strength (the song’s title is a figurative reference to Australian superstar Sia, infamous for concealing her face with giant wigs). Airy and subliminal, ‘SIA’ pivots on shuffly electro percussion similar to Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’. Stevan then rises above haters on the resolute ‘Onyx’, which has a beat switch Travis Scott might envy: mellow R&B snapping into a stomping groove, carried by reverb-y bass.

A hopeful Stevan lets down his guard with a love interest on ‘More Than Them’ – the closest he comes to trap, combining Auto-Tuned vocals and gentle guitar, Khalid-style. The tuneful ‘OVA’ could be an unplugged Rex Orange County ballad – but, as Stevan laments his affections being toyed with, he adds a swing and channels Tyler, The Creator’s flow. The cruisy finale ‘Car’ is like a contemporised Bangles jangle-pop anthem, and is ‘Ontogeny’’s hookiest moment.

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Stevan may express his insecurities, but musically he’s only grown in creative assurance and freedom. ‘Ontogeny’ signals a rapid progression from an artist determined not to settle as he establishes his own fluid pop identity.

Details

Stevan new mixtape Ontogeny
  • Release date: November 20
  • Record label: Astral People Recordings
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