The title of Banks’ fourth album, ‘Serpentina’, speaks to a kind of reinvention. Conjuring up imagery of a snake shedding their skin, it’s fitting for a record that sees the Californian artist switch things up. This is the first time she’s released an album via AWAL, the Sony-back label that aims to help artists maintain creative independence; she takes on full control of the production, her trademark sound fused with new genres.
This reinvention is coupled with resilience – ‘Serpentina’ first started to take shape after a series of personal struggles. In 2019, Banks released her stellar third album ‘III’, but the ensuing tour proved brutal. Diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease – an autoimmune disorder – and suffering from a fractured spine, Banks found life on the road extremely tough. When she arrived home in early 2020, she began to suffer from anxiety attacks.
It was, in part, work on ‘Serpentina’ that helped her pull through – and this strength permeates the record. “Please let me be misunderstood”, she demands on album opener ‘Misunderstood’, while on the rousing ‘Spirit’ she declares: “When I feel like / Feel like giving up / Something in my spirit tells me I ain’t had enough”.
Over the course of her past three records, Banks has curated a distinctive, electronic alt-R&B soundscape: lush vocals and woozy production accompanying unafraid lyrics (on 2019 tune ‘Gimme’ she boldly stated: “You can call me that bitch”). Here, her signature sound benefits from new influences. The aforementioned ‘Spirit’, a collaboration with New York-based singer-songwriter SAMOHT, is a gorgeous, gospel-indebted cut; ‘The Devil’, meanwhile, evokes the hushed electro-pop of Billie Eilish‘s ‘Bad Guy’. The production is typically dramatic: trappy beats are combined with bleeping synths (‘Fuck Love’) and chanted vocals gradually build over hand claps (‘Meteorite’).
These instants of confidence are juxtaposed with subtler offerings. Piano-led ballad ‘Burn’ marks one of the record’s more affecting moments, as Banks promises to stand by a struggling partner: “I’ll be here just in case you decide you want some help.” Occasionally, understated tracks get lost among their brighter peers: even the throbbing beats of ‘Unleavable’, nestled between string-led floor-filler ‘Anything 4 U’ and vulnerable closer ‘I Still Love You’, can’t prevent it from fading into the background.
For the most part, though, ‘Serpentina’ is a welcome reintroduction to the artist and a cathartic ode to doing things your own way. Midway through ‘Spirit’, she sings: “Fuck anyone who tells you you cant do it / You don’t need it”. Listening to ‘Serpentina’, you sense that Banks’ has confidently taken her own advice.
Release date: April 8
Record label: AWAL