Spencer. – ‘Are U Down?’ review: heartbreak and joy sweetened with deep grooves

Sharp production skills and musings on city life converge on the 22-year-old’s debut album

Making music that reckons with life inside a big, sprawling city has to demand some level of cynicism. For Spencer., who moved to Brooklyn in 2019, this sentiment is certainly true: on his debut album ‘Are U Down?’, the experimental singer-songwriter vividly paints his feelings of heartbreak, lust and longing, while remaining passionate about the transformative powers of New York City.

Out of his apartment, Spencer. taped vocals and put together the instrumental parts for ‘Are U Down?’, and its rotation of vibrant R&B, funk, and pop flourishes falls in sync with the bustling setting in which it was recorded. He sings about how he’s made up of the people that have passed through the city: the groovy ‘Lonely As I Ever Was’ is a quietly biting message to an ex that’s moved on. “Girl you know what lonely does/You make me jealous/And I think I know you won,” he laments, before showing off a flexible range that extends from pitched-down vocals to a heady falsetto.

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‘MyLuv’ has the opposite effect – an optimistic jam that asks what it means to belong to somebody over buoyant trumpet solos and shuffling hi-hats. Both moments are captivating, and showcase how Spencer. uses these tracks to detail his inner conflict of how daunting and inspiring it is to be part of something ever-changing.

Spencer.’s own rhythmically adventurous production provides the perfect backdrop for him to hone his delivery, whether he’s mumbling through his gleaming Becky and The Birds collaboration ‘After The Show’ – a sultry tale that two-steps through inner-city parties and late night misadventures spent “smoking tree” – or flexing a rasp on ‘No Direction’. His combinations of muted funk licks and warm bass grooves create a dusky atmosphere that feels akin to walking down a busy street at sunset.

A handful of uneven moments threaten to undermine Spencer.’s strongest songs. While a penchant for keeping things sharp and concise is compelling elsewhere, ‘staywmecassette’ – a soothing paean to finding pockets of freedom in your surroundings via a new partner – deserves to be longer than its mere runtime of two minutes. ‘U Around’ runs into a similar problem, starting off with swirling, dreamy beats before disintegrating into monotonous percussion.

But Spencer.’s gift is in how he has made a coming-of-age album on his own self-assured terms. His observations on how love can both crumble and blossom within a city as storied as New York are immediate and self-aware – and most importantly – endearingly hopeful.

Details

  • Release date: September 10
  • Record label: 4AD
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