Debut album features an unforgettable fusion of sound
Ever since its release in October 2019, I’ve been hooked on Leslie Odom Jr.’s debut album Mr. It’s a gorgeous piece of artーindescribably funky, fun, thoughtful, and brilliant. You really should just listen to it, but here’s my best pitch: Mr is a breathtaking, genre-bending jazz-pop fusion stunningly crafted as a love letter to big band, pop, R&B, and Broadway.
Here’s the breakdown. The name Leslie Odom Jr. probably sounds familiar because of that rather obscure and insignificant 2015 musical about a few long-dead politicians. You guessed it: Hamilton. Odom played Aaron Burr in the Original Broadway Cast, instantly capturing America’s heart with stunning vocals and a dynamic portrayal of the sympathetic antagonist Aaron Burr. After winning a Tony and a Grammy for his performance on Broadway, Odom reaffirms his artistic versatility with Mr.
As shared in several interviews, Odom began work on the album seeking to create the music that “Nat King Cole might sing in today’s world.” Odom’s love for Cole’s music permeates the album, evident from the opening of the first track. But despite the prominence of this older sound, Odom’s album certainly belongs to today. He borrows elements from early jazz and big band (Cab Calloway, anyone?), but weaves them together with pop and R&B elements. The result? A fresh sound conscious of its heritage. For example, just give a listen to “Standards,” where nostalgic jazz standard meets contemporary power ballad.
Odom’s debut album is unapologetically exploratory, combining and alternating between genres and often offering a fresh take on a well-established sound. For example, the first song of the album, “Stronger Magic,” starts like a Nat King Cole or Sinatra number. It has smooth piano, brass, a walking bass, but within a minute sounds like something straight out of a spacey new age soundtrack. The song blends and bends, one moment modern and techno, nostalgic and jazzy the next. And somehow it works.
The brilliance of this album lies not only in its stylistic fluidity, but also relies on Odom’s vocal versatility. Displaying both an atmospheric and vulnerable falsetto and the full, rich timbre of his lower register, Odom captures a wide range of emotions throughout the album. Case in point: “Go Crazy” (one of my personal favorites) displays Odom’s bold and earthy tone, but the following song, “u r my everything,” abruptly changes the album’s trajectory as Odom croons about his true love.
Mr doesn’t just rely on Odom’s vocals and musical stylings; his lyrics, like his sound, are both timeless and timely, greatly contributing to the artistic success of the album. He captures love in a variety of moods: desiring, wondering, searching, and rejoicing. Odom doesn’t shrink from the hard parts of love. In fact, this is exactly what he tackles in the gentle ballad “Foggy,” as he writes: “Oh, running in the rat race / I forgot to make the time and space / For us to be just you and me.” This man is honest, hopeful, and heinously talented.
And it’s not just romantic love that Odom showcases in Mr. “Hummingbird” is dedicated to his young daughter, and the track begins with the sound of her laugh. It’s a spin-around-the-room, can’t-keep-from-smiling love letter to the light of his life.
Odom also artfully explores issues of race. “Remember Black” is perhaps the most enigmatic and memorable song of the album, weaving through a variety of musical styles heavily influenced by African-American artists throughout history. The song explicitly addresses the past and present, a topic explored throughout the album.As the song evolves, Odom speaks to the listener, singing, “You ain’t got to give it back, just remember black,” calling for a greater acknowledgement of the African-American community’s role in American music. The song is a powerful testament to both Odom’s musicality and his message, serving as a fitting penultimate number on the album.
As a piece of art, Mr is unlike other contemporary albums. Odom evokes nostalgia while presenting something completely novel. His thoughtful songwriting showcases the voice America fell in love with on stage and allows for a full range of artistic expression. And the exploratory nature of the album fits this post-Hamilton time in Odom’s life. In some ways, this is Odom’s take on Hamilton, for ー like the ground-breaking musical ー Mr is a homage to the past told in today’s language. Odom has defined this album through a unique blend of genres, his vocal versatility, and evocative lyrics. Give Mr a listen — you won’t regret it.
Byline: Mary Frances Myler is a sophomore in the Program of Liberal Studies with a minor in theology. She often listens to the same playlists over and over again. Help her to break out of this musical rut by suggesting songs to firstname.lastname@example.org.