Chloe x Halle, the sister duo hailing from Atlanta, are a rare convergence of unfiltered, innate talent and a work ethic to boot. It’s no surprise Beyoncé signed the duo to her Parkwood imprint, after coming across their viral YouTube rendering of her song ‘Pretty Hurts’. They remain the only act still on the roster, from the three Beyoncé initially signed back in 2015.
Chloe x Halle have marched to their own idiosyncratic beat since they arrived on the scene. Their own trajectory thus far has been steady but deliberate; the antithesis to their more commercially-leaning peers who peak too soon and lose momentum with future releases. Early projects: an EP 'Sugar Symphony', a mixtape titled 'The Two Of Us', and their 2018 debut LP, 'The Kids Are Alright', distorted the conventions of modern R&B with finesse, sitting somewhere in the environs of the genre with the likes of SZA, Ravyn Lenae and Syd.
Their inventiveness countered the wave of homogeneity and the sonic gloom pervading the upper echelons of the charts, opting instead for a type of virtuous exuberance. Their first full-length garnered two Grammy nominations, positioning the duo as the new voices of Gen Z, with the promise that greater things were to come. Two years on, their sophomore effort, The Ungodly Hour, more than fulfils this promise. It lacks some of the DIY spirit of their earlier efforts, but benefits from navigating the trails of playability and experimentation, no more evident than on the Scott Storch-produced investiture into the sisterhood, ‘Do It’.
Much of 'The Ungodly Hour' is self-produced and self-written by Chloe x Halle – now aged 21 and 20 respectively – the former emerging as a virtuoso producer in her own right. This time round, with the help of a handful of collaborators, they branch out just enough so as to evolve their sound without distilling their personal ethos – the kinetic synergy between them.
Religious motifs are subtly interwoven into the fabric of the record: from overt references of devotion, to gospel overtures playing out stark confessionals. Roping in frequent Kendrick Lamar collaborator Sounwave for the opening two tracks, the album’s hymn-like ‘Intro’ centres their new tenet: “Don’t ever ask for permission, ask for forgiveness”, segueing into ‘Forgive Me’, which evokes the bombast of Missy Elliott’s ‘All In My Grill’. A hip-hopera replete with synthetic strings and expletives, it’s their most audacious number to date. The shift into a duskier sonic terrain, with a grittier underbelly, features pleas for faux forgiveness – their very own “sorry, not sorry” stance – a proverbial middle finger up to the lovers they’ve spurned.
fWhen Chloe x Halle first teased the record with ‘Catch Up’, their gauzy, riff-heavy collaboration with Swae Lee, a small, vocal minority of the “standom” on Twitter criticised the duo’s “twee appeal” and their unwillingness to embrace the “darkside” the same way female RnB stars so often do. The Ungodly Hour doesn’t adhere to good-girl-gone-bad tropes, that age-old changeover from wide-eyed teen sensations to risqué provocateurs. The omnipresent sexualization by labels, managers and media alike, decreed predominantly by men at the helm as a prelude to lasting success, is not something Chloe x Halle have to contend with or even entertain.
Still at the dawn of their careers, Chloe x Halle fashion their art in their own image, one that languishes in the youthful impulsiveness when one comes of age, upping the Grown Factor just enough with wry, diary-like annotations: unsolicited pictures from fuck boys (‘Busy Boy’), the art of solitude (‘Lonely’) but most importantly, reconciling the vulnerability of womanhood with the angst of their younger, more impressionable selves (‘Baby Girl’). The title track, produced and co-written with fellow siblings Howard and Guy Lawrence aka Disclosure, is the centrepiece of the record: a downtempo, soporific ode to young love, compromise and self-actualization. It’s easily the highlight (along with ‘Forgive Me’), a crossover number so suited to the strength of Chloe x Halle’s lilting voices, particularly Halle’s wraithlike vocal acrobatics as the number climaxes.
Chloe x Halle’s gorgeously-rendered harmonic interplay elevates even middling tracks like ‘Tipsy’. An acute understanding of the contours and shades of one another’s voice, means each track is anchored by ornate vocal intricacies. They eschew the sheen of effects and studio trickery in favour of raw delivery. In the hands of lesser vocalists, the part power ballad/part music soundtrack, ‘Wonder What She Thinks Of Me’, would have missed the mark, but the duo soar to new heights over a stunning string composition courtesy of the masterful Derek Dixie (Beyoncé’s chief composer on the excellent compilation album The Gift).
'The Ungodly Hour' serves as the spiritual companion piece to their debut. It’s not a full-bore masterwork: the first half of the record packs a stronger punch than the latter. But it’s a more cohesive, complete listen as a result of tighter sequencing. The Ungodly Hour is a soothing salve for a world on fire. It’s an avowal of sisterhood and sorority, a projection of a generation of young black women galvanized by a collective willingness to enact efficacious change in the face of adversity. Chloe x Halle are the prototypal embodiment of the “black girl magic” hashtag – never more prescient in a time when we need figures to aspire to.
Words: Shahzaib Hussain
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