An early contender for Album Of The Year….

serpentwithfeet - born Josiah Wise – made heartbreak his own with debut EP ‘blisters’ and 2018’s full-length ‘soil’, subverting matters of the heart into a primordial, fervent and intense concoction. A few years on, serpent brings forth ‘DEACON’, a body of work deliberate in its exploration of the breadth and depth of Black queer love, but also the pledges made through platonic relationships and chosen families. “This is the blessing of my thirties, spending less time worrying,” serpent, 32, sings on ‘Fellowship’, the Sampha and Lil Silva-assisted single, a tender chronicle of mutuality and permanency he experienced when he moved from New York to LA.

The kernel of story is in the title: ‘DEACON’, a serving member of the diaconate, a stately overseer presiding over his subjects. serpent’s gospel roots are still an undiluted feature, but where ‘soil’ filtered psalms and requiems through a churner to paint sanctified love as a darkly, all-encompassing deity - obsession and melodrama combined for maximum effect - ‘DEACON’ opts for the minimal, muted but no less majestic; the angsty, anxious feel of ‘soil’ substituted with an edifying clemency.

Album opener ‘Hyacinth’, sets the tone for the rapture of love that presides over much of the record, serpent weaving tales of lovers in-sync, entwined and in full bloom; album highlight ‘Heart Storm’, featuring Nu R&B powerhouse Nao, is a seismic collision of earthy, elemental love. serpent cements his position as one of the most creative and assiduous vocalists in music. His erudite understanding of vocal pedagogy (a hallmark of all the best R&B and soul songs of yesteryear) is exemplary and he pushes forward vocal production as a means for elaborate world-building, much the same way Brandy did in her heyday.

With ‘DEACON’, serpent reconfigures adult contemporary R&B for a new age. Mid-tempo ‘Amir’, with its moody Spanish guitar and epicurean wordplay, recalls early aughts serenades by Carl Thomas and Bilal but with a futurist sheen; ‘Malik’ delves into the repartee of southern charm – casual, cross-country hook-ups delivered with fondness and a wry smile. While DEACON seethes with sensuality, serpent’s openness never lets it devolve into licentiousness: on ‘Wood Boy’, he willingly relinquishes control to a lover, melting into scented ecstasy and on ‘Derrick’s Beard’, his morning-after reverie is elegiac and lulling.

‘DEACON’ is a triumph because it realises and relives love’s quiet, archived moments, be it romantic or spiritual. It’s a triumph because it reminds us R&B exists on a vast continuum, forever a source of inspiration and innovation. serpentwithfeet created ‘DEACON’ to celebrate companionships that bind the Black queer community together, but its message is universal; ‘DEACON’ celebrates love that is benevolent and bountiful and ultimately, restorative.


Words: Shahzaib Hussain

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