October 4, 2016

EP: Ravyn Lenae - Moon Shoes

Ravyn Lenae's Moon Shoes proves she's one of Chicago's emerging talents.

Too often when we hear about Chicago’s South Side, we’re fed a bleak, one-dimensional montage of a violence-drenched “Chiraq,” embodied musically by the abrasive sounds and aggressively grim lyrics of drill rap. But recently, a new vanguard of young artists from the area are changing that perception. Instead, they're creating lush, introspective gospel and soul-influenced hip hop with a lightness of spirit that reminds the listener just how much we need youthful optimism, especially in dark times. The most prominent figures in this burgeoning scene are Chance the Rapper and his frequent collaborators The Social Experiment, a free-jazz collective led by Donnie Trumpet. It’s important to recognize that the richness of Chicago’s music scene can’t be boiled down to these two camps, as Leor Galil pointed out in a really great op-ed for the Chicago Reader that dives deeper into the city’s nuanced music culture. But in 2016, when you think Chicago, you think Chance. He’s undeniably one of the biggest names in rap today; he puts on for his city, and his successes have brought attention to the tightly-knit local scene that includes Noname, Saba, and now Ravyn Lenae, a smoky-voiced neo-soul singer whose recently re-released debut EP Moon Shoes establishes her as a force to be reckoned with.

At only seventeen, Ravyn Lenae’s already knocked out features on Noname’s excellent debut mixtape and a verse on a KAYTRANADA-produced Mick Jenkins track. As part of Chicago’s Zero Fatigue collective, she often collaborates with Monte Booker of taste-making internet label Soulection. But it’s on Moon Shoes that Lenae has the space to fully embrace a sound that’s uniquely hers – layered vocals floating delicately over Booker’s hazy, stuttering production in songs that sound like daydreams. A student of classical music at a prestigious arts high school, Lenae has shaped her music to be her vehicle for exploring less conventional ways to flex her impressive voice. On opener “Venezuela Trains," she weaves together harmonies and airy, percussive ad-libs, building until the refrain, “Tell me if the world is falling, you will be the one I’m calling” feels like a plea to be saved from drowning in her own thoughts. On Moon Shoes’ standout track – the groovy, pulsating “Free Room (feat. Appleby)” – she lets loose, alternating between a mischievous half-sung/half-rapped refrain and a staccato falsetto that runs up and down the scale and melts into the beat. She blends in conversational musing, whimsical scatting, and even a giggle or two with cheeky nonchalance that complements the carefree lyrics. With its bright “hello, hello” hook, the sweet ode to young love “Greetings” wouldn’t feel out of place on Erykah Badu’s playful “But You Cain’t Use My Phone” mixtape.

Delightfully lighthearted moments like these sneak onto the album elsewhere: on “Recess,” a vividly nostalgic recollection of a simpler youth, there’s a story about using a Crunch bar to strike up a friendship that makes me smile every time I hear it. But overall, “Recess” – and Moon Shoes as a whole – is melancholy; the work of a teenager musing her way through the darker parts of growing up. Moon Shoes isn’t a political album, and Ravyn Lenae has said that being from the South Side hasn’t explicitly informed her music. But her work, and that of her peers, celebrates the richness of a Chicago that we often don’t get to see much of – young, incredibly talented artists who are defiantly carefree at times, and moodily insightful at others. And if you subscribe to the notion that the personal is political, then Moon Shoes certainly makes a statement.


Listen to Ravyn Lenae on soundcloud.

Laura Lyons is deleting regrettable tweets right now. She lives in Brooklyn, works at an indie label, and co-hosts a podcast called Yum Cha, which you can listen to every Wednesday from 10-11PM on KPISS.fm. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @lyonsss.