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WPGM Recommends: Roy Woods – Waking At Dawn (Album Review)

roy woods waking at dawn
If you’re an avid follower of Drake and his label OVO Sound, then I’m sure you’re familiar with Roy Woods. Along with PARTYNEXTDOOR, Majid Jordan and dvsn, he’s tipped to help lead this era of sultry, seedy R&B. After The Weeknd signed for Universal, Drake was left to replicate his success by discovering hot new superstar quality talent. Along with his search for talent came the eerily similar wave of The Weeknd’s sound.

There is no doubt that OVO Sound have borrowed from the fellow Toronto native, and are attemptively carving out their own lane. When PARTYNEXTDOOR first appeared, forums and comment sections were littered with ‘He’s a The Weeknd copycat’ and they weren’t necessarily wrong. PARTYNEXTDOOR doesn’t really differentiate from Abel Tesfaye, while he’s finding his own success with writing credits for Rihanna’s “Work”, his solo efforts haven’t really set the world on fire.

The other artists that I’ve mentioned have suffered a similar fate, they all fall under the umbrella of this moody, gritty music within a self-contained world influenced by their city. Both Majid Jordan and dvsn have released their debut albums this year to varying degrees of acclaim, yet they both failed to impact the charts. Despite OVO Sound’s cavalier approach, they’re still pushing forward and this time it’s Roy Woods turn to take the stage.

Roy Woods burst onto the scene last year, after his debut single “Drama” premiered on Apple Music’s Beats 1. His debut EP followed soon after, titled Exis. Now, not even a year later, Woods has released Waking at Dawn, a succinct and powerful ode to his influences that helped birth him.

In 2014, during an interview, Woods cited his influences as Michael Jackson, Drake, Nelly, The Weeknd and PARTYNEXTDOOR. It comes as no surprise that influences from the three Canadian artists Drake, The Weeknd and PARTYNEXTDOOR ooze throughout his debut. In this case, it’s a good thing and here’s why.

Waking At Dawn is a contender for album of the Summer with ease and it has the potential to land a spot on the end of year lists. It’s a great debut album which unlike others before him, builds on his musical forebearers, creating his own sound within a much bigger, murkier pool of artistry.

As soon as the first track, “Sonic Boom” kicks in, it’s apparent the type of journey we’re going on. The drums gently build up beneath a hazy instrumental, acting as a thick backdrop while Woods’ vocals creep in. The beat then takes charge, while keeping at a slow, effective pace. The impact is immediate, Woods’ vocals sound wounded, and ‘faded’, contributing to the woozy atmosphere.

The production on the vocals sets the tone of the record and strengthens Woods’ vocal prowess. When his voice wobbles, the reverb soaks his chords, bolstering the downtrodden and pained expression of emotion he’s clearly trying to evoke. Usually you’d expect the artist to take that introduction and run with it, using its sound as a blueprint for what follows. While that may be true to a degree, there’s enough variation and experimentation with the album’s overall sound to carry it until the final tracks (where it begins to stutter, just a little bit).

The first instance of diversity is the lead single “Gwan Big up Urself”, a clear-cut Summer anthem built on Caribbean influences. The beat is light and airy, allowing Woods’ accented words to flow effortlessly. I’ll admit it, at first I wasn’t so sure about this track and I think a lot of people will feel the same. It walks the line between being the sum of a cultural influence to a parody, Woods’ accent can sound a bit ‘put on’. It may walk the line but it’s a fun, carefree track and that’s to be admired.

After that we’re back to the slick R&B jams with a triumphant four track streak, starting with “How I Feel” to “Got Me”. “How I Feel” is a late-night banger with a slick beat, it’s simplistic and designed to serenade the listener. This is the first track where Woods shows some vocal versatility, too. He flexes his vocals, demonstrating his ability to convey emotion with sincerity.

Throughout “How I Feel” his voice has tones of aggression, adding to the brooding nature of the track, there’s something about the track as a whole which is hard to place but it possesses a moving quality. The following tracks share similar traits, the aggression, the sincerity, the sultry melodies showcasing Woods’ vulnerability. These four songs exude a softness unseen from Woods but it isn’t a sorry affair, there’s bite and it’s those splashes of character that really make Waking at Dawn the project that it is.

The trailblazing streak ends on “Got Me”, a sensual tale of lustful youth. Musically, it’s a slow affair, the synth echoes 80s R&B while it’s surrounded by a thick, swift twang of piano keys. Its foundation is overlayed by the boom-baps of summery inspired drums and snares exploding during the chorus, resulting in a bouncy, frenetic and ridiculously catchy experience. This is Waking at Dawn’s sex anthem.

Once the track fades out, the album changes pace, to a more calm, slow-burning experience. The instrumentals become more overbearing, somehow getting progressively hazy as the minutes pass by. Woods’ vocals swirl and croon, portraying himself as a hurt lothario. It all comes together to create a jarring experience, as I mentioned earlier, the latter half of the album is where it begins to gradually grind to a halt.

Why” begins to set the tone for a sombre albeit drawn out finale. The slower songs bubble with desperation and difficult subject matter, proving too much for Woods’ lyricism. It comes across as shallow and disingenuous, which is a shame, and “Why”, in particular, is dullness exemplified.

The bludgeoning, bass fuelled beat doesn’t do it any favours when accompanied with monotonous vocal melodies, and although it’s generally inoffensive, it feels worse compared to the prior displays of excellent artistry. It doesn’t get any better, with “Menace” being the worst offender on the album. It’s supposed to be the heartfelt ‘I’m sorry, I did wrong’ track but it completely falls flat.

The fact it’s a mess is bewildering because his vocals shine on that track, and again, the beat is lacklustre amounting to an irritating buzz with tiresome 1-2 snares. It also features one of the worst lines of the entire album, “These problems, I can’t have ’em, I can’t solve it // Feel I should pull out the revolver// It’s fucked how I’ve been feeling suicidal // Maybe I should reach for the Bible // I’m still my only rival“. It leaves a sour taste.

Waking At Dawn’s swansong picks up where “Got Me” left off in terms of quality. It’s a much needed return to form. “She Knows About Me” embodies everything Woods does right on his debut, and it ends the album perfectly. It even manages to repair the damage of “Menace”. The final minute is a dreamy, sultry finale propelled by passionate vocals and body-swaying guitars that echo underneath a watery sounding synth, leading us to the albums end, softly. It mirrors the way the album begun.

All-in-all, Roy Woods has delivered a strong effort, it’s cohesive and consistent (up until a point) and even then, he manages to recover. He’s taken this sound and made it his own and although there are flairs and notable moments of imitation, it’s done to such a degree that it boosts the album, rather than hindering it. There’s enough personality to carry the album and the emotion that’s conveyed strengthens Woods’ legitimacy as an artist. He wears his influences and talents on his sleeve, and he wears them well. He is one for the future, possessing the potential to be big, only if OVO Sound push him.

Like the others before him, Roy Woods’ debut is a coming of age story in the world of fame, it’s a young man’s journey and exploration of love. It brings to the surface all the situations and emotional experiences that’s been a part of his life so far. At its best, Waking At Dawn is a soul-stirring tale told through the eyes of a pill-popping, enthusiastic young man taking in the beautiful women, bright lights and searing sunrises.

Even at its worse, there are emotionally affective moments akin to a dark, chaotic drug-fuelled romp that would bring out the worst in anyone. Waking At Dawn is youth’s bright flame in and amongst a world of parties that never end, fast cars and heartbreak. Out now on OVO Sound/Warner Bros. Records, purchase Roy Woods’ Waking At Dawn album on iTunes here.

Words by Jake Gould

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