Recording information: 4220 Feng Shui Studios, Hollywood, CA; Lyttleton Carter, Instrument Zoo, Los Angeles, CA.
Photographers: Tai Linzie; Dove Shore.
When the O'Jays-sampling, Common-featuring "X.O.X." was released by Def Jam in 2013, Elijah Blake was a rather new name in R&B. The young man behind that alias, born Sean Fenton and also known as Redd Stylez, had been around for several years, however, as a songwriter and artist. At that moment, his greatest accomplishment was the co-composition of "Climax," a number one R&B hit that earned Usher a Grammy for Best R&B Performance. Blake also had a hand in Marsha Ambrosius' "Cold War," an excellent non-album track that should have been as popular as later Tamar Braxton hit "Love and War." Over two years in the making, Shadows & Diamonds also follows an appearance on Common's Nobody's Smiling, an introductory 2014 EP titled Drift, and additional material written for Trey Songz, Keyshia Cole, and Rihanna, among others. Blake is called upon to pen hits, and is signed to Def Jam, so his solo work here is naturally heavy on the type of blunt, brow-raising, dramatic content heard on high-wattage radio stations. Superficial relationships and intoxication fuel much of it. His girlfriend walks in on him cheating with his ex, then snags her ("The Otherside"). Perhaps said ex had bailed after she was asked to keep her mouth shut and spread her legs ("I Just Wanna..."). Later on, a faltering relationship -- or the condition in which it exists -- is likened to the final battle between good and evil ("Armageddon"). For all its traits that are standard for mid-2010s pop-R&B, Shadows & Diamonds is one of the more promising debuts in its field. Blake can tell a story and isn't above humbling himself, and he's equipped with a voice that can express anguish and delight with small changes in inflection. Another quality that makes this album distinct is an uncommon combination of slightly gritty sonics and reverb heard within many of the tracks. There's more to appreciate here than what's on the surface. ~ Andy Kellman