Anna Wise has long been one of the best-kept secrets in contemporary music. While her voice is culturally ubiquitous as the primary foil in some near-dozen Kendrick Lamar singles, including his breakthrough "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe" and the Grammy-winning "These Walls," the music she’s released independently has flown relatively under the radar. With Wise, Kendrick found not only an immersive, dextrous vocal presence to drench over his bluesy soliloquies, but a kindred spirit in studious eclecticism. Ready to give herself to all varieties of musical ideas, she delivers with her band Sonnymoon on everything from shimmering neo-soul to ghoulish electro-folk, always with an entrancing glassy-eyed confidence.
Her solo career has since translated the lovely, low-key simmer of her previous work into avant-pop defined by a steely resolve and detached humor, gradually working toward a singular sound that has been both clarified and amplified on her official debut studio album As If It Were Forever. But whereas past projects have presented the acuity of Wise's songwriting in mood-board character studies on tragicomic communal experiences, as on the sunglasses-adorned kiss-off "Stacking That Paper" and the insightfully inciting "BitchSlut," her full-length statement presents itself as something more individual and intrinsically intimate. She’s said that with As If It Were Forever, "I've turned the mirror around on myself. I’m analyzing my identity, my interactions, my healing."
The image she reveals can be hard to pin down. The first words of the album are, “Sometimes I lie, mostly to myself,” a six-word admission she stretches out over 10 full seconds atop a bassline that sounds like a warm-up from the Untitled Unmastered sessions. On the song actually titled “Mirror,” her reflection is pegged in relation to her partner, rather than standing alone. The common thread of these 12 songs is that they fold her sense of self into the ways that self engages with lovers and those who seek to be.
But while she pays respects to the forces that have shaped her, her primary focus is taking stock of everything those exchanges have left her with. “Count My Blessings” finds Wise doing just that. Meanwhile, “Nerve" is a celebration of her decision to risk security for independence, preferring the uncertain search for unreserved engagement than to remain shackled by what she’s already given herself to. She draws her power from no longer thinking of her life as a sunk-cost, refusing to deny her own resilience and self-determination. At one point she builds a hook around the incantatory intonation, “Love yourself, pleeeeeeeeeease,” elsewhere on “If you can see it, then you know that you can get it on the way.”
These reminders are pulled from chronicles of power dynamics unsettled by ill-fitting perceptions that calcify into exacting expectations. “How can you desire me then have no desire for me?” she sings on “Abracadabra,” an inquisition that solidifies a few songs later into an ultimatum: “Don’t take my hand if you’re not sure of what you want.” In each case, she’s unshakeable in her truth, having had enough love in her life to know what is and isn’t the love of her life. Likewise, when a relationship is going well she embraces it without equivocation, penning in measured euphoria that “several doors are open / all of them divine ... suddenly I’m singing / you were by my side.” The music highlights the message of luxuriating in your center of gravity, gradually pulsing with a warmth that looks and feels like a vast bath cast in ultraviolet light.
The album imbues Wise's softly anthemic R&B with a refined playfulness. The antecedent is last year’s geovariance, an informal joint tape with Jon Bap that lit a spark using found sound, tape delay, and unpredictable loops that were serrated but loose. Here, those pieces click more purposefully into place. The songs sound live — you can feel the close-fit, nocturnal rooms they’re best suited for on the reverberated edges of the instrumentation — but they’re also forged by sleights of production that cast an atmosphere of magical realism, knowingly manipulated but also so naturally executed it might slip your mind that reality doesn’t actually sound like this.
That mood sustains throughout, sequenced so cohesively it makes for Wise’s most consistent project to date, yet still leaves room for her to display her remarkable range. "Nerve" is a jittering composite of off-the-cuff backbeats and whimsical adlibs, in contrast to the proceeding single "What’s Up With You?" a stylistic anachronism and patient lounge tune inscribing the non-negotiable significance of female pleasure. Where you might have heard a slight snarl behind her cooly composed rebuffs from The Feminine series, here you’re more likely to pick up on a coy sardonicism. She offers deft humor in moments when the music feels like it’s exhausting a sigh, buried beneath her breathy vocals in lithe, crafty turns of phrase.
Her approach befits an irresistibly unreliable narrator, drawing you in by leaving just enough out. Opener “Worms Playground” finds relief in understanding the end journey of Wise’s personal growth to be decomposing flesh, a process she both brushes off and reveres as a “return to mother.” Her singing is resigned yet unperturbed when she sings about how “In time you won’t change / You will reveal,” an existential matter of fact she presents as neither good nor bad. Similarly ambivalent yet beautiful is the interlude-esque “One Of Those Changes Is You,” where the also metaphysically inclined Pink Siifu delivers the title repeatedly in a folksy flow, framing it as some kind of rocking chair poetry.
That track demonstrates one of Wise’s most worthwhile gifts, the skill to which she is able to fit others into her increasingly one-of-kind universe. As If It Were Forever is an album of dynamic collaborations with a savvy spectrum of artists ranging from rap iconoclasts Denzel Curry and Little Simz to bubblegum psychedelic strummers Nick Hamik and Bap to cosmic poets like Sid Sriram and the aforementioned Pink Siifu. Yet none of them take over the compositions, which with their unhurried tempos and keenly executed transitions elongate out like a single, continuous song.
Some of the resulting textures remind me of Jai Paul, especially “Vivre d'Amour et d'Eau Fraîche,” which layers Wise’s pitch-shifted vocal harmonies and sparing guitar chords to mimic the wobbly sensation of falling in love. The percussive backbone of “Count My Blessings” allows Curry to do his typically lucid rapping over a composition that otherwise employs ribbon-like bass and see-sawing synths akin to Men I Trust. Both songs feature their guest vocalist taking lead on the majority of the track, yet Wise never simply fades into the background; she adds contour, providing the surfaces that give the other voices shape, still leaving enough of an imprint to turn her accents into focal points.
This is most clear on “Coming Home,” a song that comprises little beyond her voice blended into the surroundings. Wise presses against one another descending and ascending vocal tones to create a mellifluous friction reminiscent of Grouper, perhaps the highest watermark for open-ended splendor. As with Grouper, Wise’s music lingers with melodic tension, an effect she generates by stepping out onto the most natural note and then leaning in with enough pressure to bend it into awe-striking arrangements. It’s just one trick among her wide, adaptive skillset that suggests endless opportunities, continuing to leave the impression that she still has much left to offer beyond what we’ve only heard thus far.