There’s been no shortage of neo-R&B albums over the past few years, but so many of them are led by breathy female singers who feel like they’re singing in your ear — very few have had full-voiced singers at the forefront.
And although Muni Long isn’t a belter and does put on the bedroom voice on a couple of tracks, her first full-length album is a blast of vintage ‘90s R&B that isn’t trying to be cute: It’s filled with frank lyrics about of love and sex from an artist who’s been around for more than a minute. Working under the name of Priscilla Renea, Muni has long been a songwriter whose soul and pop smarts helped forge hits such as Ariana Grande’s “Imagine,” Fifth Harmony’s “Worth It,” Rihanna’s “California King Bed,” along with tracks for Mariah Carey, Kelly Clarkson, Madonna, Mary J. Blige, Miranda Lambert, Selena Gomez and more.
She released strong albums under that name too — 2009’s “Jukebox” and 2018’s “Coloured” — but neither of those records had the sparkle, innovation and warmth that her songwriting catalog contained. A change of name, an independently-released EP featuring the haunting, quirky hit “Hrs and Hrs,” and suddenly, Muni Long is a new artist with a remarkably seasoned and strong debut album.
There’s a reason Long calls her publishing company Keep It Simple Stupid Music: The concept of “deceptively simple” that made the spare “Hrs and Hrs” such a killer is all over “Public Displays of Affection.”
Starting with a Moog fugue that recalls ‘70s Stevie Wonder, “Conversation” maximizes its minimalist melody, synth-slap rhythm and short duration by pushing Long’s elastic vocal runs up-front in the mix. And as her new-ish name says, love is the main ingredient when it comes to subject matter: Romantic love, lost love, carnal love and love that might be based on something other than love: “Babe, it’s either with your heart or with your credit card, and I love Cartier,” she sings in “Cartier” — and although love-or-money is as old as Shakespeare, Long sly sense of humor feels fresh, and its spacious bump-and-grind is open and graceful. Then there’s “Crack,” the title (and subject) of which is not subtle but is definitely effective. Other Muni moments like “Ain’t Easy” look at the “cognitive dissonance” between just-sex and real love, but “Crack” is the real, raw deal.
Long faces past heartbreak by calling out those who’ve wronged her on “To Do List” and “Plot Twist,” and better still, “Time Machine.” Here, Long lowers her octave once more to the accompaniment of a tick-tock’s pulse for an unapologetic discussion of a romance not- well-spent (“The good girls make bad decisions/Like fuckin’ with all the bad boys who fuck all the women”). The softer-sounding “No R&B Shit” also carries a big stick (actually, a machete) and a bigger grudge as one woman calls out another for blatantly stealing her man.
Saving the best for the last of this 18-track album, Long and guest singer Saweetie lift their voices to a danceable heat for “Baby Boo.” Espousing their devotion to the art of love, the joy of unabashed obsession and the thrill of finding someone beyond “a crush,” going from 17 slow and mid-tempo songs to the rush of something hyper and flitting truly works toward creating a sense of crescendo — and closing out this long, luxurious album with a bang(er).