The rise of H.E.R. has been a slow reveal; intent on becoming an unbridled voice for wounded hearts everywhere, H.E.R. initially chose to place the focus solely on her music, anonymously doling out nostalgic R&B in brief, poignant volumes. H.E.R., Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 provided a dynamic look at her vocal style, one which melds together the warm and familiar intonations of a number of recognizable R&B forebears. Her contemplative, angst-ridden lyricism rang with a universal truth. Since then, with each passing release, the put-on facade of Gabi Wilson has inched closer to the inevitable reality promised by her acronym (“Having Everything Revealed”).
I Used to Know Her: The Prelude EP, her latest offering – a 20-minute collection that feels familiar to H.E.R., Vol. 2 – The B Sides in form and in execution – is a teaser for her forthcoming studio debut. Where her first few EPs were eventually consolidated into a compilation tape, this EP’s existence promises us a fully realized album of original material in the near future. And where the freshman songwriter originally seemed content in her comfortably snug, downtempo pocket for much of those formative efforts, this new EP teases a bolder artist, one who is much more willing to take artistic risks regardless of the outcome.
The rapped intro, “Lost Souls,” is proof of this; it’s bold in its intention, a homage to Lauryn Hill’s “Lost Ones,” but it’s also indicative of a developing pen that doesn’t always hit the mark. The premise of “Lost Souls” – the act of unwittingly conflating deep-rooted insecurity with toxic self-confidence – would be a tricky one to navigate for even the most seasoned of songwriters. Understandably, H.E.R. fumbles around a bit as she attempts to tie together the far-reaching concepts of femininity, self-acceptance and fame while attempting to temper her own pride and ego. In her quest to become an “icon,” she tritely concludes that, “the public ain’t the enemy it’s the inner me.” Ideally, these themes would be expanded upon rather than compartmentalized to a one-off intro.
Despite its shortcomings, there’s an entirely fresh sense of vigor found on the intro that is carried throughout the remaining five tracks. The fleeting interlude, “Be On My Way,” is an unlikely highlight. Delicate and devoid of presumption, it sees H.E.R. stoically reconciling with her desires. It’s a great segue into the album’s centerpiece, a hazy, unbothered collaboration with Bryson Tiller that proves H.E.R.’s ability to navigate modern R&B soundscapes without conforming to the scene’s increasingly restrictive pop-format. The song, produced by R&B staple D’Mile, is carefully structured, patiently building up to Tiller’s confrontational closing verse. The following track “Feel a Way” is a relatively uptempo jam that has the potential to become this EP’s sleeper pick.
In the same way that she unleashed a guitar solo during her performance at the 2018 BET Awards, this EP sees H.E.R. teasing new facets of her artistry. However, it all feels a bit inconsequential. There’s no “Focus,” or even a “Best Part,” and the rapping and spoken word feels shoehorned, the latter of which undercuts the poignancy of the project’s strongest track, “Against Me,” by way of an overwrought outro. Hopefully, some of the more progressive stylings teased throughout this EP – such as the embrace of happiness found on the joyous “As I Am” – are properly fleshed out on the upcoming album.