Sault – Nine

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It’s less important to know who Sault are than to understand what they’re about. The identities of most of the London R&B collaborative’s members haven’t been disclosed—the exceptions being producer Inflo, and vocalists Cleo Sol and Kid Sister—and the stark black gatefolds of their vinyl releases are largely free of the kinds of details that you’d find in most artists’ liner notes. Yet the richness of the Afrobeat-inspired funk/soul anthems that comprise their five full-length albums—mostly released for free through their own website—suggest the collective is greater than the sum of their parts, that they’re at their strongest when working as a cohesive whole.

That emphasis on the “we” is what made their pair of 2020 releases—the Juneteenth-released Untitled (Black Is) and its September counterpart Untitled (Rise)—such powerful, if unexpected arrivals. It’s music that’s at once spiritual and grounded, joyous and grieving, exploring and expressing the Black experience in a broad spectrum of sounds and angles, emphasizing the complexity within the humanity. Among all of these things, Sault is also remarkably prolific, having delivered their third album in a year’s time with Nine, which arrives just over one year after Black Is, and balances the gravity at the center of their anthems with a playfulness that feels perfectly summery in its warm buoyancy.

Nine is dramatically more concise than its two predecessors, mostly free of the poetry and spoken-word interludes of Black Is or the eclectic groove mixtape feel of Rise, instead compressing 10 urgent tracks into a taut, magnetic 34 minutes. There’s a lightness to these songs that makes them feel fun and often effortless, and the set even kicks off with a choral chant titled “Haha” that feels borrowed from the playground: “How about ha-ha-ha-ha/How about the love.” Little Simz, who previously collaborated with Inflo on her excellent 2019 album Grey Area, infuses some good-natured defiance into “You From London” against a the increasingly silly title refrain; “Smokin’ on that Mary Jane, broke but got ambition,” Simz raps, “We don’t care about what we up against.” It feels as if there’s a sense of fun for its own sake, but even in this more relaxed state, the harsh reality is never really that far away: “I know killers in the street, but I ain’t really involved/We don’t wanna cause any grief, but we get triggered when hearin’ the sound of the police.”

Much of Nine‘s character is derived from its grittier atmosphere. The opening trio of songs—”London Gangs,” “Trap Life” and “Fear”—are built on fuzz bass and layers of percussion, their skeletal and hard-edged funk hewing close to the kind of stark dancepunk that ESG pioneered in the early ’80s while reflecting a trauma rooted in the modern day (“Yeah, we trap on these blocks, and we don’t trust these cops/Tell me who’s taking shots“). But in the album’s second act, there’s a break from this dirtier funk sound toward something breezier and more subtly pretty; the gentle, jazz guitar strums of “Bitter Streets” feel like a springtime daydream even while its lyrics allude to urban violence, an implicit acknowledgement to savor beauty even when the world outside is harsh and unforgiving.

It’s not until the title track that Sault completely break through the anxiety and trauma and ultimately transcend, igniting a deeply funky permutation of “Dear Prudence” with the affirmation, “Don’t forget to dream.” It’s a poignant takeaway amid an album where survival alone is often the best-case scenario. Sault are as direct and even abrasive as they’ve ever sounded on Nine, offering a caustic realism that suits them aesthetically just as well as their more fluid funk-soul meditations. But it’s not the sum total of their universe; even in the darkness, they never forget to dream.

Label: Forever Living Originals

Year: 2021

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