Judith Hill has been a backup singer for musicians like Stevie Wonder, Elton John, and was to serve as one for Michael Jackson’s “This Is It” Tour. She was featured in the Academy Award-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom and was a contestant on the fourth season of The Voice. But Friday, October 23rd, marked the beginning of a new chapter for the singer-songwriter, for her debut album, Back in Time, was at long last released.
Back in Time is an R&B/soul funk album from NPG Records. Co-produced by Prince and recorded at Paisley Park, it was originally released as a free download on SoundCloud for a limited time last March.
The album has a retro feel in its overall sound, for Hill, as the daughter of funk musicians Robert “Peewee” and Michiko Hill, really digs deep into the genre. It’s one of those albums where each song—more or less—is going to have you bobbing your head or tapping your foot in sync with the beat.
There are a couple of songs that really stand out. One of them is the opening track, “As Trains Go By.” Beginning with only Hill’s vocals that sound like they’re coming from a crackly record player, the song is a strong kick off to Back in Time; it sets a general sense of what to expect from the sound. Thematically, the song doesn’t shy away from the repetitive police brutality that’s been hitting the headlines over the past year. One line she repeats throughout is, “Might as well be famous, since I ain’t gonna be white.”
The third track on the album, “Angel In the Dark,” is a unique song as far as its sound goes, as it has the highest amount of production value, giving it a more modern vibe. The production doesn’t hinder Hill’s vocals, but instead compliments it. It’s a standout on the album as she briefly takes a step away from her overall retro sound and experiment with the present.
“Beautiful Life” is more slowed down, as it demonstrates Hill’s vocal ability with power ballads. She thrives in this song, as her voice takes its time building up to a chorus about how life is quite beautiful, despite the downfalls. However, after seeing her duet with Jackson on “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” in the This Is It documentary, it doesn’t surprise me that she has the capability to sing this way.
“Cry, Cry, Cry” is likely to be the most musically explored song on the album. Hill channels her inner Aretha Franklin on this one, as her vocals are sung in a way where it’s unlike any of the other songs on the album. This song has the most soul of them all, as she pours a lot of it into each passionate line she hits.
As much as Back in Time is a quality record with its 60s and 70s-sounding vibes, there were a few songs that could have been a little stronger; in particular “Cure,” “My People,” and “Wild Tonight.” With the tempo for those songs being very similar, it started to sound a little redundant after a while. In addition, the songs that made up a core portion of the middle of the album seemed to play at a slow tempo for a little too long. In fact, by the time we arrive at “Jammin’ In the Basement,” the song’s sudden pickup in pace is practically unexpected.
While the album is evident of Hill’s soul funk background (and love for the genre as well), it would have been interesting to see her experiment more with the sounds of her songs. The combined elements of both the old and the new made “Angel In the Dark” particularly intriguing.
Ultimately, Back in Time is a love letter to the soul funk genre, and people who are into that kind of music will most definitely enjoy it. Hill’s voice is a sound that, I feel, has been lacking in contemporary music, and given the album’s cover art of her as a toddler jamming on a toy piano, one can imagine how this first body of work—of likely many more to come—has been a lifetime in the making.
Cover image source: www.judithhill.com