Album Review: Cedric Noel – Hang Time

[Joyful Noise; 2021]

It’s 2021, and we’ve come to a point – as an industry – that we must acknowledge the Black experience and their plight. Last year, many brands, publications, artists, and influencers within the indie and adjacent worlds replaced their profile images with black squares as a sign of solidarity. Heck, we even arrived at a place where we could unanimously acknowledge that there would be no rock music without the heavy-lifting contributions of Black artists. Unfortunately, those black squares and accompanied 2000-word think pieces have proven to be all for naught, in hindsight, as many labels and publications continue to forgo the exposure and celebration of Black artists within predominantly white spaces. None shall be named – you know who you are.

While the image of the sad, folk-leaning singer-songwriter has entered the mainstream fold over the past couple of years, it’s still decidedly white. The Phoebe Bridgers, Soccer Mommys, and Alex Gs of the world are wonderful and all, but it is imperative that we more intentionally champion the talents of people of color to a degree that shakes the structure we comfortably abide and indulge in.

Thankfully, Cedric Noel‘s new album Hang Time has arrived at the perfect moment to provide perspective. Though he’s proven to be a prolific artist over the past decade, his exposure has largely been limited to the Canadian audience, but now it’s time for more of that neglected limelight to shine upon the incredible talent that is the Niger-born and Tio’tiá:ke/Montreal-based artist. 

His first record on Joyful Noise Records presents an opportunity for others to experience his incredible talents and, most importantly, his story. Despite the trepidation in his lyrics and faint tremble in his voice, Noel’s sound is self-assured, more textured, and more vibrant than most of what we’re hearing from the ‘indie singer-songwriter’ variety these days. Though there are plenty of moments that’ll have your ears buzzing, sedated by the dreamy lull of Hang Time, truthfully, there’s nothing outstandingly unique about what Noel is doing musically. But it is through his reclaiming of indie rock as something that is very much Black that makes this record, and his music overall, essential. 

Noel presents the hard questions (both of the listener and himself) in ways that are compassionate and, most importantly, honest. This can be immediately gleaned from the album’s opening lines, heard on single “Comuu”. First, he looks into himself: “Nothing’s wrong… I can’t breathe,” and then to those who’ll hear his admission: “Ally strong / I don’t believe you.” Even with its ethereal and pillowy demeanor, “Comuu” is bold and confrontational because of Noel’s very candid words. This formula is applied across all 13 songs of Hang Time, disarmingly and with precision — a formula where his enveloping, tender-hearted tenor is conflicted by desolate and dejected reflections upon being a Black man wading through the waters of overwhelmingly white spaces. 

With songs like “Nighttime (Skin)” and the aptly-titled “Allies” further trekking into these feelings of being in-between, Noel embraces the simultaneous comfort and discomfort of being an outsider, reflecting on instances where others make it their aim to stand in solidarity without truly respecting his experiences. This allyship is often postured and fleeting, causing a sense of mistrust that is communicated with a heavy heart throughout this record.

When he asks repeatedly on the mesmeric-stung euphoria of “Allies”, “Are you on my side?”, he does so as if rendering his question as a futile statement. The mere fact he has to ask such a question says a lot about how far we have to go in order to achieve true representation and equality, especially in spaces that are supposed to be all-embracing and all-loving.

Nevertheless, Noel still finds comfort and triumph in his unique identity as an African-born, Canadian-adopted person. “I parade my worth around,” Noel sings on “Nightime (Skin)”. “The nighttime sinks as I come out / Skin so black! I am proud!”, he maintains with surging exultance. 

Noel has found the perfect sound to suit his solemn but rich voice, through which his profound poeticism and story can travel. Cascading reverb, aural blissfulness, and crescendoing immensity may consume Hang Time, indicating an even bigger heart from which these songs were birthed. Still, amidst the aural enormity, Noel’s resonantly imperfect baritone remains front and center, resulting in an earnest and rewarding listening experience that manages to be intimate, introspective, and inviting.

Cedric Noel has delivered something intensely personal with Hang Time. He knows there are people out there who will listen to him just as attentively as he listens to himself, to both of which he asks the honest questions. He has answers. But he’s not here to spoon-feed them, not should he have to. He wants his audience to prepare their hearts and open their ears to the hushed confrontation of his words — words that are simple and never minced. Trust and allyship are earned and require listening.