Album Review: Jordan Rakei – What We Call Life

[Ninja Tune; 2021]

Arriving gracefully at a time of self-reflection and worldly chaos comes New Zealand-born singer-songwriter Jordan Rakei’s introspective third album What We Call Life. Following his stunning cover of Donald Byrd’s “Wind Parade” on last year’s Blue Note Re:imagined compilation album, Rakei has now released a project that’s a lush and beautiful escape from reality that paradoxically ponders upon it. Hypnotically-produced and frequently idiosyncratic, Rakei plays with various textures of R&B music to create a consistently wondrous 10-track affair. As the title implies, What We Call Life ponders multiple aspects of his identity, overcoming negative thinking and cynicism, and the struggle (and value) of connection. This personal and philosophical deep-dive into Rakei’s psyche is one of the year’s most rewarding R&B albums.

Album opener “Family” is an emotional track about a tumultuous time related to heartbreak and the legacy it leaves. Led by bass strums, shuffling drum patterns and snares, it finds Rakei suspended between opposites; “I can see the cold world / Every time I’m warm / Though it’s heating up here / I should let it snow.” There is definitely an inner turmoil present on the track as he mentions a separation that is only physical while the person remains in their head. Although there is a personal obliqueness as he mentions being his “brother’s fears”, the lack of specificity doesn’t detract from Rakei imparting something deeply personal. Despite the lyrical moodiness, the track angles towards forgiveness for such previous grievances and striving to do better as he pleads: “Just don’t let time be wasted here.”

The disclosure of emotions only continues on the excellent “Unguarded”. A combination of subdued funky rhythms and swelling orchestration, with contrasting interplay between quiet verses and an elated chorus, Rakei lushly explores the beauty of letting go of preconceived negative notions of love. “For a while / I let myself imagine that fear of love / Had me,” he sings, before conceding that this habitual mindset is only barring him from experiencing the wonders of romance. In the beautiful, unfurling chorus, Rakei’s lovely falsetto basks in the glow of being “unguarded” and finding someone who can show forgiveness.

The 80s-influenced “Illusion” is a deliciously synthy track where Rakei brightly – and admittedly, with hints of mild cynicism – asks the question of “Is it a free world? / Or do we surrender to our fate?” Philosophically pairing with this track, the album’s title track “What We Call Life” also questions the machinations of the world in the context of his childhood. It’s quite dark questioning to place upon such a time (“While your brothers play without you / Are you suffering?”), but these are formative years for a reason. Despite his words being rooted in upheaval and sadness, the production shifts during the song’s progression from a repetitive piano chord, synthy bleeps and gentle snares to louder, echoing drums that hasten the tempo and allow the song to blossom into an allusion to future hope. The symbiosis between lyrics and the music itself encourages listeners to remember that the stories Rakei is telling aren’t confined to his words, but are also indirectly stated through the production.

More reflection occurs on the melodically sharp “Clouds”, which is simultaneously melancholy and maximal and immerses the listener in a sonic world that feels ominous yet soothing. With his background vocals melded into the fabric, this murky track explores the struggle of self-reconciliation in being of mixed race. It’s a bit more politically conscious as he sings about “Seeing both sides in position” and being “Blinded by state and religion.” Such analyses on ourselves can be painful yet very rewarding, as shown on this track. It’s difficult to not feel the urgency as Rakei sings: “Who am I? / Who am I but a slave to the lie? / It’s my dangerous mind / Under the skin of my darkest white.”

What We Call Life‘s final two tracks prove an incredibly strong conclusion to this project. “Brace” begins with ominous fuzzy keyboard notes over cinematic strings adding a high sense of drama, as Rakei explores one of the more harrowing parts of self-reflection: the realisation that you haven’t always been your best self; “This is really happening / I’m about to lose my way / Bracing for the reckoning / Feel the weight of my mistakes.” Rakei’s honesty on this track should be applauded, as it feels that in many conversations about mental health, we neglect to talk about the uncomfortable aspect of admitting fault and that it can sometimes be as crippling as the pain dealt to us by others. An outlier on this album and providing perhaps one of the strongest, transparent moments is the bridge with the repeated line “Find myself and I look away.”

The finale – and appropriately, the lengthiest offer on here – “The Flood” is a collage of ambient textures, wind instruments, bass and Rakei’s intricately layered background vocals, making this song a groovy juggernaut. Lyrically cathartic, the song faces the future bare-faced with gritted teeth as he sings “I try to show I’m human / My ghosts force me to prove it / Just so I don’t lose it.” As it envelopes the listener in its puzzling and enticing landscape, we get the sense that Rakei is accepting things he couldn’t before because it’s the only way to conquer them. In this way, the album ends on a note of acceptance and a feeling that now that he has laid these demons bare, he can allow himself to move forward to an uncertain yet bright future.

What We Call Life is not remotely Rakei saying he has it all figured out but admitting that bettering yourself is a frequently painful yet freeing experience. His voice soulfully conveys the journey in all its deviations and obstacles unflinchingly while still providing listeners with the means to immerse themselves and bop their heads along. It is a common and satisfying aspect across the whole project that these songs consistently transform, as if Rakei is processing his varying emotions and placing such changes in the DNA of these tracks like some sonic allegory. He has let his audience into his mind even deeper than before, not only to liberate himself but to encourage people to liberate themselves. What Rakei, what you and certainly what I call life is certainly bound to be completely different, but, universally, this album is aware that life is constantly in motion and that there’s value in taking it one day – and one track – at a time.