Album Review: Yaya Bey – The Things I Can’t Take With Me EP

[Big Dada; 2021]

It’s nigh impossible to address Yaya Bey‘s new EP The Things I Can’t Take With Me without also addressing the record that spawned from the same bedroom writing sessions, last year’s Madison Tapes. The latter was a marvel of a record that belies the economical means in which it was conceived. Instead of recording a hermetically-sealed sonic environment, the environment itself became very much part of the work. Unrehearsed interactions and in-jokes infiltrated a number of subjects: generational traumas, the nine-to-five grind, and the many ways capitalism strains our personal relationships. Madison Tapes was – most certainly – a documentary.

Recently, a good friend of mine dropped the term ‘bricolage’, which they described as a combination of borrowed things meshed together to create something new. Within the language of hip hop and other sample-based music, that stark patchwork of different sources is often very deliberate and self-referential. But Yaya Bey’s music isn’t that, at least not on Madison Tapes. Her songs deliberately blur the lines, embracing the warm, tender delirium you feel after several glasses of wine. Indeed, a lot of songs sound like a small semi-acoustic band jamming out impulsively, giving Bey’s soft-spoken, incisive poetry ample room to take the fore.

On Madison Tapes, I felt the faint vinyl hiss represented the fogs of the unresolved, but on The Things I Can’t Take With Me, the light at the end of the tunnel feels within reach. The album title is an admission of giving all that has been holding Bey back one final reckoning. You see, both the EP and Madison Tapes were ad hoc projects that required more immediate emotional labor than the film/album project she has been tending to since 2019. A divorce and an arduous corporate job – plus many other emotional scars inherited over time – made her spiral into a depression. But Bey was resolute not to let those feelings muddy the creative waters, so she kept these projects separate.

The hiss on Madison Tapes is no longer audible on The Things I Can’t, and for good reason. While maintaining the supple, illusory feel of Bey’s previous recordings, these songs bring more strut and swagger onto the occasion. fxck it thenopens with a grandiose, open-the-blindfolds type of parade, borrowing a lyric from Megan Thee Stallion’s “Girls In The Hood”: “Fuck bein’ good / I’m a bad bitch.” Now that’s the kind of bricolage I can get behind. The video is gorgeous too, an open-hearted, Super 8-styled ode to hood joints.

Yaya Bey has talked very candidly about her own family traumas, and they way these toxic social dynamics have trickled down to her own relationships. The Things I Can’t strikes the ears like an emotional yard sale, Bey getting off her chest the last pesky things that have kept her from transcending. Some of them are quite immediate: the song “we’ll skate soon” was literally lifted from the final text message sent by her ex-husband. Through its soft melancholy guitar contortions, Bey powers through and rallies: “It’s just another wall.” Over “the root of a thing”’s warm, fluttering melody, she matter-of-factly chronicles the way her family history has shaped her wellbeing, and the apprehension she still feels about going all the way: “I really really want to love you,” she softly sings, allowing a just a sprinkle of affection to linger in her voice like a house guest wearing out a stay. One thing that has remained from Madison Tapes are these sporadic, off-the-cuff moments of the joy and laughter that you hear in the background. This feels important to point out: they feel like electric shocks meant to kickstart the narrative back into a zone of progress.

The gemini that is “industry lobe / protection spell” pokes playfully at the myriad ways a lack of self esteem can undermine one’s true potential. The song’s featherlight groove bleeds out into a stripped guitar vestige that seems to echo Mary J. Blige’s “No More Drama”; “A petition for my mind,” Bey reflects, asking a higher force whether mind, body and spirit are reconciled once more. All signs point towards a tentative yes. Hopefully, the path is fully clear for this insanely talented, multidisciplinary artist to rise above and beyond. It’s still anybody’s guess what comes next, but I do know Yaya Bey has got this.