- Writing a decent hook is hard, and only a chosen few have the knack for it. That's why pop stars often have an army of songwriters behind them, not to mention the producers, instrumentalists and engineers who contribute. But Kingdom's career is peppered with hits—big, charismatic vocal tunes that stick in your head—and he's done it without a team of professionals. Even some of his instrumental tracks have this quality, not just because of their memorable melodies, but because his drum sounds and synths are so inventive. From 2011's "Mind Reader," featuring the house diva Shyvonne, through to the instrumental "Stalker Ha" and his 2013 breakout single with Kelela, "Bank Head," Kingdom, AKA Ezra Rubin, has consistently captured a "wow" factor that often eludes even chart-topping pop stars.
He's done it again on the lead single from his debut album, Tears In The Club. "Nothin," featuring LA singer Sydney "Syd" Bennett, has everything an R&B hit should: a hook that sticks with you, a squeaky clean, uncrowded instrumental, poignant yet simple lyrics and—most importantly—an emotional candor that's close to feeling cheesy but isn't. It's an early contender for song of the year, and a perfect example of the "sad banger"—irresistible yet wistful, introspective and even a little too slow. "Nothin (Club Mix)," which closes the album, turns this halftime ballad into a party destroyer, and I expect to be hearing it on all kinds of dance floors for years to come.
But few people could, or even should, write an entire album of hits. Which presents an interesting challenge for Rubin—how to pad out those standout tracks with others that don't vie for the same kind of attention. It's a delicate balancing act, but one that's thrown off by a few forgettable tracks that leave the album feeling a little unsubstantial. "Each & Every Day" has some fresh ideas happening in the drums, but the vocal hook leaves something to be desired. "Nurtureworld," "Haunted Gate" and "Timex" are solid, though they feel more like sparse instrumentals made for a singer than fully-formed standalone tracks.
Rubin is a devoted student of big-budget R&B, someone who can recreate Top 40-caliber production with style and grace. That's especially clear on "Down 4 Whatever," one of two tracks with singer SZA. Though in some sense it would fit alongside more conventional material from someone like Ciara or Cassie, it's also got the refreshingly weird, futuristic drum programming that he's known for. SZA also shines on the album opener, "What Is Love," where her husky voice rises and falls over Rubin's tasteful drums and cloudy synthesizers. He shows real maturity and restraint here as a producer, with an instrumental that's sparse enough to keep the mix from feeling crowded.
The standout moments aren't just vocal tunes. The title track is Kingdom at his most exciting and inventive—a creepy club cut built on horror soundtrack piano strokes, with rhythmic inflections that nod to vogue tracks and Jersey club. Producers don't tend to go for paranoid, axe-murderer ambience when trying to make club bangers, but it's a combination that Rubin is particularly comfortable with. Just take a listen back to the Hitchcockian "Stalker Ha," or the anthemic "Icy Lake" by Dat Oven, which he reissued a few years ago on his label, Fade To Mind.
Tears In The Club coheres as an album without any drastic hiccups to disturb the narrative. But having reached the end, it's tough to recollect more than four or five inspired moments that leave a lasting impression, even after 20-or-so listens. Ultimately, Tears In The Club could have been a nearly flawless six-track EP—though the filler doesn't detract from the more noteworthy tunes on here, it doesn't really contribute either.
01. What Is Love feat. SZA
02. Each & Every Day feat. Najee Daniels
04. Breathless feat. Shacar
05. Tears In The Club
06. Haunted Gate
07. Nothin feat. Syd
08. Into The Fold
10. Down 4 Whatever feat. SZA
11. Nothin (Club Mix) feat. Syd