On "Waking at Dawn," Roy Woods strays a bit from his original sound toward the middle of the modern R&B road, and he ends up with his strongest batch of songs yet.
Last year, Toronto's Roy Woods emerged with an immediately identifiable voice that stood out in his hometown's foggy-sounding R&B scene despite usually being paired with instrumentals that could've appeared on any OVO release. Whereas Drake, Tory Lanez, PartyNextDoor, and even out-of-town brother-in-arms Bryson Tiller either saved their tougher side for rapped bars, or didn't expose it at all, Woods was unafraid to let his singing voice slip into ragged, arresting territory. A few times per song, he'd break free of the subdued, heavy-lidded crooning container that holds most of his contemporaries and go ape shit, such as on the hook of "Unleashed" or the entirety of "All Of You." As many commenters were quick to note, the resemblance to Michael Jackson was uncanny, but Woods was mining from a different part of The King's legacy than last year's other big Jackson impersonator, The Weeknd. Whereas Abel Tesfaye brought the sleeker, more pristine hits like "The Way You Make Me Feel" and "Billie Jean" into the 21st Century, Woods took cues from Bad's rougher edges. If The Weeknd was 2015's red "Thriller" jacket, Woods was its more imposing black bondage-style one.
Despite this unique trait, Woods' first project, last summer's Exis EP, didn't entirely live up to the promise of the loosies that preceded it. He hadn't yet found the right balance between that ferocity and his softer tendencies, and aside from a few moments when it all clicked seamlessly, he could sound awkward when switching between deliveries on a dime, somewhat like the problem that plagued Drake in his early days. The project still did a great job of snugly fitting alongside the rest of OVO's sound while distinguishing itself, but Woods had a way to go before he could flip his singular voice into becoming a viable competitor with his label's heaviest hitters.
Interestingly enough, Woods' debut album, Waking at Dawn, finds him opting to spread his sound out, letting it fill any number of crevices in the R&B world. Even more surprising is the fact that this makes for a better body of work, rather than a haphazard jumble. Opener "Sonic Boom" fully inhabits The Weeknd's melodic patterns, from the intriguingly strung together rhyme schemes of the verses to the last minute's reverby wails. From there, Woods pivots to Jeremih and The-Dream's much more charismatic half-rapped barrages on "You Love It," with its upbeat, confident sound and phrasings almost the polar opposite of the cavernously emo fingerprint of the previous track. The Obligatory 2016 Dancehall Track™ is next, but "Gwan Big Up Urself," is much more playful, loose, and bright than Drake's "One Dance," Lanez's "Luv," or (especially) Tyga's "1 Of 1," and it's empowering to boot! It's not until the skittering "How I Feel" that Woods' go-to voice emerges, at which point it's a welcome addition to his palette rather than the cloyingly distinctive feature that it was on Exis.
Waking At Dawn's second half is a bit more within the Roy Woods wheelhouse, but that doesn't guarantee that it's superior. We get one of his best MJ impressions to date on "Got Me," which even features the closest thing to that '80s gated snare sound that you can make on FL Studio, but it's weighed down by lines like "You need me like a coffee" and "Tag me in that pic, 'cause baby you got me." The remaining four of the last five tracks seem to default to boilerplate OVO beats -- the kind that would cause nary a batted eye if they appeared on Drake or PND projects, or bore any combination of Boi-1da, 40, Mike Zombie, and/or Nineteen85's names in its production credits -- and despite Woods staying pretty consistent in the vocals department throughout, it's a letdown after quite a masterful run through various other sounds in R&B.
After Exis, I would've said that the best thing for Woods to do was burrow even deeper into his own style, finding ways to flex the grit in his voice while still being able to return to a soft coo without sounding like he missed a step on the descent. In part, he's done that, as his use of that growl is much more sparing and, ultimately, more powerful on Waking At Dawn. But his larger aim was clearly to do the exact opposite of my initial prognosis. At least for half of the album, he freed himself from a prevailing, trendy sound and found that his style lends itself equally well to '80s post-disco, dancehall, and circa-2010 Rap 'n B even more so than it does to chilly soul-trap. The amount of work he put in is immediately obvious, and if it stays constant for the next few years of his career, Woods can bring his aggressive voice to any style he wants.