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27 September 2019

Mahalia’s Love and Compromise: a bold, catchy, ambitious debut

Mahalia’s silken voice – with a dash of grit – sounds both distinctive and classic at once.

By Elliot Hoste

Signing a record deal as a teenager is often the beginning of a fraught journey. Beholden to companies intent on monetising their every move, young stars are known to rebel. They’ll raze a clean cut image in favour of something “edgier” and “more grown up”, relishing in dissent while still not in complete control of their careers. But Mahalia Burkmar’s path has been markedly different.

Although signed to a major label at 13, Mahalia stayed in school, avoiding the hazards of a full-time pop career at such a young age. This mature decision foreshadows the emotional perceptiveness now on display in her debut studio album, Love and Compromise.

From the start it’s clear Mahalia has lofty ambitions. The first voices we hear on the record belong to Eartha Kitt and an unnamed journalist on opening track “Hide Out”, a moody gospel banger. It’s an audio clip from an interview where Kitt cackles at the idea of compromising for a man in her life, a clip we’ve heard used in the same tone-setting manner on SZA’s 2013 EP, S. If not a fresh idea, it’s a bold move for Mahalia to align herself with as towering a figure as Kitt, and she tackles it with such cool aplomb (“You don’t know what you had/I’m amazing”), you can’t help but admire it.

Through the majority of the record Mahalia is concerned with themes of love, but also acceptance, like on the bracing self-love song “Regular People”. Catchy single “I Wish I Missed My Ex”, a dismissal of a former flame, feels authentic: when she sings “You know I ain’t looking for no trouble/So why you tryna test me on my holiday?”, Mahalia circumvents generic platitudes for the specifics that make truly memorable song writing. There’s even room for a summer anthem in the form of addictive, afro-beat inflected “Simmer”, featuring Burna Boy. An obvious standout is the Terrace Martin assisted “Good Company” – a dreamy, funk-rock triumph with an irresistible bass line leading to a thundering, distorted synth outro. But there’s one instrument that floats to the forefront of the record, and that’s Mahalia’s voice – a silken tone with a dash of grit that sounds both distinctive and classic at once.

On album closer “Square 1”, about a relationship that refuses to fully materialise, Mahalia laments a love that keeps on going “back to love songs and back to friend zones”. It’s a bright and bold track, one that deftly re-establishes the friend zone as an emotional space preluding a romantic relationship, rather than a concept used to shame women’s romantic freedom of choice.

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Halfway through the track there’s a spoken word interlude, a trope we’ve seen used countless times by R&B singers of the past, from Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy is Mine” to Alicia Key’s “You Don’t Know My Name”. In 2019, these feel a little tired and self-conscious; hinting at a rawness and honesty in their apparent unguarded presentation of the self, but, because of their place in the pop cultural canon, ultimately revealing little more than an artist’s keenness to be included in that canon themselves.

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Despite this self-reflexivity, Love and Compromise is a confident, and at times, glorious debut, carried by a rich and textured production and Mahalia’s velvet-smooth voice. Now, after years as the child prodigy tipped for stardom, Love and Compromise has shown that Mahalia has the musical abilities and emotional dexterity to be taken seriously as an R&B star.

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