It’s not hard to root for Jessie Reyez. Anyone who has been following her journey from busking bartender to rising international superstar no doubt feels a sense of pride when they see her on stage at the BET Awards, or dazzling crowds on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. That feeling is especially real for Torontonians. With global successes like Drake and The Weeknd, and newer favourites like Jazz Cartier and Daniel Caesar on a white-hot trajectory, it’s true that our feet are planted more firmly in the international urban music landscape than ever before. Still, we can never have too many hometown heroes. And Jessie Reyez surely is one — but that’s not why we need her. Reyez is necessary because her honesty is a respite in a musical climate that thrives on insincerity.
She has come into her own quickly over the past few years. A Remix Project alumna, Reyez left her bartending job in Florida in 2014 to join the cultural incubator for 9 months, laying the foundation for her music career. Shortly before graduating the program, she released “Living in the Sky,” a collaboration with Chicago rapper King Louie and her first major release. Within days, the track won many fans, including high-profile admirers like Chance the Rapper. She certainly had a spark in those days, but something about “Living in the Sky” seemed green and underdeveloped; her haunting voice, with its signature squeak, was brimming with potential, but she hadn’t quite figured out her sound. It’s a stage that many new singers go through — singing hooks and posting covers to YouTube, collaborating with as many artists as possible, trying different styles on for size and seeing what fits. It’s a phase during which many artists get lost. Some chase gimmicks in the name of short-term success and never discover their own identity. But the most talented, dedicated creators successfully wade through this period and truly find their own voice. For Reyez, that moment happened with 2016’s “Figures.”
The break-up ballad was raw, vulnerable and marks the moment Reyez sonically spread her wings. On “Figures,” Reyez presented herself to us plainly: broken, weary and somewhat defeated. Yet there was something powerful and intense about her delivery. The minimalist production and accompanying, no-frills video made bold statements in their simplicity: This is me. Pure and uncut. Nothing to hide behind. Love me or don’t.
It was gutsy, and it worked. “Figures” triggered a groundswell of support and eventually peaked at number 58 on the Billboard Canadian Hot 100. It’s a safe bet that the track’s unabashed honesty was the catalyst for its success. And with the release of her debut EP Kiddo in April, Reyez transformed that honesty into the basis of her brand.
It’s empowering to watch a woman own her narrative in an industry where, too often and too easily, our voices are drowned out.
Versatile, edgy and deeply personal, Kiddo was a daring introduction. Where most artists choose to play it safe on their debuts, Reyez approached hers with the devil-may-care attitude of a seasoned vet on the brink of retirement. Because, fuck it: if you’re going to introduce yourself to the world, you might as well bare all up front. On Kiddo, Reyez explores her sweetness (“Great One”), her shadow side (“Shutter Island”) and the “loca Colombiana” within her (“Fuck It”) all with a fearless candor that’s hard to hate. More than her arresting vocals and fresh production, it’s her candidness that distinguishes her. And her blunt brand of lyricism is timely and important, especially for young women. It’s empowering to watch a woman own her narrative in an industry where, too often and too easily, our voices are drowned out.
No song illustrates this more clearly than “Gatekeeper.” Using her personal story as fodder for the song and accompanying short film, Reyez tackles the entertainment industry’s ugliest, most pervasive beasts: misogyny, abuse of power, harassment and sexual abuse. It’s dirty laundry that most people are too afraid or uncomfortable to air, and rightly so: speaking up can end your career before it starts. But, in the raw and candid way that is quickly becoming her signature, Reyez sings her truth and in doing so, sparks a collective catharsis among her fans.
There’s a comfort and bravery required to pull off a project like Kiddo that takes most artists years to develop. In an era of exhausting braggadocio and one-upmanship, Reyez’s unsparing frankness is a sigh of relief. Her willingness to dig deep within herself, pull out the junk that makes her human and display it in all its gory beauty is what sets her apart, makes her relatable and is no doubt fuelling her ascension to superstardom.
Her Twitter bio says that she sings about the stuff she doesn’t like to talk about. She may not realize it yet, but she’s speaking for many more than just herself.