There’s a lot of fucking music to listen to. It can be paralyzing when you really sit back and think about it, all of the albums you will never hear, the moments of discovery that will never happen ever. It’s a perfect microcosm of life, I think. Just replace the music you’ll never listen to with all the experiences you’ll never have, that you forgo once you make your choice about how you’ll spend your time.
This is why genres are helpful. They provide guides and structure to it all, so that we can find where we fit. It’s also how we discover new music, seeing how this band we like was influenced by a band in this other genre who has this one song that captures us, and on you go, winding your way through music’s history. It’s incredibly convenient.
However, as with anything that prioritizes convenience, the full scope of things can get lost in translation. When we judge something without trying to understand it, we inevitably minimize it to something we already understand, and learn nothing. Somewhere, shrouded in these discrepancies between reality and perception, is Moses Sumney. He’s created, with grae, an album that demands you to look at it, and him, in totality. It is shapeless yet massive, a sprawling interrogation of who created the margins of normalcy, and whether one can reclaim their agency back from systems that have existed longer than they have.
It’s a cliche to say you get lost inside music, but that’s simply what happens when you put this album on. Moses’ celestial voice invites you into this world of sonic experimentation, where we get traces of vintage soul, art pop, electronic music, folk, and myriad other sounds. After being stereotyped as an R&B artist for practically his whole career, this album feels like his fullest attempt yet at breaking these constraints. Featured in several skits throughout the album is writer Ayesha K. Faines, who summarizes the isolation and detachment Moses experiences as a result of these labels, “Dissatisfaction seems like the natural byproduct of identification.”
Limitations on Moses’ art don’t tell the full story, though. On “Virility,” which acts as the centerpiece of the album’s first half, he unpacks traditional aspects of masculinity. This theme also returns in a mesmerizing skit with the legendary Jill Scott. This album is deeply concerned with identity. Moses questions his self-perception on “Keeps Me Alive,” singing, “Are my proclivities of society or innate?” His background as a poet shines through in the record’s structure. Even on the first couple listens, when you haven’t really grasped what he’s doing, you can feel the record flowing through different emotional arcs, in which the specific emotions are unclear but still full of power. And then you get a straightforward story on “Two Dogs” that just rips your heart out, contrasting against the clouded language that preceded it. The ideas in grae clash together and then fade away into moments of intimacy, culminating in this searching sort of feeling that remains long after the album ends.
And these moments that arrive out of nowhere are truly something special. After a quiet piano that sounds like dripping water on “Gagarin,” the song melts its way into this husky, electronically obscured falsetto, and man, that sound is still stuck with me.
Just as on his debut, Aromanticism, Moses explores his own relationship with love and sexuality, yet it is placed into new, broader concepts on grae. He deals with feelings of inadequacy in managing a polyamorous relationship on “Polly” and wonders if he will ever be able to truly change on “Me in 20 Years.” This exploration feels much more grounded than on Aromanticism, in that it’s simply another part of Moses as a person. Even as he laments his situation, there is a sense that this is healthy. The ugliness and heartache feel like they mean something, like they aren’t there for their own sake. We end grae in confusion, yet it feels like the confusion that accompanies a grand revelation, where you know that something is different now but not what that means. This album doesn’t provide definitive answers, its beauty lies in the search for the right questions.
In life, we must make choices on how to present ourselves. We pick sides. Those who fail to pick a side are condemned to be forgotten, or not even noticed in the first place. They are stuck mid-transition, forever adrift in impalpable space. Moses brings life and validation to this purgatory, declaring that the gray areas in our lives are enough by themselves. They are not solely what exists before we lean one way or another, they have inertia and agency all their own. They are their own place, and we can find home there.