Mabel – High Expectations
Despite some over-zealous attempts to crack the Top 40, Mabel's debut album High Expectations is a well-rounded pop record
Two years ago when Mabel decided on the title of her debut album, she had the words tattooed in phonetic form on the back of her neck.
'You should know that I got high expectations / You’re gonna have to get this right', the poised, 23-year-old asserts on the album's intro and title track. Perhaps she’s impressing upon a lover? But more so, she's spelling out a mantra to herself.
With a mum like Neneh Cherry, and Massive Attack producer Cameron McVey for a dad (not to mention legendary trumpeter, Step-Grandad Don Cherry), it’s inevitable that Mabel’s family tree invokes high expectations. But you get a sense that the greatest expectations are from Mabel herself. Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet) produced her mum’s latest album, but it’s pop producer heavyweights like Steve Mac she selects to pull the millennial R'n'B and sun-kissed Afrobeats that defined her 2017 mixtape further into the pop arena.
Current single Bad Behaviour is an unapologetic celebration of carefree, youthful party antics. Like previous singles, it’s another club-ready Afrobeat anthem, refreshingly brassy in its account of female empowerment where pleasure seeking is at the forefront.
Album highlight We Don’t Say... is a dark, trap-R'n'B inspired cut that delivers the tangible tension and emotional multiplexes that made her raw early singles stand out. Mabel’s distorted vocals in the chorus reveal a far more passive persona, as she lays herself bare to a lover whilst they fumble and flirt with commitment.
'Fuck my life' bellows Mabel repeatedly on album low point FML. With her TLC-esque R'n'B coolness, if anyone could carry a pop hook built on such a generic phrase, she would be the girl but this proves a push even for her. Clichéd pop production, and the notable over-processing of her vocals, give it a distinct synthetic quality that you would expect from the likes of Cheryl Cole.
However, she pulls it back on I Belong to Me. A tenderly defiant, moving-on piano ballad that sees her again asserting her self-worth, only now simultaneously sounding like she’s wiping away tears. This vulnerability contrasts from the likes of bonus track Finders Keepers that explores her unashamed pursuit of a casual relationship. Together they provide an unfiltered female account of sexuality and love, articulating her and her young female fan base’s experiences, like Destiny’s Child mastered on The Writing's on the Wall.
Despite some over-zealous Top 40 attempts, High Expectations is a well-rounded pop record. Contemporary chronicles of girl power, love, and individual identity emerge the winners. The latter she seems to have cracked. Those family connections are simply incidental.
Listen to: Bad Behaviour, I Belong to Me, We Don't Say...