Brandon James’ Vocals Lead the Way on “Surreal”
Pure musical talent is a powerful thing. Oftentimes our ears are drawn to strong performers regardless of other material in the music, simply because their skills demands it. This is frequently (but not always) the case for singers, given that they are usually at the forefront of a song and have the aid of lyrics to draw in listeners’ attention. Chicago-based singer Brandon James is a good example of this concept and shows it on his single “Surreal.” Although the song is somewhat plain in content with a typical story of romance and slightly stiff programmed production, James’ deep, sultry vocal delivery and lush layering drives the track and commands the listener’s attention at every moment.
“Surreal” is relaxed in tempo and delivery, certainly fitting into R&B slow jam territory. The production is adequate despite some issues of slightly inaudible lyrics, but it seems to crave a human touch to match James’ expressive vocal lines. The programmed percussion in particular comes off as particularly unemotional against James’ words and delivery. It seems as though the song would be much better suited for a live band. There is nothing that sticks out terribly in the song, it’s just that the instrumentals simply do match the intimate nature of James’ vocals in a way that live musicians could.
All of this just brings us back to the topic of James’ vocal abilities, which are impressive. Sounding almost like a modern day Luther Vandross, his voice truly controls the song and creates a good amount of sonic excitement despite the track’s other pitfalls. His singing is soulful yet restrained in a way that sells the words to the listener even though they often lack depth and clarity. Despite his obviously abundant vocal talent, his words often get buried in the mix, however, making his lyrics often difficult to decipher and his voice sound like just another instrument. When we can understand the words, we hear that there’s not much to them, like in the first verse where he writes, “Baby you could never know how your love, it touched my soul / I never knew that love could be so real, but all along you really knew the deal.” There’s nothing wrong with writing about love, particularly in R&B, but the vague lyrics make the payoff pretty disappointing.
The good news for James is that all of the aforementioned critiques of “Surreal” can easily improve and grow over time. He’s already got his moneymaker with those soulful pipes. This song is proof that his vocal talent is enough to intrigue listeners no matter what he’s saying or what music is backing him up. When James can raise those other elements to the level of his singing, there is no telling how far he can go.