Ann Marie is an R&B star in a world that’s currently low on them. Much of her style feels like an anomaly: R&B’s streaming elite are typically mysterious mush-mouthed singers who forgo longing for drug-fueled existential dread. Ann Marie, along with a new class of singers like Ella Mai and Jacquees, offers an alternative, a sound modeled on the upbeat singers of the late ’90s and early 2000s rather than the dystopian haze put forward more recently
Marie’s voice is sweet and lilting, and her lyrics balance acidity with sincerity. Her face is front-and-center in all of her visuals, never obscured by smoke or darkness. Over the phone, she reveals her favorite singer growing up was Aaliyah — it it’s clear she used the singer’s blueprint as a study guide. “I just like her presence,” Marie says. “How she was like pretty in the face, but hood in the vibe.”
Joann Marie is 23 and hails from Englewood, a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. “Secret,” featuring YK Osiris, is her most prominent hit to date. Since January, the video has reached over 21 million views. During its three minute, she sells dreams of love, lust and loyalty so effectively that comments shipping the two musicians have received thousands of likes. Marie is adamant that she tries to make her videos as “believable as possible” and that type of wish fulfillment has given her YouTube presence a momentum that’s rarely achieved by most independent R&B artists. But it isn’t the extent of what makes her captivating.
Across Tripolar 2, her latest full-length project, Ann Marie sings like a rapper and raps like a singer. Her choruses soar and her verses forgo sentimentality for blunt, horny examinations of booze-filled and text-riddled romances destined to go nowhere. “Tripolar 2, all of them is freestyles,” she says of the album’s recording sessions and the project’s goal of fluidity. The tape’s high point arrives on “Worth It,” which sounds indebted to the Drake and Bryson Tiller class of slow, scornful jams. Over the downtempo beat, Marie fills the song with vicious bars aimed at a cheating lover who among other things is a “fraud” and “ain’t on shit.” The song is suffused with claustrophobia because Marie’s anger never boils over; she saves a uniquely cutting tone for each barb, but offers little in the way of catharsis.
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At nine songs and 27 minutes, Tripolar 2 is devoid of padding and its noticeable focus makes it an easy frontrunner for one of the best R&B albums of 2019. The album’s guests — YK Osiris, Calboy, Yung Bleu — are a carefully selected who’s who of next-up rappers, each a few minutes from respective breakthroughs. Every song has a purpose; each vocal performance seems calibrated to reveal another facet that separates Marie from her peers.
Ann Marie is releasing some of the year’s best R&B, but it remains to be seen if she can reshape the genre (and the major media outlets covering it) in her image. Android sagas, protest anthems, man-baby fantasies and sexless lyrics have monopolized most of the critical conversation over the last decade. Ann Marie’s straightforward confessions about daily romance is a compelling about-face, and a reminder that the most refreshing R&B in the room isn’t always the most ambitious. Sometimes it’s the honesty that cuts through.