Radio’s reluctance to take a chance on unknown, independent acts is almost cliche at this point: The airwaves are dominated by a few major-label records that are played into the ground. But along comes Esnavi, whose independently-released “The Way” is getting played by two brave R&B stations, WBLS in New York and WAKB in Augusta, Georgia.
Esnavi is in possession of a cool, generous voice and a keen grasp of southern soul tradition, and “The Way” demonstrates the enduring pleasure of old standbys. The drummer taps out a gentle 6/8 rhythm on the cymbal; the guitarist sprinkles bright, clearly enunciated lines like those popularized by Steve Cropper on Stax recordings; the bassist lingers over a few stubby notes to create a slight feeling of suspense; a multi-part choral background beams forth on the gospel-inflected bridge. This is a song about full commitment, so Esnavi is smart to end “The Way” on a vamping phrase, a musical signal of unwavering devotion.
Southern soul tradition has been in short supply in R&B’s mainstream in recent years. But the genre appears to be slowly pivoting: Teyana Taylor’s “Gonna Love Me,” for example, has the grace and grit of early Anthony Hamilton, and it’s becoming a modest hit, earning almost 1,000 radio spins last week. That’s a good sign for Esnavi as she works on a sophomore album, due out later this year. Her debut, Exit E, came out in 2014.