I can’t remember how I came across the music of We Are KING, the Los Angeles-based R&B trio of Paris Strother, Amber Strother, and Anita Bias. I want to say it was on social media, through effusive tweets from ?uestlove or Phonte. Soon enough, We Are KING’s EP, The Story, dominated my iPod. It was all I wanted to hear.
On the EP was a song called “Hey,” a stunning slow-burner that was equally sweet and majestic. It felt retro-futuristic, with a slow groove that recalled the head-in-the-clouds ethos of 1990s R&B, but with a hard percussive stomp that felt especially modern. Then there were the lyrics, a bold expression of eternal love in the most endearing way. My first slow dance as a married man was to that song. Almost nine years later, I’ll never forget the sun reflecting through the window, and how euphoric the track felt in the cavernous space. At that point, We Are KING was still mysterious. During the reception, my friends wanted to know more about that song — who it was and where they could find it.
In an era that saw rap and soul merge into an amorphous blend of radio-friendly pop, We Are KING’s music recalled the era of SWV, Janet Jackson, XScape and Total. It was dream-pop meets R&B, a refreshing sound that wouldn’t be lost to time. I know that nostalgia plays a big part in our lives, that we love certain things because they remind us of that first kiss and the LOLs in high school. It’s the same nostalgia that leads some to believe that ‘90s hip-hop was perfect, or, before then, that real music died in the ‘70s. We Are KING evoked good feelings that prevailed no matter where the music found you. You didn’t have to remember the ‘80s or ‘90s to know that it’s simply great work. Following the release of their 2011 EP, fans wanted to hear more. Their debut full-length album, We Are KING, wouldn’t arrive until 2016. It didn’t disappoint.
The music didn’t progress, per se; in a good way, it just sorta floated along, gliding as if suspended in air. Set atop a gentle blend of atmospheric grooves, We Are KING evoked the past without rehashing it. They evoked the natural bliss and sensuality of old-school R&B, and established a meditative vibe by playing the background. Indeed, We Are KING wasn’t a record of over-the-top vocal solos; it was built to unfold as a 60-minute contemplation where the instrumentals were just as vital as the messages of love and escape.
As I wrote in a review for Pitchfork: “We Are KING entices us to get away from the mundane, to spend time in grand spaces without smartphones and social media. Among other things, Paris, Amber, and Anita want you to reconnect with real people on real levels, to study their nuances and embrace their intricacies. They'd rather you appreciate what's in front of you, not the artificial world just beyond your passcode.” This still holds. Songs like “Red Eye” and “Native Land” nudged listeners to try something new, to just hop a plane en route to a remote place. Other tracks like "Mister Chameleon" derided the smoke and mirrors in relationships: just be who you are and stop pretending to be someone else.
In the years since We Are KING’s release, the trio has become a duo, with sisters Paris and Amber at the creative helm. This past year, they worked with Coldplay and pianist Jacob Collier on a song called “Human Heart,” which appeared on Coldplay’s most recent album Music of the Spheres. Their cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" appeared on a star-studded tribute album, Modern Love, released by British label BBE. Other than these features, the group has largely remained out of sight, quietly working with friends in their home studio while crafting their sophomore album.
For a legion of fans eager to hear new We Are KING material, it makes us wonder when an EP or LP will materialize. As they’ve done before, it seems the group is fine with taking their time. And it's a noble plan. The industry puts pressure on artists to release music at a steady clip, merely to tally streams and reach arbitrary metrics that don’t matter. I appreciate that We Are KING are quietly working on music, only releasing it when they’re ready. If history holds, the finished product will be well worth the wait, regardless of when it sees the light of day. In the interim, We Are KING is still quite remarkable and deserves all the praise. It is stunning work full of rich, dense layers.