They're calling Rag'n'Bone Man's Human blues, neo-blues, hip-hop flavored R&B, and that pointless umbrella, "alternative." Rory Graham's giant, 19-song deluxe album certainly takes influence from all of those genres and, at its best, is an excellent blend of all of them.
The album's stomping namesake and opener, "Human," encompasses the whole album's best qualities. Catchy, bass-heavy verses and a steady rhythm roll into the explosive chorus. This first song shows off the range of Graham's voice and introduces listeners to the many influences that create the rest of the album.
"Bitter End" throws Graham's voice into center stage over ringing piano and allows him to float into gentle falsetto in a break from the huge choruses of the LP's other tracks. In between R&B hits he writes soft ballads in the line of John Legend, complemented by somber strings and sparse piano. His voice remains the constantly powerful element in all of the album's tracks.
Pop songs like "Be the Man" and "Ego" balance the album's grand anthems and heavy ballads. "Ego" pulls heavily from hip hop and even features some rap verses between its gospel vocals and the bright horns of the hook. Meanwhile, Graham gets his blues cred from "Die Easy," a solo, haunting, a capella dance with death and the devil. His growling vocals are chillingly beautiful and reach flawlessly from deep lows to huge highs.
Humans is an alternative album in the best definition of the word. A blues purist will say it isn't blues. A rapper won't call it hip hop. It's too much R&B to be rock and it does pop hooks too well to be simply R&B. What it is is alternative to any of these, a conversation between all of them from a singer well-versed in the sound of the blues.
Listening to it, I'm thinking of John Legend's lecture to the purist Ryan Gosling in La La Land: "Jazz is dying because of people like you. . . . Where are the kids? Where are the young people? . . . How are you going to be a revolutionary if you're such a traditionalist?"
A style of music or any kind of art has to keep changing to stay relevant, has to keep evolving to maintain its vitality. That's something that artists, even the biggest and best, often fail to achieve. U2 kept up with the times for decades but has failed to find the modern sound in their last three albums. It doesn't mean they'll lose fans, but they won't find fans in the youth.
Rag'n'Bone Man is energizing the blues and all of the other musical ingredients in his creation. Don't call Graham's album neo-blues; better to give up and label it alternative. Call it exciting, call it new, call it modern. Rag'n'Bone Man has crafted a pop hitmaker from the scraps of what came before and the energy of what's happening now.