Kadhja Bonet's 'Childqueen' Tucks Genius Into Idiosyncratic Corners

May 31, 2018
Originally published on June 8, 2018 10:22 am

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.


Kadhja Bonet's Childqueen opens with words that could have come from a lotus-positioned guru at a wellness retreat: "Every morning brings a chance to renew, a chance to renew." This she sings calmly, in carefully braided, elaborately evolving vocal harmony.

But the surroundings are not exactly tranquil. Behind her there's a solemn military march, the caissons-rolling kind, with sharp rat-a-tats and press rolls from the snare drum. That gives way to a flute-led parade fantasy, and as it unfolds, it's possible to imagine a squad of ballet dancers moving in Nutcracker lockstep across a stage. In less than a minute, Bonet has twisted that opening mantra into a kind of surreal audio choreography, a scene as much as a song.

So it goes with the inventive, inspiringly devious Bonet, a classically trained multi-instrumentalist who wrote the songs and plays almost all the instruments on this 38-minute marvel. She follows that curtain-raiser with a sultry foray into string-kissed Philly soul on the title track, and a riveting take on torch song on "Delphine." Where the other tracks depend on layered and tensely knotted vocal arrays, "Delphine" features Bonet in exceedingly intimate close-up, her silky voice threading through the tricky stair-stepping melody with disarming tenderness.

That song and the celebration of female power "Mother Maybe" have fully developed narratives; Bonet is equally comfortable creating atmospheres that are largely instrumental. The single declaration that drives "Joy" — "Oh, where do you go, joy that makes us whole?" — sends Bonet into a gorgeous string-ensemble passage that manages, somehow, to meditate more deeply on that existential question. One line. Four minutes. A movie in miniature.

Bonet grew up playing classical violin in a musical family — her father's an opera singer, her mother plays several instruments — but did not pursue music until after an unhappy time in film school. The Visitor, her 2016 debut, introduced a musical omnivore gifted in bending violin and conventional instruments to her own devices, and she takes that much further here. These terse, precise, gem-like songs each have a striking visual and/or atmospheric aspect.

In AlgorithmLand, Bonet gets tagged as a creator of "R&B," and that's probably as good as any place for Spotify et. al. to locate her — there are echoes of '70s Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield on Childqueen, and moments where the orchestrations catch the ear-stretching dissonance Clare Fischer brought to Prince's Under the Cherry Moon.

But Bonet's vision renders the genre classifications meaningless. She's doing something profoundly individual here: proof of her idiosyncratic genius is tucked into the tiny background details, like the chorale of mouth-popping percussion that enlivens a verse of "Another Time Lover." Childqueen is loaded with such bits, and that gives it a shapeshifting quality: One day it can seem significantly restrained, more austere than the usual solo artist project, and the next, it feels epic, driven by a warrior's ambition and the determination to seize every chance to renew.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.