Chris McClenney had quite the 2016. He produced “Outta Sight/Dark Lavender” on D.R.A.M.’s debut album, was highlighted on Spotify’s Fresh Finds playlist, and also made a spot for himself on their viral charts. If you’re hip to Soulection, you may already be familiar with Chris McClenney and the EP he dropped for their White Label Series. Now, at the young age of 23, the Maryland artist has released his 10-track EP, Portrait in Two.
Before I get to the music, I do want to get into the artwork for this project. I think the artwork often gets overlooked, but it I believe it helps shape the entire project. And, looking at some of the images created for the EP, it’s clear that a lot of thought went into them. The title is Portrait in Two. What better way to display that than to have Chris painting on canvas and playing his instruments, while surrounded by paint? The boldness and the contrast of the red walls and yellow paint really make the photos pop. Having the piano, drums and guitar included also show how multi-talented Chris is when it comes to playing instruments.
Portrait in Two begins with “Consciousness,” a literal stream of consciousness straight from Chris’s mind. He’s having a battle within himself, which in a way, relates back to the title. “Always express yourself.” “You can’t do that.” “Yes you can.” Think of a time when you’ve been overwhelmed and had a bunch of voices swirling in your head telling you this and telling you that. Inside you’re beating yourself up, but then you talk yourself up and find at least a glimmer of peace. That’s exactly what this intro is.
Blending jazz, funk, R&B, house and hip-hop, Portrait in Two is groovy as hell and will make you bounce your shoulders at the very least. “Headlines,” the second single, is super catchy and has that deep house feel. “What You Mean To Me,” is smooth and sexy. It definitely pulls from R&B as Chris croons words like “girl, we lit tonight like a candle” and “serenade you right, my piano” over a soft melody. “Run” has so much bounce to it. “Pearl” is a mix of the electronic sound Chris is known for and R&B. “You, you’re mine. My pearl, my shine.” There’s so much imagery in just that one line, and then the sounds of waves gently touching the shore take “Pearl” to the next level.
What’s impressive about Portrait in Two is that Chris produced, arranged, mixed, sang, wrote and performed each track entirely on his own. It’s impressive because not too many artists do that these days. You open the credits for an album and see the artist and 50 other people who had a hand in creating the songs. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just special when an artist takes their talents and creates something entirely on their own–it’s rare these days.
On the flip side, sometimes having multiple hands on one project provides a more diverse sound (or sounds) overall. Listening to Portrait in Two as a whole, you can definitely hear Chris’s touch on each song. It’s a great display of his talent, but I think once he develops his sound more, he’ll be able to diversify more. So far, he’s off to a great start.
What works in Chris’s favor is that there is still a demand for classic R&B. He’s gone for a more traditional sound with a dash of the way music sounds now. Lyrically, it’s diverse and well-written. It’s not formulaic. Sonically, it’s smooth and soulful. Also worth noting, are the spoken interludes Chris provides at the end of some songs–they’re pretty inspirational and they make you look back at yourself. If you take nothing else out of this EP and this review, I want to leave you with what Chris said at the end of “Gravity.” “Every piece of you is a valuable piece of you. Each is a brushstroke. It makes the portrait of you.”
Be sure to listen to Portrait in Two below.