At first glance, it might be easy to write off Jesse Baez as another cookie cutter SoundCloud R&B singer. The Chicago-born Guatemalan artist just dropped BAEZ, his debut EP, and it dabbles in some of the more predictable themes we’ve come to expect from the post-Weeknd R&B world: brooding loneliness, pill-popping late nights, misadventures with headstrong women. The difference is that unlike a Bryson Tiller or a PARTYNEXTDOOR, the appropriately titled BAEZ is a deeply personal and inimitable look at the intersections of one man’s overlapping identities, frustrations, and heartaches.

Baez was born in Chicago, but his family packed their bags for Guate when the singer was just 6 years old, where he spent his youth listening to Motown and R&B. Now based in Monterrey, Baez eventually found his voice collaborating with artists from the region, including Finesse labelmates Naked Geometry and Raido. It’s possible that that history of collaboration is what gives BAEZ an edge; while many of his peers rely on US signifiers (copycat trap beats, poor English slang) to stand out, Baez manages to blend these references into a powerful snapshot of what it’s like to live in-between, as a Latino artist with a foot in both worlds. On his cover of The Weeknd’s “Tell Your Friends,” Baez flips Abel Tesfaye’s line to fit his own reality: “Yo extraño a Guate/ya pasó un minuto/Voy por el DF, Monterrey les sigo.” With just a few words, Baez paints a poignant portrait of the struggle of so many artists in the Latin underground, one that demands distance from home and commitment abroad.

Another standout moment is “F,” where Baez’s prickly falsetto sweeps over soaring string arrangements, followed by a chorus that includes phrases like “el struggle está duro.” On the 45-second interlude “Her,” Baez switches into English, assuming the role of a scorned lover and switching up the flow with a voicemail sample à la Dipset.

Auto-tuned lonely boy R&B isn’t anything new, but it’s been awhile since one artist so aptly captured the joys and trials of youth with this much candor and relatability. In a musical landscape where so many Latin American artists eye the trends making waves up north and scramble to replicate them, BAEZ is a refreshing and much-needed cluster of meditative and intimately personal songs. Where his contemporaries fail to stand out, Baez races ahead, flipping their formula on its head – and turning the volume up to 11. Besides, when else but in 2016 does a Chicago-born, Guatemala-raised, Monterrey-based R&B singer make sense?

Listen to BAEZ above, and download “F” here.

Photo by Mariana Garcia

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