Review: Jessie Reyez Creates Contrasting Tension on ‘Before Love Came To Kill Us’

Photo by Phillip Harris. Courtesy of the artist

Jessie Reyez always chases contrasts. It’s an inherent part of who she is; the singer-songwriter grew up straddling two different cultures— raised by Colombian parents in Canada. Such a duality colors her music as well. On some songs, her voice careens over guitar melodies, sweet and fluid as a milky flower. Other times, she’s sharp and nettled, delivering angst-filled lyrics that prickle like thorns. But even when she’s playing with opposing forces, Reyez always finds harmony in the crosswire.

Her long-awaited debut album Before Love Came To Kill Us, out today via FMLY and Island Records, is full of moments that counter sounds and themes and tests their tension. Fans have been anticipating the release since Reyez’s breakthrough song “Figures” came out in 2016 and showcased her unique vocal tone and ability to convey naked emotion. Over the last several years, she also dropped tracks like “Dope” and “Gatekeeper”—spiky with energy and even rage. Before Love Came To Kill Us doesn’t pick a side of Reyez to emphasize. Instead, the record bounces between retro R&B, high-strung hip hop beats and acoustic guitars, serving as a tapestry that highlights her range. All of it is wisely tied together through a concept that examines the link between love and death and observes how the two ideas can serve as a foil to one another.

“The idea of the album is a fetus and a coffin,” she told Remezcla last fall. “It’s a pregnant mother and someone in hospice on their deathbed. It’s the idea of instead of taking life and death as opposites, it’s taking love and death as opposites, and then switching their characteristics: how we always look at love as something positive, as something that a lot of us aspire to one day find with somebody or multiple people. I looked at it and I was like, ‘Well fuck, the day that you meet the love of your life you’re really meeting the person who’s going to hurt you the most.’”

That explains why Reyez seesaws between seeing love as the ultimate leap of faith and a devastating obliterator of worlds. Before Love Came To Kill Us starts on a feeling closer to the latter idea; she’s jaded and vicious on “Do You Love Her,” when she announces, “I should’ve fucked your friends, it would’ve been the best revenge for the fire that you started.” It’s a jaw-dropping, ballsy intro that sets up her intensity and makes it easier to believe the outpouring of emotion that follows throughout the rest of the album. The song’s mid-tempo build leads into a dark, rough-and-tumble beat on “Deaf,” where Reyez breathes, “‘Fuck love’ is my anthem.”

She eases back into romance by revisiting the gauzy, acoustic approach of her earlier work for “Intruders.” The ballad sounds even smoother coming off of the vitality of “Deaf,” and it helps the album seamlessly move into vintage electric tones on “Coffin,” which features a verse from Eminem. The rapper endorsed Reyez early on in her career and he’s worked with her before on his song “Good Guy,” from 2018. “Coffin” is another chance for Reyez to revel in contrasts as the rasp of her voice scratches up against his rapping. She’s interested in a similar juxtaposition when she teams up with the singer 6lack for “Imported” later; their voices are well suited together and slide into one another luxuriously. “La Memoria,” the project’s single track in Spanish, is another high point that conveys the airy, ethereal inflections of her voice.

“The idea of the album is a fetus and a coffin. It’s a pregnant mother and someone in hospice on their deathbed.”

One area that isn’t always subtle is the lyricism, and Reyez does have a tendency to dive into melodrama. “And if I blow your brains out, I can guarantee that you’ll forget her,” she sings on “Do You Love Her.” On “Coffin,” she declares, “You make me wanna jump off the roof, ‘Cause I love you to death, just like a fool, I’d rather a coffin, handmade for two.” The idea of love and death in a morbid marriage is heavy and intense, and some of Reyez’s imagery winds violence and infatuation in a way that’s unsettling. The concept of the album works better when Reyez uses it to think about how fleeting life is. She often reflects her own mindset of jumping into moments fully and feeling them passionately: “But when our lives are running out, And your heartbeat has taken the draw, Could you try to look around?” she sings on “Love In The Dark.”

Reyez ends on “Figures,” which is a sweet nod to the trajectory of her career. Before “Figures,” Reyez was largely unknown—she’s said she wrote the track with the producers Priest and the Beast after a “shitty breakup” and has described it as “just a sad, sad song.” But wearing her heart on her sleeve paid off: “Figures” opened doors for her and after its success, she went on to nab a 2019 Polaris prize and a 2020 Grammy nomination. This year, she was slated to open for Billie Eilish before the tour was canceled as the coronavirus pandemic grew. “Who would have thought the one song that would start getting more people excited was one of the ones that came from one of the darkest times of my life?” she said in 2017. The song represents everything she’s been able to grow in the ashes of a heartbreaking end, and it’s a testament to how it’s through her music, raw and unrestrained, that she’s blossomed.

Stream Before Love Came To Kill Us here: