Mariana de Miguel – better known as Girl Ultra – has been at the forefront of the Spanish-speaking world’s alt-R&B wave, and she’s led the cause with sensual coolness and a hint of glamour inspired by classic Mexican cinema. Since her first EP Boys came out in 2017, she’s shown off her breathy vocals over a range of minimalist beats that hint at recent trends toward newer, darker DIY experiments in neo-soul and future bass. It’s not a coincidence that her first full-length album, out today, is titled Nuevos Aires (or “fresh airs”), a reference to how she’s leaned toward crisp and sharply modern sounds, even while revisiting old-school styles that make up R&B’s storied history.
The album is slick – something that’s characterized Girl Ultra’s past work, all released through Monterrey’s Finesse Records. The label has pioneered underground R&B acts for the last couple of years, among them Coral Casino and the producer/DJ Phynx. Girl Ultra has grown up with Finesse; her evolution was evident on her 2018 E.P. Adios, which showed off a mature side of her writing and singing. Here, she seems even more at ease. On the opener “Pena,” she’s fluid and laid-back, finding the pocket in the track’s grooves.
“Pena” is one of the most traditional R&B performances on the album, but it’s followed by a lot of experiments that nod back to previous eras of the genre. She’s soulful on “Discreción,” a throwback to the ‘80s that the singer has called “a romantic dilemma between you [the listener] and Patrick Swayze.” On “Ruleta,” she goes in an updated new jack swing direction, while a cover of Miguel Bosé’s “Morena Mia” is a chance for the arrangements to get smoky and looser.
The bulk of the album is a smooth, well-produced listen – and very, very pretty. But the most memorable songs are the ones that don’t go down as easy, the ones in which Girl Ultra goes after production that’s just off-kilter enough to escape genre lines. “DameLove,” is one of the best examples; it’s woozy, arid, and unexpected, helped by the indie artist Cuco’s charmingly groggy delivery. “Chachachá” isn’t the most inspired lyrically, but the interplay between Girl Ultra’s voice and the singer Naji, from the impressive collective SOULECTION, is stunning – particularly when they start playing with a deconstructed chachacha melody.
For artists like Girl Ultra, the push into R&B isn’t simply about trying out new sounds. She wants to create something bigger. “My and my label’s bigger purpose is to elevate the standards, to push other artists to create so we can develop a scene,” she told Pacific Standardrecently. “If we work together, we can develop an independent industry inside our country.” It’s a lofty goal and one with the potential to add more dimensionality to the limited and ineffectual conceptualizations of the“Latin” music label. “It’s so mean that we’re wrapped in this little cage that says ‘Latin music.’ It’s not the way it is,” Girl Ultra told Remezcla a few months ago. “Like ‘World Music.’ What does that even mean?”
And she’s not the only person determined to bring R&B into the Spanish-speaking world: In a totally different part of the industry, urbano stars like Rauw Alejandro and Lyanno have embraced the genre. Still, Spanish-speaking artists pursuing R&B have a complex road ahead. Like the trap moment that took over, these artists have to acknowledge that these musical traditions originated in black communities, and space and respect for the genre’s progenitors is always critical. Another pitfall is that even appreciation and inspiration runs the risk of morphing into imitation – Girl Ultra slips dangerously close during some of the “Ruleta” vocalizations. Additionally, on “fuckhim,” one of several bilingual moments on the record, Mexican artist Ximena Sariñana appears to show off her masterful vocal strength, but when she joins Girl Ultra to intone “girllll” in the chorus, the combination is inauthentic and forced.
Elsewhere, Girl Ultra’s voice pours effortlessly like liquid. She soars on “Ella, Tu, Y Yo,” which has a slight funk tinge that brightens the record. Entries like this don’t just hit at the core of who Girl Ultra – they feel like snapshots of a scene that is determined to offer us their sleek new vision.