You’ve got to hand it to S4U. Plenty of modern artists have found 1990s R&B a tempting narcotic, but it takes supreme self-confidence to try on Aaliyah’s baggy pants and Montell Jordan’s snakeskin jackets. While fellow revivalists Jessie Ware, Wet, and Jacquees have drawn from the era’s urbane, romantic sounds, the London duo favors its more uptempo grooves. The small body of work cut by singer Rosita Bonita and producer Prinz George—2016 EP Brazil, plus a handful of loosies—has offered a smart, streetwise hybrid of Babygirl’s and Timbaland’s cyborg sensibilities, New Edition’s new jack swingin’ pop-soul credibility, and, in particular, TLC’s slamming rhythms and swaggering flippancy.
For strong evidence of the latter connection, observe how the smooth programmed horn section of the 2016 single “Twice” summons the spirit of TLC’s evergreen “Creep,” or how Brazil’s “Sket” plays like an East London-set remake of “No Scrubs.” With T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli as their spiritual guides, S4U add a thick layer of hazy atmospherics and spiky drum machines to their sonic purée, reinventing these old-fashioned grooves for the future while keeping things distinctly of the British capital. And they’ve done so with a certain low-budget aesthetic, keeping all production in-house and releasing a set of self-directed videos that play like the most visually popping Sweded versions of old Adidas commercials ever. As that great prophet DJay, from Hustle & Flow, once said: “It’s not enough for a man to climb Mount Everest. You know, he gotta do that shit with the least amount of tools.”
Heart 2 Say, the pair’s first attempt at a full-length release, is pitched as a mixtape—and it feels like one in the most modern sense of the term. Though made up entirely of original music, there’s a brevity to the tape as a whole. A dozen or so rising local artists wander in and out of each track, adding slam poetry recitals and heavily accented rap verses to the mix. Songs like “Refrain” sound less structured than previous singles, with Bonita’s voice deployed as textured tones to wrap around the glittering keys and tough drum machines. The singer tests herself on “Untitled,” playing around with a more barbed trap vocal style than she’s previously adopted, while “Alone” is an unlikely rave-inspired number tacked on to the back end of Heart 2 Say, probably because the pair didn’t know what else to do with it.
No experiment here is entirely unsuccessful, though the tape’s best moments unsurprisingly come in its most fully formed songs. Take “No Ego,” a track about hitting the darkest, dankest of dancefloors and letting your body get entwined with another: The synths are murky and shadowy, the climate so thick, it sounds like the music is being teased out in a tiny underground club running two smoke machines on full blast.
“Trust” is underpinned by a shuffling, garage-style drum loop that reasserts S4U’s affinity for the genre following last year’s Artful Dodger-esque single “Too Much.” The best song, though, is “Heart,” an R&B jam that manages to feel both suave and slightly wonky. Prinz George deploys thick drums and rocky, drip-drip synth riffs that are reminiscent of Timbaland while sounding more vital than almost everything Tim has done in years. Up top, Bonita’s vocals rasp like T-Boz meets Brandy, further crystallizing her connection to the legends of her youth.
Over 38 minutes, the melodies blend beautifully, making Heart 2 Say a groomed, funky listen, if not the definitive statement of the first phase of S4U’s recording career. But hey, try compiling the best work they’ve done without even releasing a proper album: Take “Twice” and “Sket” and “Too Much,” then add “No Ego,” “Heart,” and more. You’ll end up with a London street classic that showcases an act that simultaneously celebrates and defies contemporary R&B norms while proving that the genre can still be crazy, sexy, cool.