As much as I want to believe I am an open-minded person when it comes to music discovery, I know that I am occasionally jaded and guarded. I am always wary of artists that have glossy, carefully curated images; it makes me feel like I am being sold something artificially beautiful with no substance–musical modified corn syrup. When Kai Exos’s “Fire and Brew” press release first made its way on to my screen, before I even heard a note of music, I was asking myself the question “who is Kai Exos?” With every piece of non-musical evidence I gathered, my B.S. alarm got louder. His introductory music video was directed by Beyonce and Bowie collaborator Idrani; he has over 750K digital streams with a sparse catalogue; this song was recorded in Capitol Studios and features industry heavy hitters Bennie Rodgers II (Mariah Carey) and Ron Avant (Anderson .Paak); his influences are listed as the critical favourites Sam Cooke and Prince. One of the first links that comes up on a quick Google search of “Kai Exos” is his profile on a marketing agency’s website. My finger was hovering on the big red button labelled “manufactured musician”.
Well, sometimes I need to recognize that things are well packaged because of a well executed, clear creative vision. The 70s Motown mood is set right from the opening guitar and string flourish. The song keeps many of the harmonic and melodic ideas from 60s R&B, but also borrows disco’s rhythmic propulsion and features an expanded sonic palette that includes synthesizers and samplers. Although I’m sure Exos isn’t lying when he says he influenced by Sam Cooke and Prince, the song is more similar in feel to something like Stevie Wonder’s “All I Do” than the warm sentiment of Cooke or the overt sexuality of Prince. “Fire and Brew”’s restrained longing, all bottled up in the verses, explodes in the chorus with lavish harmonies and counter-melodies that spill from the melody. The visuals from Idrani do a good job of expressing this push and pull present in the song and the glitchy effects add some visual pop to what is otherwise a fairly uncomplicated video. I would be remiss to ignore Exos’s soaring and sultry vocals. Each and every part adds to the whole.
Don’t judge a book by a cover goes both ways. Just like a DIY dubbed tape can contain brilliantly formulated pop songwriting, a sleek and shiny music video released through a manicured press release can contain authentic soul. “Fire & Brew” reminded me of this lesson, and I hope Kai Exos continues to teach me lessons when he releases his next album.