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Who is H.E.R? Get to know the R&B goddess in 11 songs

WORDS BY ELIZA SHOLLY

From child star to anonymous poet to Oscar winner.

H.E.R. is a name wrapped in anonymity. The singer – whose identity was unknown until two years ago – was considered somewhat of a musical ghost, with her real name shrouded in mystery. You may know her by her voice, or by the sunglasses that conceal her face, but as long as you know H.E.R., I guess that’s all that matters.

The multi-instrumentalist has used her crooning vocals and thoughtful lyrics to win over R&B purists the world over. She signed to RCA Records at age 14, is halfway to an EGOT (winning an Emmy, Golden Globe, Oscar and a Tony), and considers Alicia Keys a label mate and collaborator.


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She has also just released a brand new 21-track album titled Back Of My Mind. To truly get a sense of the evolution of H.E.R. we revisit 11 essential songs from her catalogue. Join us as we learn all about music’s favourite anonymous poet.

1. Age 10, performing Alicia Keys on The Today Show, 2007

The H.E.R story begins many moons ago. 2007, to be precise, when a young lass named Gabi Wilson took to The Today Show stage to perform, neigh, belt out, a rendition of Alicia Keys’ ‘No One’. “Gabi plays the piano, the drums, the bass guitar,” begins host Hoda Kotb. “She has the rich, soulful voice of a singer three times her age.”

This performance is enough to bring a tear to even the most jaded of eyes. Before TikTok, YouTube and Ellen DeGeneres became hell-bent on making every minor a cash-cow cum celebrity, it was a rare and glorious sight to see kids excelling on public platforms like this. Watching 10-year-old Gabi Wilson was one of those pure, innocent moments; and an appropriate foreshadowing of the career to come.

2. ‘My Music’, 2009

Like all child prodigies of the early 2000s, H.E.R. (still making music under her government name, Gabi Wilson) was tapped on the shoulder by executives at Disney. She participated as a part of Radio Disney’s Next Big Thing contest.

Gabi Wilson competed in Season Two of the competition, eventually losing out to Jasmine Sagginario (who!?). ‘My Music‘ was the single she performed, and it is an extremely accurate snapshot of Disney’s sonic output in 2009. I’m getting R&B Camp Rock vibes.

3. ‘Something to Prove’, 2014

In 2011, Gabi’s big break came when she signed her first record deal with Sony’s RCA records at age 14. Still performing under her real name, ‘Something to Prove’ was the debut single that the label chose to release.

It was here that R&B purists began to take note of Wilson. Sampling ‘Between The Sheets’ by The Isley Brothers, ‘You’re Getting a Little Too Smart’ by Detroit Emeralds ‘Take Me to the Marti Gras’ by Bob James, ‘Something to Prove’ was the first taste of what would become H.E.R. Her deep, soul-filled voice – while still growing – was filled with self-empowerment, yet delicate and airy in delivery.

4. ‘Focus’, 2016

The world was first introduced to H.E.R. on September 9 2016. Re-emerging with a new persona, her debut EP, H.E.R. Vol. 1, was the beginning of a new sonic era. The EP release was relatively low-key, making H.E.R the perfect combination of indie and talented that heavy hitters like to co-sign.

She received support from Usher, Tyrese, Pusha T, Wyclef Jean, and label mates Alicia Keys and Bryson Tiller. The EP features seven cuts, including a notable cover of Drake’s ‘Jungle’. The standout track, ‘Focus’, connotes undertones of desperation. Beautiful in its execution, and extremely loyal to the genre, the song is a public-private musing that examines vulnerability in the best possible way.

And, in a stroke of marketing genius I doubt you can even pay for, the song was given the ultimate approval in April 2017. Rihanna posted a video of herself on Instagram, with ‘Focus’ playing in the background. The clip has been viewed over 5 million times.

5. ‘Every Kind of Way’, 2017

H.E.R.’s second EP, H.E.R. Vol. 2, revolves around seduction. ‘Every Kind of Way’ places onus on personal sexuality, in a way that its predecessor was too nervous to affirm. Interestingly, the identity of H.E.R. was still anonymous at this point in time – perhaps why it was easier to write so literally about taboo topics at the age of 20.

The Pitchfork review of this project wrote, “There have been theories that H.E.R. is Gabi Wilson, a singer who saw her first big break at the age of 10, but at the end of the day, does it matter?” With hindsight, it’s clear to see the world was ready to know about H.E.R.

6. ‘Best Part’ ft. Daniel Ceaser, 2017

The compilation album H.E.R. was released on October 20, 2017, comprised of songs from each of the three EPs in this series. ‘Best Part’ was the breakout acoustic collaboration, featuring the radiant musings of Daniel Ceasar.

This simple, thoughtful love song has become an alt-radio staple. And the album on which this appeared was H.E.R.’s greatest personal success yet. It took home Best R&B Album and received four other nominations at the 61st Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year and Best New Artist.

7. ‘Could’ve Been’ ft. Bryson Tiller, 2018

Riding the wave of Grammy success, ‘Could’ve Been’ is the fourth track from H.E.R’s I Used To Know Her: The Prelude EP. The song marks her first collab with Bryson Tiller – who she had toured with in 2017 – and was ranked as one of Barack Obama’s best tracks of 2018. Not much else to be said, really.

8. ‘Slide’, 2019

H.E.R had a couple of notable songs and projects in the wake of the Grammy wins, and ‘Slide’ was one of the big ones. The original version of the song – featuring Californian rapper YG – was initially released in September 2019, with an official remix featuring Pop Smoke, A Boogie wit da Hoodie and Chris Brown following in January 2020.

The lyrics artistically interrogate two sides to a supposed new perspective on love and relationships. H.E.R broke down the meaning of the song in a Genius Verified video here.

9. Prince In Memoriam, ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, 2020

It was always a well-known subsidiary of H.E.R’s persona that she was an aesthete for the masses. Similar to Solange and Rhianna, intricate costumes and elevated fashion are just par for the course in the brand of H.E.R.

Nowhere is this more evident than in this Prince memoriam at the 72nd Emmys. H.E.R. is well-documented in dubbing Prince one of her major influences, and listeners can hear Prince’s signature, funky, husky notes in her solos — particularly the ones that are played live.

Like Prince, H.E.R.’s ‘celebrity’ image is intrinsically attached to the things she wears. Her signature sunglasses are almost as iconic as the music itself, and I could write an entire piece dedicated to her inspired sartorial choices. In fact, I just might.

10. ‘Damage’, 2020

When news began permeating of the first ‘official’ H.E.R album, eager anticipation began to build. Fans knew it was titled Back Of My Mind, but they didn’t know much else. ‘Damage’ was the first taste they received.

The track samples Herb Alpert’s 1987 hit ‘Making Love in the Rain’, and uses its dulcet croon to express how the protagonist doesn’t want to be taken for granted by a lover. The significance of the song came to a head on October 24 2020, when H.E.R debuted the song on Saturday Night Live alongside guest host, Adele.

11. ‘We Made It’, 2021

That brings us here. ‘We Made It’ – ironically the opening song to H.E.R’s first proper album release. It feels incorrect to call this project a debut, and yet, here we are. Released just days ago, ‘Back Of My Mind’ is swarmed with social and political hallmarks,and aptly intertwined with moments of light. 2021 has been the year of H.E.R.

In March, the now 23-year-old won a Grammy for her poignant protest song titled ‘I Can’t Breathe’, written in response to the brutal murder of George Floyd. At the Oscars, she collected a win for ‘Fight For You’ for her contribution to the film Judas and the Black Messiah.

This album – occurring over 79 blissful minutes – gives H.E.R. the space to breathe. Her lyrics have always been intimate, but the panoramic versatility of this record leaves everything out on the floor. It was a conscious choice it seems, because with a talent (and release) of this scale, complete anonymity will most likely be the next thing H.E.R. will have to let go of. Here’s hoping she enjoys it.

Listen to H.E.R’s new album here.

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