Album Review: Human by Rag’n’Bone Man

       Human touches on what being human really is on a deep, emotional level.

       Small town Englishman Rory Graham (Rag’n’Bone Man) grew up listening to his parents’ blues and soul tracks and learning to sing from the likes of Muddy Waters before he found a love for hip-hop (which might be why his voice reminds me of Sam Smith – British, soul, R&B). His career started with being an MC and sticking to hip-hop open mic nights, but one fateful evening his father convinced him to sing at one involving blues; the success of this performance made the rest history.

       Graham’s stage name of Rag’n’Bone Man was inspired by watching ‘60s TV re-runs with his grandfather, and it was under this moniker that he released his first EP Bluestown in 2012, traces of hip-hop, soul, and blues evident throughout it. This continued with the Wolves EP in 2014, a theme of death evident this time around in the lyrics, with the hip-hop edge standing out. His most recent EP before the release of Human was Disfigured, a short collection which has Human’s “Bitter End” featured on it. Its titled track was a very slow blues jam, clashing with the other featured single “Hard Came the Rain,” which delves more into rock. Now with Human, Graham seems to really have come to terms with who he is as an artist and with his confidence in his own talent, this official album containing elements from all his previous work in a glorious mashup.

       The first track, the album title and its single, “Human,” sums up its overall theme very well: being human. “I’m only human after all” Graham sings over a repeated deep bass. Here, his singing revolves around a hip-hop sound, but its hard to pin a specific genre to this track overall, though it’s undeniably catchy. I remember the first time I heard it was at work, and I had no idea what it was but still found myself tapping my foot to the beat. Now, within the context of the album, not only is it still catchy but has a whole deeper meaning for me, touching on how as humans we are flawed and can’t always be blamed for our actions – which resonates in many of Human’s tracks.

       “Innocent Man,” the second track, is a great transition after a song with lyrics like “Don’t put the blame on me,” and also touches on issues of being human. My first understanding of it was that it had to do with anxiety: “My heart don’t understand / It’s beating for an innocent man.”  I assumed lyrics like that meant that his heart couldn’t separate the times when he was at fault and when he wasn’t – the symptoms of anxiety – but now I see it as representing heartbreak. When someone breaks your heart, or at least hurts you deeply (“How was I supposed to know that I’d be fooled?”), it’s not as if any feelings you had for them instantly go away, which can make the pain all the worse since you instead feel like “I’m lost in the suffering for nothing.”

       Issues of blame and those surrounding heartbreak/a break up are all evident throughout the album as well, which makes sense considering those are just consequences of being human. In fact, Graham deals a lot with varying human emotions, both from his perspective of himself and of/about someone else. In “Be the Man” he sings about wanting to improve himself for someone so “… I can be the man I said I’d be,” with an upbeat track and a hip-hop bass. “Bitter End” has rock vibes but that hip-hop bass as well, Graham’s singing becoming soulful during the chorus, and the lyrics focusing on both perspectives in a relationship as you try and accept its end.  Meanwhile, “Love You Any Less” is a somber sounding but soulful tune convincing who he’s singing to that nothing they can do will make him love them any less, so they don’t have to worry. And “Grace” shows the grace Graham can feel towards someone else when things aren’t bitter, acoustic blues vibes moving throughout the track as he describes his process of redemption after his heart has been broken.

       The most soulful tune on the album overall is “Skin,” the album’s second single. It even has an organ and choir supporting Graham’s belting voice throughout it as he sings about a lost love, and touches on the very human aspect of inevitable death. A choir is also present in the song “As You Are,” though that’s more like a positive hip-hop twist on “Love You Any Less.” “Arrow” is more similar to “Skin,” with aspects of soul but an upbeat blues chorus and, in this case, a love that needs to end but won’t: “Oh your love keeps me in chains / Just like the river I come back again.”

       “Odetta,” “Ego,” and “Die Easy” stand-alone for various reasons for me, though not in a bad way. The theme of “Odetta” seemed out-of-place to me at first, not quite fitting that familiar heartbreak/human theme specifically; that was, until I found out it was about a friend’s daughter, a personal song Graham wrote just for them, making the serenity behind his voice on this smooth track all the kinder. Meanwhile, “Ego” is the opposite, but similar in that it seems to be about someone specific – a “Mr. Know-it-all.” But having an ego is definitely human error at its best. The rap in this song is the only kind throughout the album, but is needed for its cool and intense vibe, reminiscent of Loyle Carner. “Die Easy” is the last track on the album; ending it with an acapella soul ballad seemed off initially, but makes sense the more you listen to it, and when you know it’s from Graham’s first EP Bluestown.

Human represents Graham’s career so far, now wrapped up in a fantastic and enriching album.

Listen to it the full Deluxe edition on Spotify!

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