At the intersection of the late 2000s and early 2010s, R&B was at a crossroads. Owing to the omnipresence of EDM and Hip-Hop’s eventual position as black music’s number one art form. During this time, a host of new and fresh artists would innovate a sound in R&B more ethereal and sonically progressive. The city of Toronto would especially be pivotal in fostering that development, with Drake, The Weeknd and PartyNextDoor among its key visionaries. But there was also Rochelle Jordan – a cornerstone artist of the blog era. Her smooth, silky vocal stylings paired with the sparse production of KLSH would banner the cult classics ROJO, PRESSURE and 1021. Spawning underground staples like ‘How To Feel’, ‘Shotgun’ ‘Follow Me’ and most memorably ‘Lowkey’. The grassroots attention and acclaim would lead to opportunities on Jessie Ware and JMSN’s respective North American tours. In this exclusive interview on behalf of Nation of Billions, guest writer Sope Soetan gets up close and personal with one of R&B’s modern-day treasures.
After a seven-year sabbatical, the elusive maverick has returned with Play With The Changes. The glorious new album swapping the lo-fi R&B sounds of her earlier work for a kaleidoscope of electronic soundscapes. Incorporating elements of house, breakbeat, drum and bass, UK garage and jungle music, some would remark that this is new ground for the R&B savant. For Rochelle, the significance of christening the album ‘Play With The Changes’ was twofold. A direct reference to the sharp change in sound musically, but also reflective of her new lease on life. During her time away, Rochelle would find herself in a very dark place, “dealing with anxiety and depression is such a strange thing. Once you’re in it, it’s almost like your mind and body wants more of it. Then you fall into this weird cycle”.
Alongside a supportive network comprised of her family and adoring fanbase, close collaborators KLSH, Machinedrum and Jimmy Edgar would be the catalysts needed to pick herself up out of her personal rut. Growing into figures she could find spiritual solace and guidance in. “They’re all very much into spirituality. Very much into manifestation. The idea of painting your own canvas and choosing the colours for yourself”. Emerging victorious in a near-debilitating battle with her mental health, Rochelle’s subsequent approach to life’s inevitable complexities and trials became one of embrace and fearlessness. Play With The Changes became a call to action.“I realised all the resisting that I was doing was not helping. It was time to just play with the changes and have more of a positive connotation on what’s going on”.
Underpinned by fast-paced and searing basslines, ‘Got Em’, the album’s powerfully affirming lead single, is an anthem of self-assurance. Taking the role of a pseudo-evangelist, she repeats “and you got ‘em tonight” in a chant-like fashion. Paying forward what she’s learnt about manifestation to uplift others. “With everything that’s happened because of COVID, we all needed some positive reinforcement. I just wanted to motivate the listener to keep pushing”.
Dance music has long been associated with sensations of euphoria, ecstasy and joy. It’s no wonder that Rochelle felt that this genre was most appropriate to sonically shape this collection of new material. Which ultimately, detail stories of healing, resilience and triumph. Case in point, ‘All Along’, the infectious second single. Narrating the exasperating journey to self-love to club-ready beats reminiscent of UK Funky House and soulful dance divas Crystal Waters and CeCe Peninston.
Play With The Changes above all is a tribute to Rochelle’s British upbringing. Born to Jamaican parents, she was raised in High Wycombe before moving to Toronto when she was 5. Though R&B and soul music were mainstays in her household, Rochelle also distinctly remembers hearing her older brother playing copious amounts of electronic music and its many subgenres, “it was a lot of drum and bass, house music and deep house remixes of gospel artists like BeBe & CeCe Winans and Sounds of Blackness”. The impetus for her to explore this sound in earnest for the new record was part of the transformation she was already undergoing emotionally and mentally. Making a conscious effort to ignore trends pervading the musical landscape after the release of 1021, she at last went underwent a musical reset. Re-discovering the music of her childhood, in the process remembering why she loved being an artist, “I needed silence from everything that was currently happening in music for that to happen”.
Moreover, it was fundamental that Rochelle did what she’s always done – which is colour outside the lines and challenge herself. Even if it meant alienating her fans, which she admits was something that worried her. Especially after such a long hiatus. “I was hoping that they wouldn’t be irritated by this pivot I’m taking. But after having so many conversations with the producers, we just really understood the importance of growth and evolution. And even if the fans don’t recognise it, they want it”.
The album draws influence from a wide range of electronic and dance luminaries including David Morales, Clivillés and Cole, Frankie Knuckles, Goldie, Heartless Crew and Artful Dodger. And while some at first may be puzzled at tracks like ‘Dancing Elephants’, ‘Situation’, or ‘Next 2 U’, the very essence that epitomises Rochelle Jordan is maintained throughout. “I tend to adapt really well on anything that I get on, because first and foremost I hold true to my personal identity as a singer. So, the fans will definitely hear me on the tracks regardless”. Die-hard fans, however, would know that Rochelle has previously experimented with similar vibrations on ‘Slow’ with Cyril Hahn, Jimmy Edgar’s ‘Dreamz Come True’ and deadmau5’s ‘Here2Me’.
“we just really understood the importance of growth and evolution. And even if the fans don’t recognise it, they want it”
“Everyone’s looking at us like we’re so hard and strong. These are words that I don’t like to hear when it comes to black women”
Nonetheless, those in need of songs with Rochelle’s signature R&B sound will be more than satisfied with tracks like ‘Lay’ and ‘Broken Steel’. Two tracks articulating very nuanced and underdiscussed realities saturating black communities. The soothing and Fender Rhodes-laden groove of ‘Lay’ is a commentary on the toll racism has on romantic relationships, “when my significant other goes out, I’m legitimately worried if he’s going to come home. And no one should feel that way”. Meanwhile ‘Broken Steel’ brings to light the very damaging side effects that come with black women’s thankless status as the ‘mules’ of the world. “Everyone’s looking at us like we’re so hard and strong. These are words that I don’t like to hear when it comes to black women”. The words ‘broken’ and ‘steel’ are used in an ironic way to remind people that they’re delicate like everyone else and that they need to be humanised. “We’re not so strong. Steel doesn’t just break like that, but you’re breaking me. So obviously, I’m not steel”.
Unbeknownst to many beyond her dedicated but niche following, Rochelle Jordan is one of the foremothers and unsung pioneers of what is now termed ‘Alternative R&B’. Alongside Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, Miguel, Jhene Aiko, Tinashe, J*Davey and Dawn Richard, Rochelle was responsible for providing a template that has shaped many of today’s artists. Rochelle’s influence can particularly be heard in songstresses like H.E.R., Ravyn Lenae, Joyce Wrice, Sabrina Claudio and Zilo – whether they know it or not. When asked if she’s cognizant of her impact, she said “I’m definitely aware. I do feel like I’ve left a lot of footprints. It would be nice to be recognised for it, but I don’t need to force that upon people. My fans always let me know”.
When compared to her counterparts, the unconventional and unglamorous trajectory of her career is undoubtedly a factor as to why her influence isn’t as recognised as much as it should be. For over 10 years, Rochelle has operated as a proudly independent and self-contained artist. Turning down offers from numerous major record labels over the years. “There’s a certain way that I go about my art. There’s a certain way that I am as a human being and I won’t change that. I think that scared a lot of labels”. Rochelle holds no regrets about any of this. Unfazed at the fact that it came at the expense of potentially greater exposure or name recognition. “I feel like, had I done that, it maybe would have stunted my growth as an artist. It could have been amazing or maybe I would have been really unhappy. Who knows?”
Yet as the openness to change continues to be a new constant in her life, she knew that she wanted this album to have some sort of machine backing it. But it had to be the right machine. One that would allow her to retain her creative freedom while simultaneously having the appropriate resources to give her music a grand and worthy footing. That label would end up being Young Art Records, run by Brainfeeder’s GRAMMY-Nominated DJ and Producer TOKiMONSTA. Following many years of disillusionment with the business aspect of the music industry and its perpetually draining politics, Rochelle is now at a stage in her life where she’s ready to play the game, but on her own terms. Including a complementary remix project, an arsenal of plans are in motion to give this album the extended life cycle it deserves. “For taking the hiatus I did, I’m really proud of this body of work. So, I’m excited to push this project into next year and really make it all that it can be”.
Rochelle Jordan’s Play With The Changes is now available at all good digital vendors.