A guide to H.E.R., child prodigy-turned-one of R&B's most celebrated musicians
Featuring everyone from Thundercat to Lil Baby, H.E.R.'s new album Back Of My Mind proves that she's worthy of the hype.
Header image by Tim Saccenti.
There's somewhat of a running joke in pop music fan communities that if your favourite artist is nominated against H.E.R. for an award, they're likely not to get it.
The musician - the brainchild of 23-year-old Californian Gabriella Wilson - has become one of music's most acclaimed and awarded musicians in her short career thus far, nominated for a whopping 13 GRAMMY Awards in the space of just four years, amongst Golden Globe, Critics Choice and Academy Award nominations in the last year. She's halfway to an EGOT - a rare designation given to someone who has won an Emmy, a GRAMMY, an Oscar and a Tony - and has countless awards beyond the 'big ones'; MTV Awards, BET Awards, iHeartRadio Music Awards and others under her belt.
Outside of award ceremonies, however, H.E.R. still feels like someone gaining traction. Her singles have become a growing presence on the Billboard Charts and both sides of her 2018 I Used To Know Her EP series found themselves within the album charts too, as did the compilation record released a year later, bringing the two sides together. With everything she's released, there's a sense of evolution and growth captured within them, to the point where her new album Back Of My Mind feels like a proper opportunity for H.E.R. to encapsulate the strengths of her craft at its most potent level, drawing more attention than ever.
With that in mind, there is no denying that H.E.R. is one of the next generation's most celebrated and exciting musicians. But in regions distant from her US home - like in Australia - she's far from a household name and fighting for visibility alongside a greater R&B movement being felt internationally. So, who is H.E.R.? And what's made her become such an acclaimed force in music? Let's investigate:
As mentioned, H.E.R. is the solo project of Gabriella Wilson, who initially found her footing in music as a teenager under her real name. She became somewhat of an early viral success at the age of just 10, being invited onto The Today Show to cover Alicia Keys and performing at some of America's most prestigious venues and televised award ceremonies - like another Alicia Keys tribute at the BET Awards - before signing a record deal at just 14-years-old, all but cementing Gabi Wilson as a young prodigy quickly capturing fans across the US.
Her success so early on is unusual, but it's not too far-fetched when you consider the landscape she was emerging amongst. In the US, R&B was undergoing somewhat of a transformation period fuelled by celebrated female musicians like Alicia Keys and Jennifer Hudson; these artists' popularity inspiring a wave of R&B newcomers that still dominate the genre a decade later. Gabi Wilson was an outlier within this next generation because of her age, but her talent - often compared to trailblazers like Keys - was unmissable, and so her trajectory was quick to develop as one of R&B's quickest.
In 2014, she officially released her debut single Something To Prove, a one-off entrance into the songwriting of her own and an introduction to everything she hoped to encapsulate as an artist. However, despite the popularity she had built through her covers of Aretha Franklin and co., material of her own failed to take off, and the next few years were spent solidifying her craft, refining her sound, and building a discography that would soon become one of her genre's most adored and admired.
In 2016, she returned under a new, somewhat anonymous alias titled H.E.R., standing for 'Having Everything Revealed'. Often hidden behind a pair of sunglasses that would become synonymous to H.E.R., the new project was an opportunity to reinforce her talents and have it centred within her work, encouraging people to focus on the musicianship rather than the person behind it. "Living my truth was very hard – I felt vulnerable," she told The Guardian in a 2018 interview. "Some people ask me: ‘Is it an alter ego, is it another version of yourself?’ But it’s just my inner self. It’s all the thoughts and feelings that sit in the back of my mind and I’m afraid to say."
As you can expect from that explanation, H.E.R. brought a greater sense of intimacy to her songwriting, stripping things back and centring on the powerful vulnerability of her lyricism and how she was capable of creating beauty in doing that. H.E.R. Vol. 1 - her debut EP - brought an introduction to that, and despite being her debut major release, co-signs by Drake, Bryson Tiller, and her idol-turned-mentor Alicia Keys meant that the EP was a gradual success; somewhat of an underdog release from a newly emerging face - or, well, pair of sunglasses - in R&B.
Things were quick to follow from there. In 2017, she released the second side of her self-titled EP series - H.E.R. Volume 2 - before later releasing a compilation-styled album that brought the two sides together with B-sides and collaborations with Daniel Caesar, released under the self-titled H.E.R.. Her identity began to unravel as well, as limited press began to decipher not just who H.E.R. was behind the sunglasses, but also in the personality that shines through her songwriting; every song including a slight touch more background into who H.E.R. is, and the world that revolves around her.
Despite the relative low-key-ness of the project and the album's positioning as somewhat of an overlooked highlight in 2017 R&B, H.E.R. began to take off. In 2018, she was nominated for the Best New Artist Award at the BET Awards, before being nominated in the same, prestigious category at the GRAMMYs the year after (in addition to Album of the Year, Best R&B Song, Best R&B Album and Best R&B Performance; the latter two she won). She also developed more co-signs from everyone from Rihanna to Kendall Jenner, each time bringing more people infatuated with the snippets they'd heard on social media.
The I Used To Know Her EP collection in 2018 all but solidified H.E.R. as a newcoming star to R&B, and the years of musicianship from childhood star to then-current-day began to unravel in the form of accolades in success; the evolution and growth of H.E.R.'s popularity increasing almost as quick as the evolution and growth began to show in her own work. By the time 2020 came around, H.E.R. was a bonafide star - a go-to collaborator, charting success, multi-award winner constantly finding herself in the spotlight.
In 2021, H.E.R. is readying the release of Back Of My Mind - a monumental release for a string of reasons. For starters, it's - in a way - a debut album, with her past records being compilations of EPs (often with a few b-sides or unreleased songs to get it to album length). Back Of My Mind is completely new material, with teases released in the form of singles (of course) but not quite the preluding EPs like I Used To Know Her does with its Prelude and Part 2 releases alongside it.
Secondly, it's an album that marks H.E.R.'s continued sense of refinement within music, showcasing the growth that's become somewhat of a central point to H.E.R.'s increasing dominance within R&B over the last few years. Despite every release becoming as commercially and critically successful as the last, H.E.R. continues to one-up them every time, and Back Of My Mind continues that for reasons we'll go into shortly. Then, there's also the solidification in her talents as a guest collaborator: Ty Dolla $ign, Lil Baby, Thundercat, Kaytranada, DJ Khaled and Bryson Tiller being many of the artists embedded within the album's credits.
On top of all that, it's an album that merely confirms that 2021 is H.E.R.'s year for the taking - a big call, but one that's beginning to unravel itself as the year goes on. In February, she performed at the Super Bowl. In March, for example, she added more GRAMMYs to her bookcase, mostly centred around her protest single I Can't Breathe. In April, she joined the half-EGOT legion with Fight for You, her Oscar-winning inclusion on the Judas and the Black Messiah soundtrack.
Everything has been building towards the release of Back Of My Mind, and she knows it too. "My responsibility as an artist is to say the things that sit in the back of people's minds, because they sit in mine," she told NPR earlier in the year. As H.E.R. accepts - and stands to - the responsibility in that, it's clear that she's making some of the best music of her career thus far (which in itself, is saying a lot).
So, what makes Back Of My Mind worthy of the hype? First and perhaps most impressive of all, it's a 21-track, 80-minute odyssey that doesn't feel stale for just a second. Across the course of the album, she utilises the time to experiment with textures and sounds, from the Prince-like riffs that showcase her searing and award-favourite guitar skills, to the funk of Bloody Waters, which places H.E.R.'s vocal amongst a backdrop of production prowess pieced together by Thundercat and Kaytranada - two of the best in the game.
The album moves between slow-cut and silky R&B to charged and dynamic hip-hop alike, with each guest collaborator warped to shape the vision of H.E.R. as it reaches its peak moment thus far - the guest collaborators finding occasionally finding their peak moments within the album too. It's romantic and soulful, yet also political and powerful, balancing on the tightrope of high-tier R&B musicianship, with the potent and honest lyricism that has become so synonymous with H.E.R. and her discography across the last decade.
It's clear that versatility is the centre point of Back Of My Mind, and while her lyricism is certainly still as impressive as it has ever been, it's something that moves throughout the many genres that H.E.R. makes her own, and that's where the album shines the most. Damage, for example, evokes 90s R&B nostalgia just as much as Cheat Code does for Ms Lauryn Hill's richer output (which makes sense, considering it samples her). The album's latter moments are relatively subtle (and self-produced, at that), but its final moment - the YG-assisted single Slide - is something else entirely. It would be difficult to keep up with an album like Back Of My Mind, but H.E.R. makes it easy.
It's a testament to everything we've talked about already; the talent and skill set that makes H.E.R. such a celebrated and acclaimed persona - to the point where it's even become a meme in itself. Back Of My Mind, however, proves that she's worthy of the hype, and when you're putting out albums like these at just 23-years-old, it's obvious that H.E.R. is someone bound to define and change the face of R&B's future - especially now that she's showing her face a bit more.