“This is what it feels like to be honest.”
If there’s one line that defines genre-shattering duo THEY.’s debut album, Nü Religion: Hyena, it would be the aforementioned bar during the opening moments of “Silence.” The duo made up of producer Dante and primary vocalist Drew, make simple sentiments complex and soak relatable experiences in uncommon depth and avant-garde sophistication.
THEY. dives headfirst into a pool of romantic relationships, brotherly bonds, dangerous vices and hard partying. These are all well-tread paths in the realm of Hip Hop and R&B blends, but the duo approaches their subject matter in a unique manner that makes the familiar sound fresh. Basic weekend drinking on “Deep End” is vividly painted when Drew sings “Give it to me, ain’t no time to play/Won’t hesitate when I’m divin’ in/Swimming so deep in your water/Vision blurry, vision blurry/We’re going off the deep end/Drowning for the weekend.” An ordinary ride down Sunset Boulevard with friends becomes defiance against racism and stereotyping on “Motley Crew” when he reflects “Some might say we’re armed and dangerous/Pay the price of the life every night but it ain’t enough/Pain is the name of the game when they play with us.” Drew’s detailed, introspective lyricism elevates this album’s content and keeps this debut from being just another ode to struggle and the good life.
Nü Religion: Hyena is exceptional not only for what They. says, but for how They. say it. Drew’s vocals are often distorted, which creates for an impactful, otherworldly presence. This distortion turns “Back it Up” into a headphone favorite as much as a club joint. Drew also shows a knack for hooks and is able to make the most pedestrian phrases memorable. His elongated “That’s okayyy, that’s all right,” on “What You Want” will stick with the listener for days. By contrast, the hook on “Dante’s Creek” interpolates the theme song from the 1990s teenage cult-favorite “Dawson’s Creek.” While the track comes off sonically strong, the source’s much-lampooned pop culture history distracts from the rest of the song.
Dante provides a layered musical palette that is both a base for and enriches Drew’s musings. THEY. could be simplified as an R&B group, but there are elements of various genres including Hip Hop, indie rock and dance music in the production. Dante’s versatility behind the boards is on full display here. The dark, stutter-step piano keys on “Deep End” provide an ideally straightforward backdrop for Drew’s lyrics. Variably, the layered, complex production on “Truth Be Told” stirs up a dramatic soundscape for Drew to build on lyrically. In any case, the music is superior and provides the right framework for each song.
One of the few drawbacks of this album is its ending. “U-Rite,” a quirky cut about petty issues with women is an odd and ill-suited way to close out an album so steeped in meaningful sentiments. It’s like the jarring halt at the end of a thrilling roller coaster ride. Fortunately, when the album is all said and done, this song isn’t what will be most memorable. They. made Nü Religion: Hyena an artful body of work that is sonically fulfilling and dripping with raw emotion.