It's almost impossible to imagine that Chloe x Halle would have come as far as they have when they first went viral for a YouTube cover of "Pretty Hurts." Since signing to Parkwood Entertainment, the center of Beyoncé's business world, in 2016 when they were 18 and 16 years old, their pop-cultural reach has grown exponentially. In just four short years, the two young women have dropped two albums, several mixtapes and EPs, soundtracked a major motion picture and joined the ensemble of a popular teen show.
At this point, Chloe and Halle Bailey may be best known for playing the twins Jazz and Skye Forester, respectively, on the show Grown-ish. The Baileys have spent three seasons cultivating and augmenting their fan base through the show, and even sing its theme song. That newfound cultural power is apparent in Ungodly Hour, their most recent release and second full-length album. But more than anything, what the album shows is that the pair have been groomed to become Beyoncé's first true musical successors.
In addition to putting out a highly anticipated album in the middle of a global pandemic, the duo also chose to delay its release for one week in recognition of the ongoing global uprising against white supremacy in the name of George Floyd. Through no fault of their own, they found themselves facing the difficulty of navigating a deeply politicized social climate during what would usually have been a period of aggressive self-promotion. They were forced to walk a tricky tightrope, but they managed to negotiate it beautifully, in large part because the album itself serves as a declaration of their unique sound and style, while also making their influences clear — and their fans have noticed. Ungodly Hour is a masterpiece of modern R&B, and it is remarkable specifically because of how much it manages to accomplish. Where their previous effort felt much more indie and percussive — as in say, their mournful track "Happy Without Me" about the regret of a love lost — this album feels rooted in experience and an authentic perspective as in "Busy Boy," a song about the discovery of a wayward lover.
On Ungodly Hour, the pair explores themes of friendship, infidelity and all things grownish in a way that telegraphs their maturation, but also their relative youth. Now in their early twenties, they have more freedom to explore adult themes. It's a refrain that echoes Miss Third Ward herself: During the release of her self-titled album, Beyoncé discussed feeling constrained with regard to the subject matter of her music, because she felt a sense of obligation to her young fans. She talked at length about finally feeling able to express every side of her personality in her music, now that she was in her 30s and her fans had also aged up with her. The same is true for the Baileys. In "Busy Boy," they sing about a man who gets around and reprimand him for thinking they didn't already know his secrets: "That's why I don't play with you / I spend a little time, don't stay with you / I tell you what you wanna hear all the time / Just because you're so damn fine." The implied sexual conquest is a big thematic leap for the sisters, considering it wasn't so long ago that they were censoring profanity in their YouTube covers.
The visual elements of Ungodly Hour depict a similar shift — the contrast between the promotional short film for their first album is stark, but not forced. The women have gotten older and more worldly in the time since their last release, but are still relatively young. In The Kids Are Alright, the Baileys leaned into the delicate ethereality and youth of their music; doused in glitter and drawing literally from themes of the angelic, the music of their first album is quicker, faster and more urgent. On Ungodly Hour, the entire enterprise slows down. The visuals are darker, more mature — and yes, more ungodly. They've graduated from glitter and wings to patent leather and chains. But they are still of the sky — forget angels, they're making gods of themselves. The videos released for Ungodly Hour — "Do It" and "Forgive Me" — animate sexuality with intention. That choice in itself is fraught for Black women in music. Too much sex appeal and they face adultification and over-sexualization. Too little, and they risk being desexualized all together.
Like Beyoncé, Chloe and Halle have taken fierce control of their music by being intimately involved in its production, beginning with their debut. Both women co-wrote each of the songs on the album, and the older sister, Chloe, co-produced 10 of the album's 13 tracks. The young women have ensured that they are integral to their own musical legacy from very early in their careers. Their music sounds like them because they made themselves visible in every aspect of its creation.
Beyoncé Knowles is, unquestionably, our greatest living pop star. She is peerless and has been for some time now, and part of her genius lies in her ability to rework and reinterpret her own oeuvre. In a similar way, Chloe and Halle also multiply and elevate each other's skills. Beyoncé is an incredible vocalist and is well known for her acrobatic ad-libs during her live shows, and her protégés carry forward the tradition. Where Beyoncé is a powerhouse soloist, Chloe x Halle is an ethereal blend of highly gymnastic sentiment — it's easy to be transported on the backs of their lilting melodies. The women constantly play off each other's voices, filling in the nooks and crannies the other leaves behind. They've found their sweet spot with a '90s-inflected style of pop-R&B that draws from the biggest Black pop acts of that time, while updating it for a contemporary audience. To be momentarily and admittedly reductive, Chloe x Halle is Beyoncé's style and skill distilled into a much more Solange-esque aesthetic.
The "live" shows Chloe x Halle have given during the promotion of this album — notably, produced under a stay-at-home order — have been inventive and highly visual. Quickly adapting to performance via drone, they have mimicked Beyoncé's creativity (most notably in her historic Coachella performance) and whittled it down to its most essential elements: vocals, visuals and style. Where before there might have been elaborate sets and backup dancers, now there are just the sisters, their microphones and some artfully placed strobe lights or sky themed backdrops. Their dexterity has allowed them to reinterpret their original promotional plans to an unprecedented global moment without losing an ounce of what makes them such a specific and unique musical act. As a result, they haven't had to slow down at all.
It isn't shocking that Chloe x Halle, or anyone for that matter, would learn and take lessons from their mentor. The music industry is difficult to traverse, and having someone more experienced who can help navigate through its labyrinthian structure of politics and prejudice is invaluable. But with Ungodly Hour, Chloe x Halle have confirmed that the only way we were ever going to get another Beyoncé was if she crafted one (or two) herself in, or near, her own image. Chloe x Halle does that work for her, weaving the lessons of her career into their own and building upon the legacy she is still in the middle of making.
You won’t find a paywall here. Come as often as you like — we’re not counting. You’ve found a like-minded tribe that cherishes what a free press stands for. If you can spend another couple of minutes making a pledge of as little as $5, you’ll feel like a superhero defending democracy for less than the cost of a month of Netflix.