Chloe x Halle Explore New Galaxies of Pop Music on the Stellar “Ungodly Hour”
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Chloe x Halle are this generation’s vanguards for intergalactic pop. Their harmonies zoom through the mix like angelic brushstrokes; their eclectic beats rumble loudly, never missing their mark. Their mentor, Beyoncé, once described them as “[her] little aliens.” They have fit this label perfectly in their previous releases. Sugar Symphony, their first project with Parkwood Entertainment (Beyoncé’s record label), is stuffed to the brim with innovative percussion, swirling harmonies, and refreshing takes on 21st century pop and R&B. The duo’s profile increased greatly in the years afterward, with various TV appearances on shows like Grown-Ish.
In 2017, Chloe x Halle released a mixtape, titled The Two of Us. This 25-minute collection of songs—more like brief musical vignettes—encapsulates the DIY label often attached to the duo’s music. Chloe, the older of the two sisters, produced every song on the album—with the exception of co-production from neo-soul wunderkind Steve Lacy on one track. Furthermore, both Chloe and Halle wrote each of the mixtape’s songs, imbuing every second with infectious personality. Doing so is a huge achievement in today’s pop landscape and indicates a budding musical auteurship waiting to be fully explored.
Their debut full-length album, 2018’s The Kids are Alright, saw Chloe x Halle soaring to new galaxies with their out-of-this-world harmonies and driving percussion lines. Songs like “Hi-Lo,” “Happy Without Me,” and “Babybird” demonstrate the duo’s penchant for angular, left-of-center, and surprising melodic and instrumental choices. Something I love about the songs from this album is how the melodies often trick you into thinking they will take one route, and then, guided by their intergalactic voices, the song takes an abrupt but delectable turn. Lyrically, there’s much to love here, as well—the songs touch on emotional ups and downs, fake friends, anxiety, and the people who remind us to have faith in humanity.
On 2020’s Ungodly Hour, Chloe x Halle weave together a 37-minute suite of songs that more than restores my faith in pop music. Originally intended for a June 5 release, the duo decided to postpone the album to amplify the protests surrounding the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and countless others at the hands of oppressive police violence. On June 12, the duo released the album, lending another peek into the cosmic world that exists inside their music. The opening track begins with foreboding, close harmonies backed by cascading walls of reverb. The vocals build slowly until a distorted bassline punches into the mix, followed by angelic choirs and swift strings. The intro ends with Chloe stating, “Don’t ask for permission. / Ask for forgiveness.”
Fittingly, the intro segues seamlessly into the second track on the album, “Forgive Me.” Angular pizzicato strings establish the song’s chord progression, accented by hazy synths. Halle’s ethereal vocals flutter wordlessly before the song’s truck-rattling Sounwave beat arrives. Thick percussion and a solid pop melody provide the perfect foundation for an impassioned, furious breakup song. Aaliyah’s everlasting influence is clear in this song—“Forgive Me’s” forward-thinking beat and melodic complexity serves as a rightful continuation of her work with Timbaland and Static Major in the late 1990s.
The next song, “Baby Girl,” begins with a symphony of unorthodox tropical synths and slowly progresses into a gorgeous song about encouragement and empowerment. My favorite part of this song is the post-chorus when Chloe’s velvety singing (“Do it for the girls / all around the world”) is bolstered by beautiful chords and cluttering percussion. Halle takes over the end of the song, proclaiming “this is all her world now / this is all your world now” while spacey synths jump around the mix, creating an atmosphere that is so uniquely Chloe x Halle.
“Do It” is up next. Co-written by Victoria Monet, brilliant singer-songwriter and frequent Ariana Grande collaborator (she co-wrote “Thank u, Next!”), this song is an absolute banger. The beautiful thing about this song is that for how danceable it is, the instrumentation and vocal delivery are all quite subdued. The morphing and flowing beat, produced by Scott Storch (famed producer of mid-2000s hip-hop and R&B classics), supports the duo’s airy vocals while they sing about the perfect night out. “Do It” is the album’s lead single, and for good reason—the chorus’s Tik Tok-ready vibe and catchiness help establish it as a favorite among listeners.
The next song, “Tipsy,” is one of my favorite songs on the album. I love this song for a litany of reasons—but principal among them is the unconventional vocal melody and the shocking lyrics. Halle sings about being charged with murder and putting unfaithful men in the ground while attacking the melody at the most unexpected places. It’s still undoubtedly a pop song, but it’s a wild, disorienting ride nonetheless. I believe this song best represents the duo’s left-field approach to R&B—if you were to check out any song that provides a clear example of their individual style, it’s this one.
Title tracks are an underrated gimmick in pop music. Recent examples like Jay-Z’s “4:44,” Lana Del Rey’s “Norman F****** Rockwell” and FKA Twigs’s “mary magdalene” are all songs that drive home the thesis of their respective album. They serve as mission statements—musical manifestos. Chloe x Halle have mastered the title track with “Ungodly Hour,” my all-time favorite song on the album. The song marks a distinct stylistic shift from the album’s preceding songs. “Ungodly Hour” is backed by a dreamy, Disclosure-produced house beat whereas the preceding songs are reminiscent of the duo’s brand of alternative R&B. However, Chloe x Halle constructed an otherworldly atmosphere with gentle, silky vocals detailing the rocky times of a relationship.
The song keeps getting better as time progresses—new melodies appear out of thin air, the groove settles in inventive, smooth pockets, and swirling vocal rhythms blanket the song with an overwhelming sense of euphoria. During the chorus, Chloe sings: “When you decide you like yourself / Holla at me / When you decide you need someone / call upon me / when you don’t need to think about it / love me at the ungodly hour.” Here, Chloe gives her partner some space to figure out their own personal baggage. She wants her partner to return to her with the newfound self-confidence that can make their relationship infinitely better. These thoughtful lyrics combined with the atmospheric beauty of the production make for a magnificent song that pulls you in on first listen. “Ungodly Hour” is the final entry in one of the best three-track runs I have heard on an album in 2020—“Do It,” “Tipsy,” and “Ungodly Hour” are a dazzling trio of tracks that represent what makes Chloe x Halle the standout popstars they are: sharp, inventive songwriting, unfettered creativity, and visionary talent.
Despite the unbelievably strong first half, Ungodly Hour suffers from a second half that lacks the daring experimentation and unique energy that courses through tracks like “Tipsy.” With the exception of “Lonely” and “Don’t Make It Harder on Me,” the album’s last batch of tracks left me quite underwhelmed. I like the off-kilter harmonies that usher in the booming “Busy Boy,” but interesting lyrical content aside, I felt the song got old fairly quickly. I usually love repetition in music, but “Busy Boy’s” chorus feels rather uninspired.
The next song, “Catch Up,” featuring Swae Lee and Mike WiLL Made-It, would be my pick for the album’s weakest track. Don’t get me wrong—this song is by no means bad. To be fair, I personally don’t think there is such a thing as an inherently bad song, rather there are songs that don’t do much for me. I usually love Swae Lee’s innovative pop melodies and Mike WiLL’s endlessly surprising output of left-field trap production, but I simply find this song boring. Swae Lee’s lazy delivery and the stiff beat leave much to be desired. I felt Chloe and Halle had to restrain themselves on this track—their trademark unconventionality is replaced by a rather safe vocal presence. Given that I love all the artists involved in this track, I was disappointed by how the final product came together.
One of the album’s interludes, “Overwhelmed,” consists of an intoxicating swell of breathy harmonies, melancholy piano chords, and introspective lyrics about the perils of performing under pressure and the painful stresses of life. I appreciate the song for the mood it is trying to create—I just wish it lasted longer.
“Wonder What She Thinks of Me” is a fine song—the introspective guitar chords along with the duo’s stellar vocal performances create a dreamy, soothing atmosphere. I would have personally preferred if there were no drums on the track, creating an atmosphere that mimics the ambient R&B that made Frank Ocean’s Blonde so enigmatic and special. The lyrical content and harmonies are great here as well, but I feel the track just misses the mark.
The album ends with the triumphant “ROYL,” an energetic return to Chloe and Halle’s unique sound. The song’s anthemic lyrics plead to the listener to embrace life’s infinite possibilities right here and right now. These empowering sentiments are accented by the duo’s otherworldly background harmonies, unorthodox vocal runs, and a stuttering beat that remind me of the production from Playboi Carti’s mumble rap opus Die Lit. Overall, this song is a satisfying end to the album, a welcome increase in enjoyment from some of the songs in the second half.
Ungodly Hour is an exciting, innovative, and daring album. Chloe and Halle meld generations of black music—house, R&B, soul—with their signature intergalactic stylings to create a record unlike any other. Barring a few songs that make the album’s second half slightly underwhelming, Ungodly Hour is brimming with pop experimentation and potent personality. I strongly recommend you give this album a dedicated listen—put on your best pair of headphones and travel from galaxy to galaxy while Chloe x Halle’s angelic voices lead the way.