WITH A WINKING NOD to the cavalcade of acclaim that followed the release of their 2011 EP, KING begins the lead-off single of their full-length debut with aplomb. "Who wants a run with the number one?" The question is dispensed amid body-rolling percussion and the trio's signature chimeric harmonies with a rumbling effect filter. A nominal tribute to boxer and cultural icon Muhammad Ali, "The Greatest" presents his prowess in the boxing ring as a slippery metaphor for exploits in the bedroom or any realm, especially the group's navigation of the music industry.
KING is a relative rarity in today's soul music scene, preferring buoyant harmonies over shrieks and wails. "There are enough heartbreak songs out there," says the trio's Paris Strother, the 29-year-old multi-instrumentalist who handles all of KING's production. While Strother considers their sound to be soul, she valorizes a 1980s sensibility, particularly the oeuvres of Babyface and Stevie Wonder—groundbreaking work that has been relegated to the shadows by the recent '60s soul revival. She also thinks soul's boundaries are porous, citing Wham!, XTC, A-ha, Yes, and Blondie as artists who capitalized on changing recording technology to command sounds that were "cool and lush." Strother's twin sister Amber shares lead vocal duties with 26-year-old Compton native Anita Bias, who Paris first met at Boston's Berklee College of Music. All three collaborate on lyrics, and creative sovereignty propels their sound.
On February 5, they released We Are KING on their own label, KING Creative. The album's 12 songs chart a geography of good feeling. Even a shifty suitor, on "Mister Chameleon," is dismissed with humor by way of an intricate vocal arrangement of blithe "oohs" and cheeky "byes." KING explores the nation's history with "Native Land," whose pounding percussion and scampering synths approximate the westward expansion. But the trio's lyrics hijack the caravan, reestablishing it as an affirmation of indigenous history and experience in United States and the world.
The three have toured widely in the nearly five years since they quietly released their three-song EP, The Story, including dates opening for Prince, who was an early and sustained champion of the group thanks to a series of tweets by Phonte Coleman of the progressive soul outfit the Foreign Exchange, as well as the Roots' frontman Questlove.
A current of electricity enlivens their concerts, too. Paris cites one example from an outdoor performance in Brooklyn: "I've never seen anything like this, but there were all these strangers, people who didn't know each other... they all joined hands and started dancing together." For her, it spoke not just to fans' love for the music but also to "how it makes them interact with each other."
"The Story," one of the We Are KING's many heartening songs, chronicles Amber's decision to quit her job in Minneapolis, move to Los Angeles, and pursue a music career with Paris and Bias. As Ali (then Cassius Clay) pronounced himself "the greatest" in advance of his first shot at the heavyweight title, "The Story" finds KING reigning victorious in the face of a daunting challenge. "And we're gonna keep on riding 'til we reach the mothership," the song concludes. Like their harmonies, KING's own triumph is expansive, charging fans with every listen.