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Considering how crowded and diverse the pop landscape has become in recent years, it can be a little tricky for an aspiring artist to carve out a niche for themselves. Luckily for Seinabo Sey, she possesses one important quality that helps set her apart: her voice. The 25-year-old singer-songwriter possesses an evocative voice that has drawn more than a few comparisons to Nina Simone. On 'Burial', taken from her debut album Pretend, she conjures all of the passion and fire of a gospel singer as she pays tribute to her late father, the renowned Gambian musician Maudo Sey. 'Burial' is one of many songs collected from her two impressive debut EPs, For Maudo and For Madeleine, along with a handful of new cuts, making Pretend a solid introduction to a hopefully broader audience.

Taking almost three years to write and record, Pretend feels something like a labor of love for Sey, and it's also an autobiographical one as the songs here document virtually all of her life experiences. At times they can seem like deeply personal confessions or the kind of stern pep talks you sometimes receive from a loved one, but regardless of how personal her thoughts may be, her voice manages to convey her everything in a relatable way. Sey was determined to write an album that broke genre barriers and wouldn't be easy to pigeonhole, and though the music blends everything from trip-hop and soul (though you could almost argue that elements of the blues creep in as well), to electro and especially gospel all within the context of pop music, nothing on Pretend really shatters any barriers, although there are some songs that, at the very least, push against those boundaries by offering colorful and varied takes on pop music.

'Hard Time' and 'Easy' are stomping gospel-flavored songs that weave minimal beats with handclaps and ghostly harmonies, and the upbeat 'Who' might just be the most danceable track on the album proper (unless you count the jittery and soaring bonus track 'River'), swapping out conventional beats in favor of even livelier handclaps and a funky liquid guitar that adds just the right amount of lightness to Sey's otherwise heavy introspection. She proves herself to be a versatile singer, one that is easily capable of trading in power for restraint when necessary, as she does on the gentle 'Still', where she's backed only by a fluttering acoustic and sparse piano, proving just how little of a backdrop she really needs in order to thrive. Magnus Lidehäll (whose resume includes collaborations with Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue, and Madonna) produced Pretend, and while his experience in crafting pop friendly tracks proved invaluable in helping Sey shape her songwriting, it also proves to be heavy-handed in places.

It's to his credit that he wanted to give Pretend the kind of dramatic widescreen production befitting of an ambitious pop album like this and make it feel equally at home on the radio as it would be on a pair of expensive headphones. What's so bothersome about it is that the sound at times diminishes the overall impact of the music. The piano-heavy 'Poetic' is oddly compressed and stiff, and the sweeping strings and intricate piano on 'Words' are gorgeously arranged, but are a little overdone and would be better suited for tracking something like an expensive car commercial instead. It can be an especially tricky balance trying to create something that is both accessible and boundary pushing at the same time, so missteps like those are bound to happen. One thing about it, Seinabo Sey clearly has a fully formed vision in her head of where she wants to take herself musically and Pretend proves that it's just a matter of time before she finally arrives at that place.

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