Album Review: Gamma, by Sonny Miles

On his nearly seamless debut album, Sonny Miles confidently steps into North Carolina's soul/R&B void.

Album Review: Gamma, by Sonny Miles

Editor's Note: Today's story is available to read in full, even without an email subscription. If you enjoy it, we hope you'll consider throwing us an email address so we can send you more original, North Carolina-focused articles like it in the future. It takes just a few seconds to subscribe, either at the green button in the bottom right, in our footer, or in the sign-up box during the piece. Thanks for stopping by.

“A miracle is a paradoxical event,” writes Agnes Callard in her recent essay “The Paradox of Apologies” for The Point Magazine. “One whose very description seems to contain an internal tension that would ensure it couldn’t come about, and yet, somehow, inexplicably, it does.” 

Anecdotally, and as this would relate to North Carolina’s soul and R&B void, there has always seemed to be a certain tension about who, other than Anthony Hamilton and Phonte Coleman, could have the audacity to step into NC’s next leading soul man role. There had always been room for more, yet inexplicably, no one seemed able to break through. It’s something like a miracle, then, the way Winston-Salem native, NC State grad, and President Barack Obama-endorsed singer, Sonny Miles has bucked the trend with his soul-sparkling debut LP, Gamma.

Gamma, by sonny miles
14 track album

Densely packed with multi-layered harmonies and melodic raps that swing more courtly than curt, Gamma is a young playboy’s appeal to love’s travails. The album’s distinct pleasure comes from Miles’ understanding of song structure as nothing but a playground in need of styling. And even in places where Miles’ songwriting sounds fragmentary, his own guitar playing and production collaborators save him with elegant backdrops — as on “Can’t Swipe Away,” in which Miles’ gives us a peek into the intimate conversations he cherishes with his love, while admitting his hesitancy to move forward in a relationship. 

The opening two tracks, however, offer new listeners some soulful moments of perfectionism. Over a disarming bassline and 1960’s soul twinkles, “WENUNEED” bristles with the honesty of a man who stands on both his availability and vulnerability. And while Gamma absolutely foregrounds Miles as a singer, the melodic rapping heard here is just as serviceable by somehow never goofing up the essence of the love songs. The lines of rap and R&B have become almost indistinguishably blurred in recent times, but none of that paralyzes this album. On “Run Around”, Miles sings over a slow dulcet beat, accompanied by high-pitched vocal sample flourishes, “Seein’ all the ways I’m the problem/ Seein’ all the ways that I waste time with my involvement/…The games fucked, are you sixth man or a starter?” He’s fed up with himself. He knows he’s turned the ball over one too many times. No real resolution is offered, other than waiting for, well, a miracle…but he’s still young, right?   

The album’s showpiece, “If I Jump”, briefly breaks away from Gamma’s near-ballads. Instead, we all hang on with Miles as he contemplates breaking free of his lover’s hold and jumping into recklessness. That sudden, non-suicidal urge to jump from a high and safe place is often called “high-place phenomenon” or “The Call of the Void,” and the suspense of this matter is handled beautifully by the song’s producer Koen — edging horns, pianos, and basslines to a near-crescendo as Miles fights the temptation to break free, into the void. The song is one of the few places on Gamma where we truly get a sense of his vocal capabilities. Elsewhere, like on the self-produced, “Powerdivine,” Miles sings lushly over his own acoustic guitar strumming, supported in the background by purring adlibs from vocalist Devereaux Nash (Dev). 

If there were any risks taken on Gamma, one can only guess that they were disguised by Miles’ incorruptible sense of duty to his own sound. It’s neither neo-soul, hip-hop, throwback soul, folk, nor blues. In this way, he’s peerless. He can sing magnificently enough to carry an entire acoustic album, if he so desired. His production team has given him a signature sound, on a seamless album — although he’s from Winston-Salem as well, legendary producer 9th Wonder’s boom-bap soul niche doesn’t seem to have much of an influence on this project at all. The miracle of Sonny Miles, then, might just be a ruse. He’s more of a marvel than anything else. And his music has only just arrived.

Listen to Gamma on Apple Music | Spotify | Bandcamp