Why I fell in love with Tori Kelly (and you should too)!

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Tori Kelly has had quite the come up. The 23 year old California native had her first brush with fame 12 years ago, at age 11, on the television show America’s Most Talented Kids. Six years ago, she appeared on Season 9 of American Idol, where she auditioned before Simon and crew. Simon wasn’t feeling her, but the rest of the panel disagreed and sent her to Hollywood. Unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately) she didn’t last long there. Nevertheless, she has proven to be quite consistent, and like many other mid-2000s aspiring singers, she took to YouTube. There, she slayed cover after cover and built up a modest fanbase. However, it was an acoustic/beatbox version of Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin’ Bout You” that garnered Tori major attention in 2012 (and over 24 million views to-date). Following its success, Tori wrote, produced and recorded her first EP, Handmade Songs by Tori Kelly, and released it digitally in May of 2012.

Handmade Songs, despite the circumstances, is a solid set of singer-songwriter goodness. The set’s standout is “All In My Head,” a relatable acoustic ballad about the confusions of dating. Though, that is not to cast aside her passionate lament on her imminent fame (“Confetti”), or the sassy “I’m not like the other girls” quip, “Eyelashes.” Meanwhile, the atmospheric and ethereal “Celestial,” has a melody that recalls one of Michael Jackson’s more obscure moments, “Scared of the Moon.” The EP went on to sell an impressive 14,000 copies in its first year of release, and prompted her introduction to Scooter Braun (the manager behind Justin Bieber’s success) and a deal with Capitol Records.

With a major label deal at her disposal, Tori wasted no time and released yet another EP: the aptly titled Foreword. Serving as a bridge between her Handmade Songs and her 2015 debut album, Foreword is a polished but still simple, earthy, and heartfelt 5 song collection that helped to define the singer-songwriter’s sound, and tide over her growing fanbase. Highlights from the set include a gorgeous, fluttering acoustic ballad, “Paper Hearts” and her first attempt at an anthemic song, “Dear No One.” This vulnerable yet assertive moment of both loneliness and independence showed that Tori could not only craft a clever, quality track – but also one with undeniable hit potential.

After the release of Foreword, the budding star’s focus shifted to crafting the perfect debut album. And, on the one year anniversary of Foreword, she gave fans the first glimpse of her debut with a new acoustic song: “Funny.” On the track, she posed the question: “what’s your definition of a true superstar?” Funnily enough, with this very song, she answered her own question by showcasing her powerful, raw vocal talent like never before. Such a voice belongs to none other than a true superstar. While it wasn’t the first song I heard from Tori Kelly, it is the song that single-handedly made me fall in love with her. Just. Listen.

You see, before last summer, I had no idea who Tori Kelly was, but… I kept hearing her name, and seeing it on festival lineups and such. I went to the Billboard Hot 100 Music Festival, and I wanted to go watch her performance, to finally check her out, but for reasons I can’t even remember… I didn’t. Feeling guilty and even more intrigued because of how much I was hearing her name, I decided to buy her album at Target, on Labor Day weekend, on my way home from the Made In America Festival. I couldn’t name one song of hers, but I bought her album. I blindly trusted my friends who told me how great she was, and decided to give her a chance. Talk about good word of mouth. Oh, and that Pepsi commercial helped too.

But… it took me another couple months before I even got around to listening to her album. Don’t ask me why; I don’t know. Of course, as soon as I turned it on and got to “Nobody Love” I said “Ohhhhh, this girl!” (I didn’t know that was her song). Then, when I got to track ten, “Funny,” I was floored; FLOORED, I tell you. My jaw dropped. I hit repeat. I rewound that epic bridge, that run, and I got my LIFE. Instantly, I was angry at myself for not giving this girl a chance earlier… but, hey, at least I did, right?

Then, because I become a bit obsessive when I find a good new artist, I had to learn her life story. Upon learning about her ethnic background (white, black, and Puerto Rican) I wasn’t surprised that such a combination produced yet another superstar. Like Mariah Carey, Tori Kelly is basically a representation of every American – and she’s got a voice that makes her a rightful heir to the Empress’ throne (unlike that other girl they like to compare to Ms. Carey). The comparison goes further than their genetics, though: Tori has a phenomenal voice – and she knows how to use it. Not only that, but she is an honest and undeniably talented songwriter with a gift for lyric and melody. Like any good artist, she is amalgamation of her influences, but not a carbon copy of any of them. You can hear the influence of Mariah, Beyoncé, Jill Scott, and Lauryn Hill.

Yes, Lauryn Hill. It’s not so much in her sound, it’s in her subject matter and method of delivery. Just listen to songs like “Unbreakable Smile,” “Anyway,” or even her singles “Nobody Love” and “Should’ve Been Us.” While she certainly serves vocals that render her competition irrelevant, she also slips into a subtle flow that might pass for singing – but really, girl is dropping some bars. The most blatant example of this trend on Unbreakable Smile is the aforementioned “Anyway.” She sings her way through most of the hip-hop-tinged bop, but for the bridge she slides into full on rapping and drops some bars on us like she is the next coming of Lauryn Hill and, and… and… I get ALL OF MY LIFE. The first time I heard “Anyway” (it’s track 14), I had already been blown away by “Funny” and by that point was a certified stan-in-the-making, but then she went and dropped another bomb on me. She dropped those bars and I about threw my iced tea across my car and hit rewind once again. I had to Snapchat it and send it to people; I was so taken aback… floored once again. It was Thanksgiving week, and I certainly had someone to be thankful for: Tori Kelly, the second coming of Lauryn Hill. Praise her.

Immediately I took to Google to see if she was perhaps going out on tour; she wasn’t, but she had two upcoming shows in NYC. Yassing up a storm, I frantically tried to get tickets to no avail – they were sold out. Disappointed in my own lateness, I carried on with my casual fandom and hoped she’d announce a tour soon. In the meantime, I listened to her album more and more… falling more and more in love with her talent. The voice, the songwriting, the guitar playing, her beauty; all of it. Indeed, she is the definition of a true superstar.

Since then, I’ve (obviously) purchased both of her EPs and scrounged my way through her back catalog. Two weeks ago, when she announced her tour, I pounced on the opportunity and splurged a bit: I am going to see her April 27th, 28th, and 29th. The first two shows are at New York City’s Beacon Theater (between her and Mariah, I may as well move in), and the final show is at the House of Blues in Boston. Not only that, but for the last two shows, I bought the VIP meet and greet package because I want to tell her in person how damn amazing she is.

I haven’t felt this way about any new singer since Kelly Clarkson won my heart as the first American Idol. Some of you may be gagging like, “wait, what about Adele? Lady Gaga?” Nope. I enjoyed their debuts, but I wasn’t enamored in the same way I am with Tori (Clarkson’s debut wasn’t all that, she more so hooked me from the show than with her album… until Breakaway, anyway). Since I fell for Destiny’s Child in 1999, the only other new artists who have excited me as much as Tori, with their debuts, are Kanye West and, most recently, J. Cole. To be honest, I’m not even sure I was as hype over Kelly Clarkson as I am with Tori Kelly.

So, why am I so hype? Well, aside from the songs I’ve already mentioned explicitly (“Anyway” and “Funny”), there are plenty of great songs on Unbreakable Smile. The title track is another standout; it’s almost like her declaration of independence; her career philosophy, if you will. And, I can’t help but love the many sassy one-liners, such as “Maybe I can sell out shows without taking off my clothes, God made me sexy, I don’t care if only I know” and “I’d rather make ’em yawn than be a pawn on your chessboard.” With the title track, and “Anyway,” she’s unapologetically makes it clear that she will carve her own lane, and won’t bend to the whim of the powers that be. Both showcase her bold and sassy (yet lovable) side, which is further echoed on the angsty bonus track “Bottled Up.”

On “Nobody Love,” “Should’ve Been Us,” “Expensive” and “California Lovers” she shows that she can flawlessly execute an uptempo just as well as a ballad. Just listen to the bridges on “Nobody Love” and “Expensive,” specifically; on both songs, the track erupts bombastically, production-wise, while Tori slays a melisma filled run. “Should’ve Been Us” is an infectious anthem of jealousy and resentment for the one that got away. On “California Lovers” she teams up with hip-hop veteran LL Cool J for a breezy, convertible-ready jam.

“I Was Made For Loving You,” with Ed Sheeran and “First Heartbreak” show her ability to deliver an impassioned, emotional love song. On the perfectly matched duet with Sheeran, she delivers a more tender, nuanced vocal. However, she lets it all pour out on the hypothetical-heartbreak ballad,  “First Heartbreak.” Meanwhile, “Talk” and “Falling Slow” showcase her more subdued, atmospheric side and echo Ms. Carey with their layered vocal and ethereal qualities. As does the “Art of Letting You Go,” for the nostalgic quality to its lyrics; it’s a mid tempo bop about a childhood love she just can’t let go of.

With a debut album this good, I can only imagine what is next for Tori Kelly. It’s an album that deserves your undivided attention, and many, many listens. Trust me, you will fall in love too. The only thing missing from Unbreakable Smile is a truly huge single. No worries, though; she’s still young and so is her career. Undoubtedly, great things are to come. Just look at her predecessors in recent years: Kelly Clarkson, Adele, and Lady Gaga, to name a few – they all outdid themselves with their second full length releases, both artistically and commercially (Breakaway, 21, The Fame Monster). It’s only the beginning for Tori, and her Unbreakable Smile is sure to intensify, because it’s clearly not going anywhere any time soon. Tori Kelly is here to stay.

Her debut album, Unbreakable Smile, will be reissued this Friday, January 29th, with two new tracks, including her latest single, “Hollow.”

*Be sure to check out the remix with Big Sean, too (Mariah, her impact!).

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