This essay appears as part of the 2020 Uproxx Music Critics Poll.
When Chloe and Halle Bailey were signed to Beyoncé’s Parkwood management company in 2015 after going viral with YouTube covers of her songs, many were quick to assume the Atlanta-born sisters would be stuck in the superstar’s shadow. There’s something to be said about how rising white female singers are embraced when taken under a legend’s wing. But when it comes to Black singers, like Chloe x Halle, there’s unsolicited tension forced on them, as if there is supposed to be some kind of competition with their music elders. Well, Chloe x Halle fought against that stereotype with admirable grace — and it’s all thanks to their sophomore album, June’s Ungodly Hour.
The duo made their debut with 2018’s The Kids Are Alright, which bloomed with a DIY approach (Chloe produced 11 of the 16 tracks) to their idea of alternative R&B. The album’s major theme is finding themselves through adolescence, and their humility led to onlookers infantilizing the singers. We clearly missed the warning on “Grown” (which also served as the theme song for ABC’s Grown-ish): “Watch out, world, I’m grown now / It’s about to go down.” Chloe x Halle simply aren’t cute, “around-the-way” girls who like to play acoustic guitar. They are young ladies (now 22 and 20 years of age, respectively) who are stepping into their womanhood, and Ungodly Hour laid down the path for them to strut.
The album is a major step-up from The Kids Are Alright, where the singers take notes from Rihanna’s Good Girl Gone Bad formula and get naughty but not disingenuous. The first thing that stands out is the Parental Advisory sticker (OMG, they’re actually cursing?!), almost as if to tell naysayers: “We’ve arrived, bitches!”
“A lot of people think of us as little perfect angels that don’t have any problems, and that’s not true,” Chloe told Billboard earlier this month. “We really wanted to show the imperfect side of us on this project. We have fallen in love, fallen out of love, had our hearts broken. We’re still learning to love our insecurities. That’s what this album symbolizes for us: ‘Will you love me at the ungodly hour?’”
And we love every minute of that hour, which captures the multi-faceted nature of Black women. Yes, we might be scorned from time to time. But that’s not the stereotypical crown we like to carry. We can be beautifully vulnerable, so seethingly bitter as we pick up broken heart pieces, completely self-assured and independent to the point that it frightens people. The end result is pure sophistication, with Chloe refining her production skills while allowing new (but quite established) collaborators to help shape the duo’s vision.
Ungodly Hour opener “Forgive Me” fuses slinky R&B with a heavy trap bass as the ladies snarl at an ex-flame (“You must got me f*cked up”), and the album shows off harmonies as polished as Destiny’s Child on “Don’t Make It Harder On Me.” They display angelic charm on the empowering “Baby Girl” while being caught up as the other woman on the dramatic “Wonder What She Thinks of Me.” “Tipsy” is a devilish wink (“If you lose a life, that’s not on me”), they call upon millennial house gods Disclosure for the shimmering title track, and “Busy Boy” channels the sass of Y2K-era TLC. And of course, there is the standout “Do It”: with master songwriter Victoria Monét and hitmaker Scott Storch on the credits, the glittery single would’ve taken over the clubs if only it weren’t for the current state of the world. But it still became the duo’s biggest single to date, sliding onto the Hot 100 for their first entry, with a No. 63 peak.
Chloe x Halle used the ongoing pandemic to their advantage and rose as the Princesses Of Quarantine. Stationed in their Los Angeles home for most of the year, the sisters used their backyard, creative director Andrew Makadsi, and an incredible imagination to create some of 2020’s strongest at-home performances. With their now-infamous tennis court playing a supporting role, they held a dance battle against themselves at the BET Awards, dove under the sea way ahead of Halle’s debut as Ariel in 2021’s live-action The Little Mermaid on the TODAY show, paid homage to the Spice Girls at the GLAAD Awards, and embraced Afrofuturism for the MTV VMAs. With a year that has been heavily weighed down with grief, artists like Chloe x Halle have not only provided everlasting moments of joy but also showed just how flexible R&B remains by switching up their sound with each performance. Despite being burdened with questions on if they’ll ever go solo, the sisters firmly stand by each other’s side. Chloe’s smoldering vocals and Halle’s featherlight and jazzy tone, combined with both of their pristine ears for melodies, create soulful magic.
Many people love to toss in the “R&B Is Dead!” card in the industry’s monopoly game every few months, but it’s growing more and more evident that those folks simply aren’t paying attention. R&B is the star of 2020 — and it’s the ladies who are running the game. Along with Chloe x Halle’s three Grammy nods for Ungodly Hour, their counterpart Jhené Aiko scored the ultimate Big Four accolade (Album Of The Year for Chilombo). Brandy’s B7 proved that women could slide into a comeback era with ease, and Summer Walker’s Over It is among the Top 20 of the Billboard 200 year-end album chart. Two years ago, Chloe x Halle proclaimed the R&B kids will always be alright — a statement that hasn’t let up since.