Back in June of 2020, singer-songwriter Kayla Naomi released her debut EP, "Diary." While I only became aware of this record in late 2021 - over a full year after the fact - I felt like this EP deserved a proper review. An EP can sometimes be the perfect release format for a new artist, since it manages to balance brevity and accessibility with just the right amount of depth to leave listeners wanting more. As such, this will be a track-by-track review.
And let me say, there have been plenty of independent releases over the last couple years that have really made an impression on me, and Diary stands head and shoulders above some of the best of those.
The record opens with the title track, Diary, which is a bit of a slow burn, warming the listener up gradually. This introduction is sparse and raw, with just piano and Kayla Naomi's voice. The simplicity of the arrangement allows for the melodic and lyrical themes to take centre-stage, That being said, the harmonic vocabulary in this first section is hardly standard singer-songwriter fare. There is a density and variety to the chord voicings that definitively signals the Gospel and Jazz influences that are about to take over - and at the end of the first chorus, the second verse delivers on that promise as a full band drops in and the tempo picks up.
Through the rest of the track, Kayla Naomi's vocal delivery is all around solid, and contrasting perfectly with the choral background vocals. Perhaps the song's best feature is the way that it manages to maintain a feeling of intimacy even as the volume swells. "Big" doesn't ever turn into "impersonal," and when the track drops back down to piano balladry at the end, it feels in a way like we'd never left that emotional state, which speaks to the tonal consistency of the writing overall.
The next track, Jesus I'm Ready, is introduced by a rough draft voice note recording that, again, puts melody and lyric into the spotlight ahead of arrangement. By the time these same lines are repeated again in the finalized version of the song, they feel like a different experience. But the raw and personal nature of this transition track serves as connective tissue between two stylistically divergent pieces of music. While the EP opened with very natural sounding Gospel instrumentation, Jesus I'm Ready takes a drastic stylistic turn that is decidedly more contemporary. Heavy 808 bass hits and fluttering trap hi-hats cut through an ethereal waft of electric piano textures and floaty, dreamlike backing vocals. The trap-soul archetypes give way momentarily during the bridge to something that sounds more like a contemporary worship ballad. Kayla's voice belting out "only you can save me," is stirring and climactic, and leads the song to its tasteful conclusion.
From here, the pace picks up with what might be my favourite track on the EP, Rearview. The song is decidedly upbeat and retro. Funk. Disco, Rock, Pop, and Soul elements are all perfectly balanced. Cascading, arpeggiated synths bounce around amidst a choir of punctuated guitar lines. This track also feels the most atmospheric out of the whole EP - practically dripping with reverb and echoes, Rearview is moody, and maybe even a little dark - not dark thematically (though admittedly some of the lyrics come across as a plea for rescue) but in the sense that the song sounds like a highway drive at midnight. If any song on this EP could stand alone as a single, this is the likeliest candidate.
The album closer, Go By Grace, is the fifth track, but only the fourth full song on the album. This speaks to the completeness and maturity of this collection of songs: a short track list like this can, in some instances, feel like a complete experience, almost as well-rounded as a whole album. The number of genre leaps on Diary, rather than making the project feel disjointed, lend to a feeling of expansiveness and belies the mere 20 minute runtime. Go By Grace continues the trend of challenging expectations, opening like a contemporary Gospel power ballad, only to suddenly shift to a Reggae groove in the chorus.
While the song switches between these two styles, the lyrics weave in between a sense of yearning for change and a sense of arrival. The singer is both longing to be set free from her own shortcomings and vices, while also experiencing a feeling of completion and a change of identity in Christ. Even the titular line of the song, "I now go by grace," manages to do some thematic heavy lifting. Juxtaposed against another line ("Please make it so that sin don't know my name"), the phrase "I now go by Grace" speaks to an actual name change, a switch of identity from "sinner" to "saved." In this light, the statement means "please address me from now on according to the grace that defines me." At the same time, as the album closer, "Go By Grace" functions as a sort of benediction, evoking a sense of "moving forward" in the grace of God. Like a preacher dismissing their congregation from service, Kayla Naomi bids her listeners to also go into the rest of their day by grace.
Aside from a couple minor production complaints - like a shrill clipping noise on the snare drum in Rearview or the somewhat abrupt cut off at the end of Jesus I'm Ready - there is very little to say in the negative about Diary. This is an extremely strong debut for Kayla Naomi and honestly seems to reflect an artist whose musical experience far exceeds this one release under this name. She has brought a wealth of emotion and life experience to this record - as is evident through this video she shared explaining the stories behind the songs - and the result is a collection of music that is equal parts approachable and challenging. Consider me eager for whatever comes next from Kayla Naomi. She's already proven well enough what she can deliver.
Hear the EP:
Check out the Virtual EP Release concert here.
More about Kayla Naomi
Genre: R&B / Gospel / Pop
Location: Miami, FL, USA