serpentwithfeet is not only imagining, but exploring a world wherein Black love is paramount. His new album, DEACON, is “a study rather than a story,” delving into Black, gay love and the tenderness present in the best companionships, romantic or otherwise.
“I originally approached this project wanting to make something that felt very sensuous,” serpentwithfeet says. “Something a lot softer, a lot more gentle than my previous work.” While crafting the album, the singer/songwriter/producer made the deliberate decision to exclude songs about heartbreak. This was a bold act for R&B, a genre quite literally shaped by the harsh realities that the blues provide.
Though recorded between Los Angeles and London, DEACON was inspired by serpent’s move from New York City to Los Angeles. He pushed to capture the serene and tranquil aspects of his new environment in the music. Fully self-actualized and more devoted than ever to personal fulfilment, DEACON highlights his growth as a songwriter, which he credits to taking a more straightforward approach to expression. Spending time with pop songwriters and observing how they traverse language encouraged serpent to take more risks lyrically, resulting in more purity. “I wanted to make my version of a ‘grown and sexy’ album,” serpent reveals.
The album’s title takes its name from the Christian office, a figure who helps maintain order within the church and himself. While DEACON is not quite about being in that role, it is a reflection of the cool and calm energy of the deacon.
Raised by religious parents in Baltimore, serpent’s flair for theatrical themes and gospel sensibilities can be traced to the Black church, a place where the artist had his earliest experiences with glamour and the ornate. Well-executed vocal flourishes and the implementation of a quickening vibrato are just a few of the skills he picked up during his time in a Pentecostal choir. He proudly follows in the tradition of R&B artists whose gifts were helmed in the church, and he approached DEACON with an undeniable passion and reverence for the genre.
In 2016, serpent’s debut EP, blisters, introduced the world to his sensual, unboxed universe. The emotive collection made fans in fellow big-voiced, unbridled psalmist Björk and serpent’s now-frequent collaborator, Ty Dolla $ign.
Two years later, serpent followed with his debut album soil, a master class in weaving the deeply human with the divine. One of 2018’s most acclaimed albums of the year, soil was announced alongside a FADER cover story and went on to receive year-end praise from the likes of The New York Times, The New Yorker, Billboard, Pitchfork, NPR Music, The Ringer, and more. With his 2020 EP, Apparition, serpent hinted towards a more open and expansive sound, offering insight into the themes and sonic textures he’d eventually come to explore on DEACON.
The songs across DEACON are about new love and the joys of a sustained love interest. Album opener “Hyacinth” is a guitar and piano-backed warm embrace that conjures images of lovers so intertwined that they breathe in sync. It is uniquely serpent, a myth wherein he comes to find that his favorite flower has become his ideal partner.
Songs like “Same Size Shoe” and “Wood Boy” communicate both the tender and passionate sides of romance. On “Same Size Shoe,” serpent discusses how he exclusively dates Black men because they are the only ones who can fully relate to him. Meanwhile, with “Wood Boy,” he delves more into a carnal state. Both are the most gentle reminder that serpentwithfeet is a man unbound.
On album standout “Heart Storm,” featuring English singer, songwriter, and producer Nao, serpent showcases his ability to arrange complex vocal lines in the spirit of noted influence and gospel giant, Richard Smallwood. Equally important, we hear the power, dexterity and spectacular beauty of serpent’s voice, as he sings through intricate, acrobatic arrangements with the clarity and confidence of a deacon.
Fans of serpentwithfeet will tell you that his sound is indebted to R&B, as he dotes on singers such as Brandy and Janet Jackson, noting their “ability to practice restraint.” This is especially evident on “Malik” and “Amir,” odes to love in Atlanta and DC, respectively. On “Malik,” a quick tale of meeting a beautiful man at a gay club, serpent references gambling and fitted jeans—both of which are staples in the southern city. “Amir” has an unmistakably ‘90s R&B feel and finds serpent completely enamored with a man who is from Washington D.C., reminding us of the beauty of a Baltimore and D.C. love connection. A nod to Musiq Soulchild’s “Just Friends,” “Amir” is influenced by serpent’s childhood inspirations, Carl Thomas and Bilal. He sought to carry that warm, early aughts energy throughout the song.
The album closes with the uplifting energy of “Fellowship,” co-written and co-produced by serpent with Sampha and Lil Silva, concisely championing the joy one gets from warm friendships. Throughout, serpent’s compelling voice glides over percussive beats and lithe instrumentation while Sampha and Lil Silva’s vocals join in for a lush chorus: “I’m so thankful for my friends, my friends // I’m thankful for the love I share with my friends.”
In his love for love, serpentwithfeet is offering a look into the soul of a man who articulates his passion in a warmer, gentler way. He’s become wholly confident in his gift and messaging on DEACON, which is to be expected when one gives vent to maturity. Through his music, he allows compassion to be the backbone of his art, as he communes with his most loving self.