Joy Ike’s new record is going to take you places; your only job is to enjoy the ride. Ike’s fourth full-length studio production, Bigger Than Your Box bears surprise and yearning in its arms. The songs address you by looking you straight in the eye. The experience is like sitting at a welcoming table, talking to that person who both intimidates and encourages you at once. Yes, you listen to the album, but lyrically, spiritually, it feels like the album is listening to you. If you’re ready for it, it’ll flip your world in the best way.
“You put up walls, but someone pulls them down; You think for help, but they kick you to the ground. It’s not what you want, but your hope is coming. Life takes all you got, but your hope is coming. It’s not what you want, but your hope is coming.”
“What does it take to do it right Even when there’s no spotlight, To do what you say, To act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God?”
Ike’s vocal is the star of the whole show. She is in perfect control, and leans from a solid pop-jazz foundation into the the theatricality of what the music wants, serving each song as it comes. “Ever Stay” employs elements of African vocal percussion and atonal expression, while “By the Fire” makes emotional and dramatic use of Ike’s deep blue alto. Early nineties pop influences strut by the speakers, and the muscular cadences of jazz greats like Nina Simone and Ornella Vanoni run in the undercurrent.
The diversity of the record speaks not only to the extended host of Joy Ike’s influences, but to the fact that she made the record she wanted to make. If there’s a sonic landscape to Bigger Than Your Box, it’s the concrete of the technicolor city. It’s Philly bent on calico beauty, peopled by an exquisite array of natives and newcomers in a metropolitan jazz that plays out on the busy streets. You can almost see the singer seated at the table by the kitchen window, watching the light and shadow play over the avenues and seeing the population stroll by on the business of the day. In the chord movement, you can hear the echoes around the Octavius Catto statue at City Hall and catch the quiet near the paintings at the art museum.
Where her previous release, All or Nothing, tended toward a sunnier tone overall, the new project feels emotionally well-traveled. There’s just enough spit and polish, leaving intentional rough tones and extant bits in the wings on occasion. Even the party crowd sound slips into the background on “Full.” In her own words, the singer-songwriter says:
“It’s really been eye-opening to pull myself out of this ‘American’ sound. I was so unsure of how to navigate my professional music world based on what genre I ‘picked.’ Now I know I don’t have to pick.”
She certainly does this, and the album feels very personal. Much of the lyrical content is relational, but as a woman of color in the melting pot of Philadelphia (and formerly, Pittsburgh), Ike also wades very organically into issues of identity and expectations.
“Do you think everybody’s crazy ‘Cause they don’t think like you do? Are they lazy ‘cause they don’t work like you? Are we slow ‘cause we don’t get your jokes? Do you have lots of money; Does that make us broke? Fool, so full, You eat yourself.”
Being raised in a Nigerian-American household has leant Ike a unique perspective on the American scene. She keeps an easy foot in the racial conversation, having something crucial to say while refusing to let obsessive politics dominate her work. Humility and confession provide the lyrics of songs like “I Don’t Know Anything” and “Assurance” with a fluency of engagement that feels marked by grace.
“Still I think I’m the boss, I think I’m the savior, But every moment, I act like a hater. I thought that I was better, But that don’t make me better.”
— “I Don’t Know Anything”
The record is, most of all, an encouragement. What you see through the interpersonal wrestling and the issues is someone who is still walking with hope amid difficulty, and the picture is delivered with painstaking craft.
Inasmuch as this is an album review, it would be remiss not to mention Joy Ike’s live shows, which are well worth seeing. Oftentimes playing with multi-talented sister Peace on drums and percussion (and well-placed beatboxing), and shading the soundscapes behind her own piano and baritone ukulele work with subtle cello or upright bass, Ike’s stage shows are not to be missed. If you’re in New York City, Chicago, or Pennsylvania, she’s likely to see you soon. Make a point to be there.
In the meantime, you can find Bigger Than Your Box at Joyike.com.