When H.E.R. debuted with an EP of alt-R&B slow-burners in 2016, she hid her evolution from child prodigy (she performed on the TODAY show at the age of 10, and signed to RCA at 14) behind big sunglasses, cloudy press shots, and a mysterious pseudonym. But on I Used to Know Her: Part 2, the singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist shows us her latest evolution in real time. Released just three months after I Used to Know Her: The Prelude, the EP features the now 21-year-old pushing her familiar signature sound in brand-new, unexpected directions. Her earlier projects’ after-hours, filtered-down synth pads, which had some comparing her to trap-n-B stars Bryson Tiller and 6LACK, are replaced with the rough, more human edges of acoustic guitar and piano, played by the artist herself. “You don’t ever hear a young black woman playing guitar—it’s shocking to people,” H.E.R. told Beats 1 host Ebro Darden. “Playing instruments is not as cool as it used to be. I think it’s coming back now.”
“Hard Place” is the new, livelier sound’s high point, with its mix of low-register verse confessionals and high-flying hook harmonies over a rim-shot-and-shaker beat recalling The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in the best way. (The Prelude opened with a reinterpretation of Hill’s classic “Lost Ones.”) On the other end of the spectrum is closer “Lord Is Coming,” which starts with a spoken-word screed decrying materialism and racism (including immigrant-family separations) before building into a haunting classic spiritual, complete with acoustic bass, humming choir, and Revelations-inspired lyrics. For H.E.R., whose short but sharp discography has focused almost exclusively on the ups and downs of love and lust, it’s a welcome left turn—and a hint of exciting things to come from an artist who still hasn’t released a proper studio album.