Croydon is a long, long way from the sun-kissed strips of California. So quite how the self-titled debut album from enigmatic London soul singer Dornik sounds so picturesque, so dreamily lush, is beyond us. Dornik’s music feels like a composite of R&B from the last four decades melded into crystalline retro-futurism. And although his debut doesn’t exhibit a great deal of lyrical variety, it’s a captivating introduction to the UK’s answer to Frank Ocean.
Listening to this record is akin to stepping into a fantasy nightlife, where you frequent the most fashionable bars and clubs along a vivid beachfront strip. Here, the wine flows like water, light shimmers off of glass counters and statues, and the everywhere you go, ladies and gents are dressed in immaculate evening outfits. The heavy scent of perfume and lust fills the air – but there’ll be no hangovers tonight; after all, we’re still dreaming.
Into this vision, enter Dornik, our shy leading man whose inherited part of the King of Pop’s musical soul. His voice is little more than a hushed whisper as this midnight mover courts the many angels that catch his eye. And his charm is strong, even if the stories of his advances are mostly variations on the same moment of gobsmacked-love-at-first-sight. Dornik’s songs exist between the bar and the bedroom, forever locked in a hinterland of hesitant sexual poker.
But that doesn’t mean that you won’t be captivated by the downright magnetism of this Croydon crooner. There’s an unmistakable air of Michael Jackson to Dornik. Vulnerable-sounding harmonies give way to unexpectedly graceful falsettos (Blush). His breezy patter glides and echoes through the ethereal swirl of synths on Something About You, with the allure of Miguel. While Second Thoughts, its silken-rhythm reeling you in tighter as it trickles into your ears, is a sensual drug not unlike the sort Frank Ocean has created.
What holds Dornik’s debut back from being as powerful as that of his US contemporaries is its reticence to move on a narrative level, if not thematically, then at least emotionally. It was fellow singer and label mate Jessie Ware who encouraged the “introverted” Dornik to share his early demos, made solely for his private satisfaction. Although his storytelling has developed in the years since, it’s not yet at the level of Ocean, The Weeknd or Tinashe – artists whose own albums don’t just craft worlds, but take you on a sonic journey through them, punctuated by vibrant characters and salient events.
But what he lacks in lyrical variety is made up for in the laser-guided precision of the album’s mood. This is a work of picturesque scene-setting which Dornik, and the production here, achieves admirably. There are subtleties to the instrumentation, all of which has been self-produced, that exude the dreamy, melodic zeal of Roy Ayers and Quincy Jones (Mountain) at one end of the scale, and at the other, a series of trippy, hypnotic loops reminiscent of the sparky techno that backed the cascading visuals of the late-90s arcade era (On My Mind).
More unusual than his stage name – a melding of his mother’s name, Dorothy, and his father’s name, Nikita – is the fact Dornik brings these threads of mellow jazz, faint techno and soulful R&B together in a manner that’s consistently luxurious. Rubber meets tarmac, white wine meets red lips and the past meets the future in this dreamlike debut from the UK’s breakout R&B prince. In time, this new age Casanova could cause a real stir for his US counterparts.
Dornik by Dornik can be ordered here.