The go-to diva for any self-respecting British dance hit-maker, Ayah Marar has been earning her stripes assisting the likes of Calvin Harris, Toddla T and DJ Fresh for the best part of a decade since emigrating from Jordan as a fresh-faced 18-year-old.
Finally given the chance to step out in the limelight on her own, her debut album, The Real, suggests she’s spent her time as an anonymous backing singer swotting up on the history of club culture. A hugely colourful record, it swerves into everything from playful Chicago house (“Go Hard”) to Balearic sunset chill (“The Real”) to seductive dub-pop (“Lethal Dose”) with the sophistication and class that’s fast becoming synonymous with UK’s dance chanteuses.
Indeed, like Jessie Ware’s Mercury-nominated Devotion, there are several affectionate nods to the soul-pop of the late 80s. “Stone Cold Heart” is a gorgeously slinky electro take on the Quiet Storm of Sade and Anita Baker, while “Beg Borrow Steal” initially threatens to break out into a hands-in-the air rave anthem but instead turns into the kind of melodramatic dance balladry that Whitney Houston occasionally succumbed to.
It’s interesting that The Real only really approaches filler mode when Ayah Marar revisits the drum ‘n’ bass sounds of her Hospital Records past. “Cross The Line” is just a little too close to the melancholic breakbeat of Chase & Status’ “End Credits” for comfort, while the liquid funk of “Unstoppable” doesn’t live up to the usual output of its producers, Dutch maestros Camo & Krooked.
But for an album that includes 15 tracks, it’s pretty remarkable that nearly every one is a potential single. “Camouflage” sounds like an inspired early 00s mash-up of The Neptunes’ sparse R&B production and the Middle Eastern-tinged wizardry of Timbaland. “Follow You” combines the jazz-soul melodies of Amy Winehouse’s debut with the infectious plucked pizzicato two-step garage of MJ Cole. “Sign Your Name” contains the kind of brain-lodging pop hooks that girlbands like The Saturdays would give their high heels for.
All told, with The Real , seemingly out of nowhere Ayah Marar has produced a late contender for the dance-pop album of the year.