Ronald Williams – Keep My Cool – Album Review
Like we always say around this place, there’s never a bad time to go about promotin’ some music yo! If you checked out episode 062 of the SBS Podcast, you’re already ahead of the game on this review and have had a head start in listening to a couple cuts from this record, which is actually the first of the three albums you’ll find written about on this site chronologically-speaking, even though we’re just getting to this one now. Nothing wrong with digging down to the roots to discover how a seed grows into a tree – sometimes you can listen to a record from an artist with consistency in their sound like Ronald Williams has, and you’ll feel like it’s relevant for right now, even if it’s from the past, based on the kind of music that they’re still making to this day. RW’s a busy man…he’s been assembling these records and pumping out the tunes left & right over these past couple years as he makes his push towards the spotlight and your playlist’s affections – word on the street is that he’s still got a whole bunch more to come as well. As diverse as his records like Funk Avenue and Magnificent have been with their songs & sounds found throughout their sets, Ronald’s music is still very much a case of ‘if you like something by him, you’ll probably like the rest as well’ – he’s reliable that way, whether it’s in the past, present, or future I’d bet.
He also likes to share all kinds of info. He’s born on July 5th 1992. He can bench 315lbs at the gym. He’s perfected the art of origami and completely changed the way people even LOOK at paper now. Alright, that last fact might not be 100% true…but the rest is. I know lots of things about Ronald. I might even know what he had for breakfast…but I’ma Keep My Cool too RW…I don’t wanna come off as a stalker.
As I mentioned on the SBS Podcast, the man has always shown flashes of genuine brilliance from day one and a versatile style that includes Funk, R&B, Hip-Hop, Pop – I have a feeling that short of Screamo, Ronald’s probably given everything a shot at one point. Bringin’ that Funk to the first cut & title-track of his debut record, he’s right on-target…borrowing a bit from the school of MJ and the rest from Prince as he takes his initial steps into the spotlight…maybe a bit of James in there as well for good measure, but hey, MJ & Prince woulda told you that you could fit that in their music too, so it’s there naturally. The vibe is strong with this one though – “Keep My Cool” comes out with that solid old-school cool, great keyboard additions, strong guitar, bass, & drum combo rockin’ the beat…it all works. Vocally, Ronald came out with remarkable personality on display in what would essentially be, the first impression that the majority of listeners out there would have had of him if they’ve been listening since day one. And I think you gotta give the man props for that for sure – he comes out sounding large & in-charge, bringing up the energy when the music calls for it, dialing it back just the same, making smart decisions with how he sings this song and using excellent layers of background vocals in the mix to strengthen & support. Does he borrow the “sexy motherfucker shakin’ that ass” bit from Prince’s “Sexy MF” in the bridge of this song? There’s potentially an argument to be made there…it’s not entirely the same idea, but damn if it ain’t close to how the vocals flow and the background chimes in too. In any event, Ronald’s never made any attempts to hide his influences – these are his heroes – and especially at the beginning of a career, it’s much more…almost normal to find an artist emulating the people they listen to. It’s a natural part of the evolution on the way to an artist discovering their own voice – Ronald’s not a carbon copy of any one thing on “Keep My Cool” but you can hear the influences, love, and respect for those that have paved the way for him on a cut like this. Definitely catchy…ain’t no doubt about the flashy sound & mass appeal of a song like “Keep My Cool” – at the end of the day, it’s a hella fun cut to listen to.
On the SBS Podcast, we blasted a double-shot of the next two tunes on the record. “Go’N” is an interesting cut to examine psychologically…a lot of this is a response to people out there talking shit about Ronald & his music…but like…if this is your first record then like…well…huh? My gut tells me Ronald might have been proactive in this battle, anticipating the haters coming at him before the music might have even come out yet – I’ve actually run into that before in the past. Dude actually pulls off a great cut here, regardless of if he was playing defense or offence – he’s somewhat mocking the modern-day Trap style, but at the same time, putting on a powerful display of how to get it done right. RW’s handling his business and spits/sings this track with authority, precision movement, and the extreme confidence on the mic that these lyrics required to come out believable. And while he might be a little more direct in his words than I’ll be when it comes to “Go’N” – the message ultimately, is to just let an artist do what they do and to keep your comments relegated to the peanut gallery where they belong. I ended up really digging this cut…it traces back pretty far in the Williams timeline, but like I said, he’s shown skills from day one and there’s plenty of’em on this one cut to be heard from the music to the microphone. The explosion into the chorus…that’s just a seriously well-written and powerful hook right there is what that is – when RW sings “Go’N get that money,” it’s a massive highlight every single time.
I played “Far Away” as the other track on the SBS Podcast to prove a point, which is that Ronald is capable of so many things and that his versatility is truly an asset. Mix-wise, hell, maybe there are even a couple spots of “Far Away” that I’m sure he wishes came out just 10% better – but the essence of a massive idea comes through more than clearly on this gem. It’s the writing that stands out to me here, perhaps more than anything else…well…the piano-led breakdown gets pretty close too, but that’s probably not the main factor, like I said, it’s how this cut is written. It’s also night & day away from a track like “Go’N” that comes just before it, which really shows you the massive range you’ll find in RW’s music from song to song, record to record – the man is still exploring and searching for what ultimately works best for him. Here’s what I’d tell Ronald about “Far Away” if he was sitting right in front of me right now…and I’m no oracle, this is advice from someone much smarter than me somewhere out there – but it’s that whole adage of ‘a good song is never finished, only abandoned.’ As in…if an idea like this strong didn’t get its fair shot homie, I’m saying that’s as close to a musical crime as I can think of – and if that means gettin’ back into the studio to recreate it somehow, or clean up the current mix to the standards that Ronald is using today…well, sometimes it’s worth it & in the case of “Far Away” I really think it is. From the string sounds to the beat, to the melody and the song-structure, “Far Away” is a legitimate hit-song waiting to happen – I’m more than content to listen to it exactly how it is now, but I can also hear the potential for the mix to improve & take this single-worthy tune to the level it deserves.
And then like, obviously if I could have kept spinning more Ronald Williams on the SBS Podcast, I could further prove the point of his diversity in sound with “Finally” plunging deep into a guitar-based sound. So from Funk, to Trap, to Pop, to a Rock-infused vibe on “Finally” – it’s once again clear that Ronald was testing the waters early-on in his career to see what worked, exploring all genres and styles possible. “Finally” ends up revealing quite a sincere & heartfelt chorus that will definitely contrast with the electric guitar vibes, but I’d argue it’s a contrast that works…that loud/quiet dynamic works really well here for him in the movement & flow of this song. It also gives RW multiple options in terms of how he can sing it, which he certainly takes liberty with and displays a stunning range of notes and tones throughout “Finally” as it plays on. It’s an early mix and a subtle tune that plays like one beautiful slow-burning moment with sparks of brightness from the guitars added in, but overall, this is also another pretty remarkable cut from Ronald when it comes right down to it – I think he taps into an extremely captivating vibe in the chorus of “Finally” and another highlight moment on the record you’ll remember. When it comes time to make that Greatest Hits album, an artist like Williams is going to be spoiled for choice…you update a tune like “Finally” with the remix you need, give it the ol’ video treatment…there’s a powerful experience in music to be found on this song…again, I think it deserves that extra time and certainly the attention of the people out there if it wasn’t a cut that gained traction already. Points for songwriting though, right outta the gate for this guy on his debut record, he’s found some truly amazing melodies and created some ideas that will make an impact on the hearts & minds of those listening.
I can’t quite put my finger on what’s weird about the mix on “Can’t Stop” – but I have a theory. To me, it sounds like this one was sung by Ronald with a genuine attempt for a slick control & style – that part’s obvious to anyone I think…but I also feel like he might have had his vocals set in a weird spot during the recording process that was likely too loud in the headset. The result is that you get a more timid performance that doesn’t quite push out the energy in the way you’d typically expect from Ronald, whether it’s in the lead or background vocals on “Can’t Stop.” He’s still on tone-wise, no complaints there, but it’s like you can hear the absence of that spark we get so accustomed to in his music somehow. That being said, it’s also obvious that “Can’t Stop” isn’t trying to copy any of the past songs, it’s doing its own thing, working that 80’s inspired R&B/Pop combo…but yeah…when I hear that second verse, it always sounds like there’s something holding RW back from really getting where he wants this track to go. So in a way, it’s kind of a strange combo…”Can’t Stop” is a lot about losing yourself in the music & the moment – and you get one of his most controlled & almost restrained performances. Does it have hooks? Is it still worthwhile to listen to? For sure, to both of those questions. I still think it’s a decent tune in Ronald’s catalog – it’s just the kind of cut that you can hear in an artist’s earlier work that you know they’d take by the horns and crush today…songs like this prove he’s evolved over his career.
In some respects, I probably feel the same way about how “Fear” would also reflect Ronald’s earlier first steps into music, but I think there are also some pretty cool moments in this song that maybe just never got their chance to shine as much as they should have. If that low-end synth had come up…maybe the beat just a bit more…if he’d gotten this music to surround him as opposed to being in front of it, I think “Fear” would have found a way to make it work. He gets a bit closer in the chorus, but then at that spot I’m just personally not in love with the vocal-flow…I dunno…I had a tougher time with this cut than I thought I would at first. I mean, at the heart of it all, he’s practically got music on this tune that would fit onto The Cure’s Disintegration, which I love…so in that respect, I dig a lot of what I hear. Finding that balance between where the vocals & music would have hit that sweet spot seemed to prove elusive when it came to the mix throughout “Fear” – I suppose that’s what I’m saying. Not beatin’ on the guy – I know he’s already made improvements in the subsequent records he’s released since Keep My Cool – but yeah…I feel the same way about my own music, it’s tough to go back sometimes and listen to an idea or a song that you feel could have come out just that much better somehow. What I DO think is key here…is that you really get a dose of Ronald’s wildest vocals…you don’t get much, you just get a snapshot – but he’s got that Prince-like scream/sing/rasp combo that’s seriously incredible to listen to.
“Sarah” is a track RW and I were discussing making the final lineup of another record behind the scenes…I believe it was Magnificent, not entirely sure…but he knows pretty much how I feel about this song already. You don’t though, so I’ll tell ya the rundown…it’s a seriously inventive track. Over time, I’d even go as far as to say it might even be one of my favorites from his whole catalog of tunes…it’s decidedly different from anything else he’s really done and “Sarah” has an extreme amount of subtle character & brilliant movement. This would be one of those tracks that pretty much defies description or the ability to place it into any specific genre – it’s got just as much in common with World Music as it does with R&B or Pop for example…”Sarah” is a highly unique cut that’s got some wildly exquisite sounds to offer your ears. I’m assuming it’s a sitar that’s forming the main riff…which is rad, I wouldn’t take anything away from that, I love how it complements this vibe – but that’s just the thing, the whole atmosphere surrounding it is truly equally fantastic and compelling to listen to. “Sarah” moves slickly and creeps forward eerily from moment to moment…like a beautiful & mysterious love-song or tribute of sorts. Vocals & melody-wise, I think he’s close to right on the money for the vast majority of this tune in both departments. Excellent guitars in the mix in the latter stage of this tune as well, going off on a wild solo that dominates a huge section of this song, but you’ll be more than happy to hear it. “Sarah” isn’t just the kind of song you listen to, it’s the kind of music you experience…you can feel this vibe creep & crawl right through ya.
Not sure how I ultimately felt about “Joke’s On You” – at times, this one felt like it was a bit rambunctious or over-reaching with its ambitions. I guess what it comes down to, is in assessing whether or not the everyday music-listener could get their head around something, and I suspect they’d struggle with following this cut from point-A to B. I think Ronald has some genuine highlights towards the end in those final run-throughs of the chorus…but yeah, I dunno…”Joke’s On You” felt at times a bit like trying to push the square peg through the circle hole. Williams has found a way to make it work – and there’s no doubt that “Joke’s On You” is a complex and ambitious cut…but I’m not so sure those hooks came out as strong as he was looking for to warrant all the effort that would go into making this tune. Drums…probably a bit over-involved…guitars, maybe the same, just turned down more in the mix – there are moments where you’ll feel like Ronald is singing on the song, rather than with it, feel me? Background vocals…which is really where the biggest hooks of “Joke’s On You” exist, they came out too muted and dull/dusty-sounding in comparison to how much that particular moment could have shined. Best way I can put it, is that I felt like RW does his best to save this cut with the performance he puts in through the lead vocals, but I’m not so sure it’s quite enough to keep this one uncomplicated enough for mass consumption. Nothing wrong with pushing those artistic limits and experimenting, sometimes it’ll work out, sometimes it won’t – I still salute the courage and willingness to give it all a genuine shot.
Technically, this debut ends with “Y.O.U.” – but I’ve got the special, exclusive, one-of-a-kind, often imitated but never duplicated rare IMPORT edition, which has three bonus cuts after it as well. I might have maybe just slightly over-hyped the special edition factor…I’m sure these songs are out there. Before we get there – “Y.O.U.” – it’s a great final tune! I mean, look, there are moments where it’ll get away from Ronald in the vocals, but there are SO MANY MORE moments that he’s nailing it and displaying those brilliant hallmarks of the entertainer he’s become today. This is a tough cut to resist, right from the get-go…it begins with sweet atmospheric sounds drifting into a beautiful piano/guitar-led melody and continues to expand into a seriously memorable moment in time and another verifiable highlight in his catalog. Like, listen to what he’s doing around the sixth-minute! I know that’s a long way in and there’s much that has already happened along the way that’s worth mentioning – but listening to smart vocalizations like this added-in, when they’re done right, I tell ya…it can be something severely special, and I think he does an exceptional job at that point in the song. And for the most part, that’s how “Y.O.U.” succeeds – the music is spectacular, no doubt about it…like I said, if you got ears on your face and a heart beating in your chest, you’ll hear that right from moment one. Ronald Williams deserves credit for a great performance on this song that really gets to that heart, displaying that sincerity and emotion that connects from the music and the music in turn, to us. The ideas are freakin’ fantastic, the sentiment is gloriously sweet…couple notes here & there that I’d try to rescue, but for the most part, there’s really not too much I’d change about this song at all. His writing absolutely stands-out here; you put an artist in the right environment & LISTEN to how they thrive! The way the chorus expands, the way that Ronald punches into that line of “I fell in love with somebody” with such tangible emotion – it’s always a noticeable highlight on “Y.O.U.” and a major hook that keeps us listening. I’d challenge him around the 4:15-4:30-ish mark perhaps…somewhere around there you can hear him coloring a bit too far outside of the lines – but LISTEN to the rebound he makes upon the incredible exit he makes out of that part only seconds later – that’s straight-up awesome! Then we’re into the awesomeness that the guitar solos provide, the smart vocalizations that I loved around the six-minute mark, and on a gentle ride to the end, filled with beautiful sound and wonderful instrumentation. It’s his longest song in the original set of nine, and it’s filled with absolutely spectacular ideas and an epic finale to go with it.
Grandmaster Flash? Is that you? “Keep My Cool (Remix)” definitely takes this whole track in a completely different vibe, putting the emphasis on the vocal-aspect & beat of the song more than the colorful explosion of Funk sound that the title-track pumps out on the original. What I like is that the versions are decidedly different from each other to the point where I think having them both on the record won’t hurt the replay value…but I do think people will end up with their favorite version of the song or comparing them between each other when listening by default. So as long as he’s ready for that kind of judgment, so be it! I choose the original. I have no issues with the remix here…I think it gives you a whole new avenue of sound to travel down and gives you more insight into different layers of the song that actually make the original work to begin with. That being said, it’s definitely a lot more sparse in sound…Ronald’s vocals come through strong and definitely help carry this cut with the minimal beat & music lending little assistance to him, but I think the engaging & vibrant sound of the original version definitely has more universal appeal to it. Those out there that love their Hip-Hop & R&B crossover roots & music-history will certainly dig this version, likely more than the original, but there rest out there listening will probably end up siding with me & preferring the all-inclusive Funk vibes of the first version.
Absolutely loved the instrumental version of “Can’t Stop” – it’s actually a trumpet-cover by Ronald’s twin-brother Rodney Williams Jr. – and I could listen to this all day long! This would be a case where I think this instrumental might have come out decidedly stronger than the original version – no offense to the main man on the mic of course, but as I mentioned in reviewing this song earlier-on, something felt like it was missing somehow. And now here we are, and I know exactly what that is – it was Rodney’s trumpet! First of all, this dude can truly play – he’s not just hanging out in his brother’s room and grabbing the only other instrument around the studio – the man’s verifiably talented and mimics the main melody line of the vocals in the original perfectly, if not entirely enhances it through what sounds like a more organic & natural fit. I’ll admit…part of me is probably excited simply because you don’t get to hear too many trumpet-led instrumentals out there in our world, but the other part of me is excited simply because this is a combination that sincerely works and gels together perfectly. In terms of where it could fit out there in the world – good lord…the potential that exists here…is astounding. To the point where these two should seriously consider combining their efforts and making an instrumental record just to see what comes out of it all…they could have soundtrack or office-music gold here, and I mean that in the best of ways. Tons of personality in the “Can’t Stop (Instrumental)” that didn’t quite come up to its full potential before in the original version, now livens-up and springs to life through your speakers with the perfect vibes and expressive sound here in this new mix. Fist-bump to Rodney – he crushed it!
I feel almost the same about “Y.O.U. (Cello Remix)” at the end…I’m pretty attached to the way the original already came out though, so the margin between how much I love this final version and the first one is a much smaller degree than between the original “Can’t Stop” and its instrumental remix. The cello is insanely gorgeous – like, sooooooo good and such a well-suited fit for the song. And therein lies the REAL magic – the trumpet made “Can’t Stop” great, the cello has the same remarkable effect on “Y.O.U.” and basically comes out completely flawless – but what BOTH songs do, are take that vocal melody that Williams has written and duplicate via the instrumentation. So what I’m saying is – it’s the WRITING that actually stands-out beyond anything else; the fact that it translates as powerfully as it does into an all-instrumental version, is really a serious testament to just how incredibly strong Ronald’s songwriting truly is. Like…quite honestly, I’m kinda speechless here when it comes to the end of this record and these final instrumental tunes – the man has been magnificent on the mic throughout the album multiple-times over and in multiple styles…but hearing the real core essence of the melody and music he creates come through these instrumentals…I mean…it’s a massively breathtaking highlight. It proves that songs like “Can’t Stop” and “Y.O.U.” are freakin’ bulletproof inside & out…and that with or without words, the writing still speaks. I love the “Y.O.U. (Cello Remix)” so much…it’s sonically soul-soothing awesomeness from beginning to end, and a fantastic way for him to end his official debut.
Find Keep My Cool by Ronald Williams at CDBaby here: https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/ronaldwilliams211
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