Petite Noir is the project of South Africa native Yannick Ilunga, a singer/producer/multi-instrumentalist in the Prince model, who previously fronted the “misty-pop” electronic band Popskarr and collaborated with hip-hop artist Spoek Mathambo. It’s a testament to the ever-broadening definition of “indie” that nothing about Petite Noir immediately stands out as extraordinary; in fact, the mesmeric, rangy “Chess” is pretty much state of the art in 2014.
And yet, even as the current vanguard has turned “indie” into an R&B and pop-based idiom, nearly all of its practitioners lack the technical vocal proficiency that often draws them to their frequently namechecked influences. Ilunga is not one of these people. Nearly two years after the promising introductory single “Till We Ghosts”, ” “Chess” has Petite Noir styling like a one-man TV on the Radio. Ilunga masters a vaporous falsetto, bellowing baritone, and a gritty midrange—”too much shit right here,” he playfully adds during an otherwise plaintive verse.
It’s probably not a self-serving boast; more likely a reference to the overwhelming deadlock between Ilunga and the object of his affection. Nothing is resolved or even clearly defined during the he said/she said of “Chess”, as the gendered pronouns are deftly mixed and the misconduct left to the imagination. And therein lies the metaphor that gives “Chess” its title. Both parties are expecting love to be something simple as checkers, when it’s always far more complicated than that.
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By Ian Cohen