The first thing that strikes you when listening to a Bhi Bhiman song is his voice; a vibrant, piercing tenor that's as rich with vibrato as it is with heartfelt emotional heft. It's a voice that's instantly iconic, recalling, at once, the power of Barrington Levy and the warmth of Bill Withers. Yet those comparisons instantly melt away because there is no other artist in the world whose voice sounds quite like his. It's a voice that has roots in Sri Lanka, where Bhiman draws his heritage, branches from the blues of his hometown St. Louis, across the Midwestern folk of Bob Dylan, through the urban soul of Motown in its heyday, past the Jamaican reggae of Bob Marley, and finally settling in the Bay Area, where Bhiman writes his songs.
His voice would simply be a gimmick if the songs weren't there to back it up, but they are in a big way. The songs are richly observed slices of emotional life. While Bhiman's songs don't necessarily sound very much like Randy Newman's, Newman may be Bhiman's closest songwriting contemporary. They share a paradoxical understanding that what makes a song universal is its specificity—richly observed and faithfully reported songs that can be unpeeled like an onion will outlast songs full of hollow histrionics every time.
Bhiman's songs run the gamut from acoustic, folk ballads and old school R&B to full-throated rockers and roots-y reggae jams. His wanderings from one musical continent to another are more a result of a restless sonic curiosity than an act of "look-what-I-can-do" showmanship. As a result, the songs are allowed to exist on their own terms with their own themes—as rooted as they are in Bhiman's hyper-aware, intellectual, political and racial consciousnesses—opening themselves up like a good book, to be absorbed over and over again.
At heart, Bhiman is an artist, a consummate one, one for the ages. One whose voice can be easily imagined echoing off the stages of history. Hearing an artist like this at such an early stage in his career, when he is young and hungry and vital, is nothing short of essential.