Two Grammys, a Super Bowl performance, and an Academy Award…all at the age of 23. This is the meteoric rise of H.E.R., an R&B singer who just recently exploded onto the music scene.
Born Gabriella Wilson, H.E.R. began performing at a young age (she covered Aretha Franklin’s song “Freeway of Love” at the fabled Apollo Theatre when she was just 10), but rebranded and reemerged into the industry under the stage name “H.E.R.” in 2016 at the ripe old age of 19. The pseudonym, an acronym for “Having Everything Revealed”, reflects the anonymity she keeps around her life and persona. Still, her mysterious nature didn’t stop her from becoming a star after winning the 2021 Grammy award for Song of the Year (“I Can’t Breathe”) and an Academy Award for Best Original Song for her contribution to the film Judas and the Black Messiah (“Fight For You”). Now, the enigmatic H.E.R. follows her string of successes with Back of My Mind, her first full-length studio album.
Back of My Mind deals with H.E.R.’s reaction to her sudden rise to fame, her struggles with various tumultuous relationships, and her thoughts about the current social turmoil of the world. While she makes many thoughtful observations of the course of 21 songs, she pairs them with descriptions of less-than-commendable relationships and many, many objectionable lyrics.
A key theme on Back of My Mind is H.E.R.’s proclamation that despite her newfound fame, her wealth does not define her. On “Find A Way”, she sings, “No matter how much money we went through, we never let the paper change us,” and states that hard work has gotten her where she is today. She also claims that she’s been resilient and hardworking despite those around her not believing in her (“Soon as I came up, they wanted to see me fail/…my hustle feed me well”).
H.E.R. also attributes some of her success to God; on “I Can Have It All”, she says, “I know you out there tryna sell your soul for profit/We gotta count all of the blessings ‘cause it’s God sent”. She thanks God for her significant other in “We Made It”, and she asks Him to save her from the relentless hardships of the world in “Bloody Waters” (“Bloody waters/Baptize me/…Oh, Lord/Please come save me/From all of this pain”).
Many of the tracks on Back of My Mind deal with various relationship issues, such as being betrayed and struggling to open up to someone new after a heartbreak. On “Damage”, H.E.R. trusts her new significant other not to hurt her like she’s been hurt in the past (“Careful what you take for granted, yeah/Cause with me know you could do damage”). On “Cheat Code”, she attempts to reconnect with her partner after he is unfaithful to her, trying to understand him and repair their relationship rather than lashing out in anger (“Why you gotta test my patience/I wanna be on the same page”).
While some of H.E.R.’s songs deal with admirable approaches to relationships, many of them describe ones that are toxic or even harmful. On “Closer to Me”, H.E.R. is willing to make up with a significant other even though she knows she can’t trust him (“Always in lust/I can’t worry and trust you, baby”). She also describes relationships where she knows that staying is unhealthy for her, but she’s too anxious to leave; on “Hold On”, she sings, “And if I hold on to you/I’m only hurting me, yeah/I know if I hold on to you/I’ll never wanna leave”.
“Trauma” finds H.E.R. blaming many of her issues on “bad energy” (“And the drama from the trauma/It’s bad energy, it’s the problem”). She does the same on “Exhausted”, where she expresses pessimism about the world and complains that her hardships are not acknowledged (“How I can’t get no appreciation/After all the s— I been taking?/When do I get a break?”)
Sexual lyrics and suggestive references are also an issue. “Paradise” features H.E.R and R&B star Chris Brown singing about how ready they are to sleep together; Brown sings, “She ain’t give it to me yet/But let me tell you that I fantasize/Every day, every day”. He also crudely references female anatomy while singing about how much he wants to be with her. “Slide” also contains some suggestive content, as H.E.R. and rapper YG wonder where their relationship is going (“You gon’ hold me close and on your neck gon’ be a hickey”). The song also contains other sexual references, including ones to foreplay. Lyrics about alcohol are also present; H.E.R. wonders if she should use it to deal with her problems on “Trauma” (“Think I need a drink/I just need to chill, maybe I need a shrink”). On “Slide”, YG raps “Orange juice and Ace what we drinkin,” a reference to a brand of champagne.
Finally, we hear profanity throughout the album. Thirteen of the 21 songs are labeled as explicit. The s-word is the most frequent, appearing around 17 times (most often on “Find A Way”). The f-word is used once on “Closer to Me”, “I Can Have It All”, and three times on “Slide”. H.E.R. also uses the n-word on “Trauma,” “Find A Way,” and “I Can Have It All.” Other expletives such as “d—n” and “b—h” also appear, though less frequently; the former is heard on “Paradise” and “Closer to Me,” while the latter appears on “Slide” and “I Can Have It All”.
In an interview with Rolling Stone after the release of her debut EP H.E.R. Volume 1, the artist said, “Once I released [the EP], I realized that I’m not alone, and that I am a voice for women who feel like they’re alone in these situations.” By “these situations”, she refers to the confusing and often unhealthy relationships she sings about so often. H.E.R. has been able to tap into a largely female audience by alternating between confidence and incredible vulnerability…and by sometimes reacting to various situations in ways that should not be glorified.
Back of My Mind is rife with emotion and honesty, but also profanity, sexual references, and confused interpretations of love. The relationship she describes on “Don’t”, where she asks her significant other to just enjoy the present without making any commitments, is not the kind that young people should aspire to. Yes, H.E.R. can be a voice for women who struggle with confusing feelings and emotional frustration—but she can also be a shining example of how not to deal with those emotions.
Lauren Cook is serving as a 2021 summer intern for the Parenting and Youth department at Focus on the Family. She is studying film and screenwriting at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. You can get her talking for hours about anything from Star Wars to her family to how Inception was the best movie of the 2010s. But more than anything, she’s passionate about showing how every form of art in some way reflects the Gospel. Coffee is a close second.