Obai Ismail often finds himself unable to describe what his music sounds like.
The young crooner, who goes by the moniker 451, crafts rich atmospheric pop songs that teeter on the line between rap and R&B. He is clearly inspired by the hazy atmospherics of Trilogy-era Abel Tesfaye–but without Tesfaye’s lumbering execution; instead, Ismail snaps with urgency and hits each note with buoyancy.
Surrounded by sinister 808s and soaked in a hazy fog of reverb and autotune, 451’s voice always pierces through and pushes each track along with a rhythmic elegance. The end result is a sound that’s both disorienting and refined. “It’s a sound that grasps you and doesn’t let go,” Ismail said. “I’m tryna make n***** trip out. It’s something you both can and can’t relate to. It’s just,” he pauses. “A trip.”
Born in London, Ismail bounced between there and Bahrain until he turned 14. The first time he tried singing was after he settled in the UK at a cousin’s birthday party. “My brother, sister, and all of them were older, so they ain’t let me chill with them,” Ismail recalled. “My sis gave me her MP3 player, and I don’t remember what song was playing, but I just remember sitting on the floor outside their room, singing to whatever the f*ck I was playing.”
A fan of 2015 R&B that included Trapsoul and Beauty Behind the Madness, a young Ismail soon started to invest all his time into making music and dropped out of school.”To be honest, I’ve always had this sound in my head since I first started making music,” the singer said.
While his music appears reserved and menacing, Ismail himself is kind and talkative, eager to share details about his creative process even if he hasn’t entirely ironed them out himself. “I don’t even know what I’d call my sh*t…[It’s] that night time eerie type of feeling. Just some dark sh*t. That’s my vibe.”
He quietly released Couleur to streaming services back in 2018 solely because he wanted to release a record, and it slowly gained traction. The record has since culminated thousands of plays on Soundcloud and has marked a slow and steady rise that Ismail is paying close attention to.
“I was really just testing the waters,” Ismail said of Couleur’s release. “I wore my inspiration on my sleeve.” When asked if he’s aware of his rise in popularity over the last two years, he said confidently: “Yeah, I can feel that sh*t.”
But his new album, Night Vision, which is set for release sometime this month, is a culmination of years of nuanced adjustments to this aesthetic. “Best Interest,” 451’s latest single, is ominous and disorienting, the cover art’s muddy color palette inspired by the grotesque eccentricity of an 80s horror flick.
Ismail bellows each verse frantically over shuttering synths that constantly change and retract, and the carnivalesque instrumental sometimes threatens to swallow him whole. “Man, I get so caught up in the music, I don’t realize what’s happening around me,” Ismail said. “[Best Interest] is one of those [records] where I was just on some sh*t and kept recording, kept adding to the beat.”
As part of a young budding class of underground singers, 451’s contemporaries like Eli Sostre and Frvrfriday have found similar success with their minimalist approach. The trio often collaborates and, in their own right, serve as torchbearers for a genre the mainstream world hasn’t seemed ready to embrace–until recently.
“Sometimes I lose faith in myself,” Ismail said. “It’s hard to see the vision clearly when you’re working constantly.” But as an artist in motion, Ismail feels like he’s closer to finding his niche than ever before. “It’s not perfect; I still haven’t truly been able to execute it properly,” he said of his ever-changing sound. “But I don’t really strive for perfection anymore. It doesn’t exist.”