They’ve done it again.

That mysterious collaboration of London artists called Sault, who released a one-two punch of albums in 2020 that became my favorite records of the year — Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise) — have surprised us with another album in 2021.

Nine is shorter, but it’s every bit as affecting, challenging, and irresistible, with producer Inflo cultivating a consistently surprising weave of sounds from different genres, eras, and places. (I’m learning that this Inflo is very good at this: he did the same for Michael Kiwanuka’s self-titled 2019 album, which was such a joy, and which won the Mercury Prize.)

Recurring Sault vocalists Cleo Sol and Little Simz shine in a variety of spotlights and styles here, constantly changing up the sound in ways that highlight hardship and grief without ever losing sight of hope, humor, and, somehow… joy.

On Sault’s Instagram account, they introduced Nine and its contextual focus with straightforward specificity:

Some of us are from the heart of London’s council estates where proud parents sought safer environments to raise their families. Community is the only real genuine support & the majority of us get trapped in a systemic loop where a lot of resources & options are limited.

Adults who fail to heal from childhood traumas turn to alcohol & drugs as medicine.

Young girls & boys looking for leadership can get caught up in gang life.

It’s very easy to judge.

What would you do if this were you?

(Thanks to Ryan Leas at Stereogum for catching this post. I follow Sault, but I clearly needed to catch up.)

That note serves as a clear, concise outline for the album.

As there are ten tracks, I wasn’t sure what the title was referencing. They have previous releases called 5 and 7. It could just be that Track 9 is titled “9,” or it could be that Sault have indicated that the album is only going to be streaming for 99 days. I’m grateful for Kitty Empire’s review at The Guardian, where she points to other possibilities: “Another ‘nine’ occurs … on ‘Trap Life’: ‘Don’t reach for that nine, nine, nine,’ Sol begs, referring to a firearm; the repetition also suggests dialling 999.”

On a propulsive beat — one that Empire “sounds like the Chemical Brothers’ ‘Block Rockin’ Beats,'” “London Gangs” focuses on London’s deep-rooted culture of gang violence, but it does so without glorifying violence or turning it into melodrama. Rather, the lyrics are location-specific enough to suggest that they are meant primarily for those who live there, those who will recognize keywords. Until I looked it up, I didn’t know that wagwon is a Jamaican expression, a conjunction of “what’s going on” —· and it’s used here probably to reflect a common greeting between London locals. But I suspect it’s also a nod to Marvin Gaye’s famous melodic lament “What’s Going On,” the spirit of which is threaded throughout this record.

After rumbling through lines that bear witness to gang life’s eye-for-an-eye ethic — “Revenge is all you know / They did your big bro” — Sault shifts into a softer, gentler mode, a still small voice of counsel and care:

I know what you try, but it’s a fight uphill
It’s not a secret you’re lost
But I believe it’s just centred on war
The salt will heal the wounds…

That play on words in the last line is the clearest mission statement I’ve yet heard for this band. So far, their m.o. seems to be a refusal to participate in the attention-seeking, ego-serving tactics of most commercial music, and a prioritization of testimony, lament, and healing. I can’t speak as one among their target audience, but insofar as these songs are awakening me further to a world of hurt among neighbors I’ve never known, they educate and inspire me to know more, to amplify their cries and their glory, and to look for occasions to raise them up.

By the end of the album, the full Nine experience feels like another step in the birth of a new genre, a fusion of styles that open up location-specific testimonies and weave them into sounds from around the world, emphasizing common ground without sacrificing respectful specificity. Can albums be artful documentaries? Sault seems to think so.

Describing this particularity in a focus on the album’s final track, “Light’s In Your Hands,” Pitchfork‘s Tarisai Ngangura gets it just right: “The song’s specifics are hyper-local, but zoom out of London, and these narrators and their lives weave themselves into the fabrics of Black stories across the globe.”

That closing track offers up the last of several documentary-style testimonies from particular storytellers, authentic voices reminiscing about what it’s been like to grow up in their neighborhoods, what it’s been like to live their unique experiences of hardship and hope. “When you think about it, I never really had a childhood,” a man says. “I was constantly on edge. Throughout my whole childhood. But, we just, we drew accustomed to it, to the point now we’re adults and we got thick skin. You shouldn’t have to have skin as thick as ours, like… you shouldn’t.”

His story is framed with one of the most soothing and consoling choruses we’re likely to hear all year:

Without love, it’s hard for you to give it a try
So many promises that turn into lies
Don’t wanna start again and give someone a chance
Can’t you see the light’s in your hands?