By Mitchell Tousley
Native of Salt Lake City, Micah Willis has a story that sets him apart from the average Utah musician. There’s no point in his life in which music was not a dominating force. As a child, he performed in a children’s choir, in an after-school performance program, and alongside his father Kenny Neal, a noteworthy blues musician. He has been performing in the Salt Lake valley for years, but has also spanned the country as a performer, even performing in legendary venues like Carnegie Hall.
On his new mixtape, he dips his toe into a variety of different styles and shows listeners the breadth and depth of his talents that go far beyond musical competence and firmly into artistic excellence.
The Who the Hell Is Micah Willis? mixtape is labeled as such because, as Willis describes, “…it is a blend of R&B, hip hop, pop, and soul music; it’s not just limited to one genre.” What the project may lack in stylistic cohesion is more than made up for in obvious quality.
When listening to this mixtape, I had the same kind of experience that I might have during an evening of fine dining. To elaborate, many mixtapes will throw a variety of beat and flow styles at the listener, but oftentimes feels like lazy experimentation and no individual track leaves a strong impression. It’s a lot like when you go to a suburban buffet restaurant in that there will be a lot of different kinds of food there, but no recipe will blow your mind. It’s not bad per se, but it does little more than just be food. Micah’s mixtape, however, feels more like a dinner at an expensive restaurant known for its master chef who serves a twelve-course, no-substitutions menu of small but expertly crafted dishes that will leave the consumer’s appetite satisfied and astonished. Between the cuts of trap, dreamy R&B, soul, and pop music, Willis provides the listener with a masterclass in not one genre, but music in general.
Every track on this mixtape is worthy of its own rave review, but the closing track “Sunshine” is a clear standout. While most of the mixtape exists somewhere in the modern hip-hop, pop, and R&B realm, this track plants itself firmly in old-school soul and gospel. Recorded in Baton Rouge with his father’s band, the track has an incredible live feel. Small choirs and organ bring in a sense of grand yet intimate celebration, Micah’s yearning and optimistic lyrics acknowledge trouble but reassure us that there is inevitable goodness in the world somewhere. His father plays a weepy guitar solo that broadcasts all of the emotional complexity of blues guitar playing. The song, while clearly a callback to a long-gone era of popular music, reminds us of the relevance of the past. It is everything a song should be in its craft, spontaneity, execution, and catharsis.
In this release, Micah Willis has already proven so much. In future releases, I would like to see him simply show us more of what he’s got. That may mean more of a stylistic focus on the next project, but I certainly wouldn’t mind another mixed bag of songs from Willis as long as it is delivered with the same confidence this project has.
In conclusion, Who the Hell Is Micah Willis? is an excellent project from one of Utah’s most versatile artists. Full of heart, bravado, sensuality and passion, it is certainly one of the best local releases in recent memory.
Make sure to follow Micah Willis on Instagram. You can listen to “Sunshine” below.