Watching Ambré mounted on the back of a motorcycle in the video for "fubu"—wind-in-her-tulle skirt, her head rested on the shoulders of a driver taking control— is just the escape from reality we need right now. Like Pulp, the singer's breakthrough EP from last November, the clip feels like a scene out of a Euphoria episode, recalling the first taste of freedom after years of adult supervision. "Come take a break," she sings on the hook, summoning us to her version of Garden of Eden, replete with the temptation of getting lost for hours in the billowing clouds of a hotboxed car. The EP, which Ambré considers a "psychedelic coming-of-age story," is about more than stoned teenagers; it's about the unlearning of life as you know it.
Following in the tradition of her earlier projects, like 2090s and Wanderlust, Pulp is a portal to a world Ambré is creating entirely from scratch—one that people can visit from the comfort of their own home during a pandemic. Last month, the New Orleans native released Pulp (The Director's Cut), a deluxe edition of the EP that doubles as a nod to her love for film. The project is a composite of parts of Ambré's favorite movies, including Pulp Fiction, Eyes Wide Shut, and Dazed & Confused. But it also uses those reference points to center Blackness in a way Quentin Tarantino, Stanley Kubrick, and Richard Linklater have not. Pulp is a world where psychedelics aren't reserved for well-meaning white teens; it's an alternate universe completely opposite from the one the War on Drugs created.
"I wanted to create a world with Pulp," she says, adding that the concept came to her in a dream. "Black people are always shown as either a drug dealer in the hood, or we're strung out. I wanted to show a side of Black youth and not make it so taboo to see us as young people trying to navigate and figure out the world."
The Nina Simone sample from a 1976 concert on opener "ENTERLUDE" finds the famed musician mentioning graduating to a "higher" class—an on the nose choice for an EP about recreational drugs. But in Ambré's possession, Simone's reference is two-fold: The trip she's taking is to another level of consciousness. Throughout Pulp, her vocals are so relaxed they could induce a contact high. Her message, however, is a lot heavier than her chill delivery leads on. At times she's ashamed of her vulnerability, like the moment she realizes she's let her guard down in her relationship likening it to Reaganomics and the crack epidemic that ravaged Black communities in the 80s. "How you gon walk up in this room and act like we all good? / Put a crack up in my shield like they put crack in the hood," she sings. According to Ambré, it's not about glorifying drug use. It's about changing the language we use when we talk about who has access to certain drugs and which communities are shunned for it. Black people are more likely to be arrested for weed, while nearly 90 percent of the weed industry is run by white owners. The country's inability to address the majority Black crack epidemic created an infrastructure for opioids to plunder white America.
Growing up in the foster care system in New Orleans, Ambré wanted to escape her reality for most of her life. Now, even as a Grammy-winning songwriter who's written for H.E.R., Kehlani, and Chloe x Halle, she still manages to seek solace on her own terms. "My love for film came because I wanted to escape my life," she tells me, phoning in from a breezy beach in LA, the new place she calls home. Like fellow New Orleans native Lucky Daye, who she joined on tour last year for his Painted album, moves across the South punctuate Ambré's childhood. Music became her constant.
When Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, on the week of Ambré's ninth birthday, her family did what most New Orleans residents did; they migrated west, about an hour away from their Hollygrove neighborhood to Baton Rouge. A few months later, Ambré relocated once again, to Mississippi, before returning to New Orleans a year later.
Growing up, Ambré would sing around the house—compellingly enough to prompt her sister to suggest that Ambré take her talent seriously. The teen disagreed. As a fan of Andre 3000, she thought her voice was better suited to the southern slick of her favorite rappers. It wasn't until she wrote an original song for her high school pep rally that she got her first glimpse of how far singing could take her. It didn't matter if she didn't like her voice just yet; everyone else seemed to.
In time, Ambré's voice became her meal ticket to a life she needed less breaks from. In 2014, after spending years studying other people's singing on YouTube, she fine-tuned her own voice. She taught herself how to play the guitar by watching John Mayer's live shows, and she gained enough confidence to release "Girls Love the 90s," her first song, on SoundCloud. The song, a remix to Drake's "Girls Love Beyoncé," amassed over 20,000 streams in a week, including a listen from a producer, RC Williams, who presented her with a writing opportunity that would change her life. She co-wrote two songs, "U" and "Changes," at a writing camp for an up-and-coming R&B singer; the songs went on to appear on H.E.R.'s 2017 self-titled debut, which won a Grammy for Best R&B Album in 2018.
With a Grammy win under her belt—along with two slow-dripping R&B projects, 2090s and Wanderlust, both released independently—the new Roc Nation-signee was poised to break through with Pulp. Songs like "Free Drugs" and "Band Practice" delve into relationships from a fresh perspective. "Free Drugs" challenges the idea that puppy love is somehow underdeveloped, and "Band Practice" is a sobering reflection on how short-lived relationships can prepare you for a forever love.
"Let's say you're in a relationship, but you guys both know you don't love each other that much," she says, cooly. "We're just practicing for whatever the next situation is, teaching each other how to love."
In art, as in life, Ambré is either all in, or she's out. Pulp and its extended version is a result of the former. She considers the full effort her most intentional project to date, expanding on details of the original to reveal a work where every single nuance is premeditated.
"If you listen to 'Fubu' there's a tape effect and a clip of 'American Beauty' plays, but it's sped up and distorted," she says. "Because I'm a big movie person, I love to include little easter eggs for people to figure out what things mean." If you look closely, "American Beauty"—one of five bonus songs appearing on the expanded version, in addition to "Gucci Slides" and "Risk It All"—is also the title of the talk show that appears in the "Free Drugs pt. 2" video she released back in January. It's no wonder why Ambré has used the song as a thread to connect both parts of the project. The song channels Ambré's impulsive energy as does the rest of Pulp, filled with double entendres and innuendos that draw parallels between drugs and the addictive energy of a woman's touch.
But there's one line on the track where the power of Ambré's songwriting is most palpable: "The perfect contradiction, high / My American beauty," she sings, detailing a love she knows is no good for her. In the year since we first heard Pulp, the country is still filled with contradictions. Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times by the Kenosha Police Department despite the Black Lives Matter being considered the largest movement in American history. Can you blame us for wanting a reality other than this?
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer at VICE.