Single Review: Leigh-Anne - Don’t Say Love

The post header image, featuring the text ‘?J Pop Album Review’ and a shot of a vinyl of Leigh-Anne’s “Don’t Say Love”.

I’ve never been the biggest fan of Little Mix’s music, because I have never felt that they truly had a sound the way other UK girl groups such as Spice Girls, Sugababes and Girls Aloud did. Little Mix’s sound just felt so generic and anybody, and as though they wanted to be a US girl group, which robbed them a little of an identity to a degree. And this is a shame, because Little Mix was one of few groups out at the time where every member could sing and every member was a character and had a personality - the latter of which I think helped the group massively, and why I always kept an eye and an ear out for them.

So, when it was announced that Little Mix were splitting up, I was caught between not being intrigued at the prospect of members going solo based on the sound of the group. But, also being a bit curious, because the untapped potential in Little Mix could be things which manifest in Jade, Leigh-Anne and Perrie’s solo careers - which could then make for something interesting should Little Mix choose to reform.

And it was a bit of shock to hear that Leigh-Anne would be first out of the gate, as I always figured it’d be Jade. But, here we are.

But something else to note, is that I feel Little Mix was a group made up of individuals who would work best as a group. There’s no member who I feel could fly solo and establish a success which supersedes the group, in the same way I looked at Destiny’s Child and knew that group was on borrowed time, because everything would change once Beyoncé went solo. Or how it became REALLY clear during Celebrity that Justin was going solo and that it would be NSync’s last album. But this doesn’t mean nobody should try. And it also doesn’t mean I can’t be proven wrong. And it also doesn’t mean that none of the members of Little Mix can release something great.

There not being a member of Little Mix at present with ‘clear solo star energy’ may partially explain why this solo song from Leigh-Anne “Don’t Say Love” is no “Crazy in Love” or “Like I Love You”. And why it doesn’t feel like an arrival or that we’re on the cusp of anything huge...yet. Because Leigh-Anne could absolutely become that star. Some people have to go on a journey on their own to become that.

Okay. That was PARAGRAPHS on Little Mix. And this is a review of Leigh-Anne’s debut single. Let’s get into “Don’t Say Love”.

I like “Don’t Say Love”. And I think that going for a more subdued approach could end up working better for Leigh-Anne as she figures out her sound and who she is separate from Little Mix. As opposed to trying to project that she is this huge bombastic star, and stepping into a pair of shoes she’s not ready to fill just yet. Look at how that worked out for Jesy Nelson. Believed her own hype. That she was bigger than Little Mix. Thought she was the Beyoncé of the group. And got the rudest of awakenings.

Also, it was a smart choice to go with “Don’t Say Love” as a lead single, because it is an unexpected style of song for Leigh-Anne. Between Leigh-Anne’s covers of SWV’s “Weak” and Coco Jones’ “ICU”, and Leigh-Anne being ‘the Black girl of the group’ people probably had an idea in their head of the kind of song she might release as her debut solo single, and I’d bet money that “Don’t Say Love” was not what any of those people expected.

And just reading the room, going the 2-step garage route was not only a smart choice but a great one. 2-step has had its peaks and troughs in the UK, but it’s never truly gone away. There are radio stations which have been thriving for years playing predominantly garage. It is a sound of the UK. So “Don’t Say Love” is going to connect with a wide audience beyond just Little Mix fans. As for ‘the Black of it all’; similarly with the statement Beyoncé made about house with “Break My Soul” - “Don’t Say Love” is a reminder that 2-step is not ‘a white sound’, despite the genre being flooded and fronted by white folk following its commercial decline. In the early 2000s, Black acts were the faces of 2-step, thanks in large part to the success of Craig David’s “Rewind” and “Fill Me In”. So, for Leigh-Anne to casually reclaim it to a degree (whether intended or not) is really cool. Especially as somebody who has been vocal about her experiences as a Black woman in pop, being the only Black girl in a group, and the expectations and fuckery that come with it all. And she also opens the door for 2-step to have a resurgence.

There is also a silent confidence about “Don’t Say Love”. Leigh-Anne isn’t doing much on the song. Part of me kinda wishes she gave a bit more. But I also respect that she didn’t feel the need to throw in all sorts of runs and big notes everywhere. She coulda come out with this big, loud ass song, where she’s screaming and trying to do the most, but would it have worked? How understated “Don’t Say Love actually says more about Leigh-Anne than seems at first.

BUT. And yes, there is a huge but. “Don’t Say Love” adheres to the dreaded trend of being brief and pretty flat as a listening experience. It starts, then it ends. Not only should the song have been longer, but it should have bent some of the rules of 2-step and folded in things such as bridge sections / middle 8’s and modulations - things we don’t hear much these days in any genre. This would have really tipped “Don’t Say Love” over the edge and possibly gone some way toward starting a trend in pop, where writers and producers play with structures a little more the way pop writers and producers used to. When “Don’t Say Love” was cut and everybody in the studio had listened to it for the first time, a thought in the room should have been ‘What would early 2000s Xenomania do with this?’. Because Girls Aloud’s “Sound of the Underground” is a perfect example of taking the foundations of a sound (drum and bass) and bending it in ways we hadn’t heard before, transforming it into a different kind of drum and bass song and a different kind of pop record.

A shot of Leigh-Anne in the music video for “Don’t Say Love”. Wearing an off white coloured latex dress, surrounded by plants.
Leigh-Anne - Don’t Say Love | Warner Music

As is, “Don’t Say Love” isn’t that memorable. It’s a good song, and it’ll get everybody swaying. But it’s not going to stick and elicit a reaction in clubs and raves the way 2-step classics of the early 2000s did and STILL do. “Don’t Say Love” had so much potential to kickstart a new generation of these types of songs to carry the torch from classics such as “Rewind”, “Fill Me In”, “Flowers”, “21 Seconds” or “Body Groove”.

As for how this song will fare outside of the UK, I can’t see this making much of an impact in the US without a remix featuring another act. One who came to mind was Doja Cat. I think her style would work well on a song like this, although given where Doja appears to be at the moment creatively, she’d probably turn it down. SZA would also be a really cool choice. Her delivery and vibe would work so well for “Don’t Say Love”, and would provide that twist sonically that I think the song needs. SZA is primarily known for R&B, but she could do so much more outside of this genre, and has expressed a desire to. And this would be an easy low commitment way for her to be put out there on something different from what her fans are used to hearing her on.

A good tactic for Leigh-Anne’s team would be to try and go for specific markets by picking artists from those markets who are good fits for the song - kinda like what Kylie Minogue did with “In Your Arms”, putting Jolin on the song for Taiwanese market and Aleks Syntek for the Mexican market. Push the song in America with SZA. Tinashe and Normani would also be great choices who would absolutely fit the song. Push the song in South Korea with a remix featuring BoA. Push the song in Japan with a remix featuring Crystal Kay and M-Flo. Give the song the post-release jolt it needs.

A shot of Leigh-Anne in the music video for “Don’t Say Love”. Wearing a loose fabric dress, which is tied and wrapped around her, and a Princess Leia looking-ass hairstyle.
Leigh-Anne - Don’t Say Love | Warner Music

“Don’t Say Love” isn’t the explosive arrival that perhaps some wanted or expected, but I don’t think an explosive arrival is Leigh-Anne’s style. She was always the more quiet and pensive member of Little Mix, and this is reflected in the general vibe of “Don’t Say Love”. It’s understated, much like Leigh-Anne herself. And fair enough Leigh-Anne doesn’t wanna say love, but I wish this song had said just a little more of something. But Leigh-Anne debuting with a song like this has piqued my interest a little in what more she may have up her sleeve, because she really could go in any direction she likes, and I’d be here for that. Just as long as there is a direction.